Iranians Don't Want To Go Nuclear
Iranians Don't Want To Go Nuclear
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

Iranians Don't Want To Go Nuclear

Do the people of Iran want the bomb? Iran's recent decision to allow for tighter inspection of its nuclear facilities -- which Iran says are for civilian purposes -- was hailed by Iranian and European officials as a diplomatic victory, while analysts and officials in Washington and Tel Aviv continue to be wary of Tehran's intentions. But despite the attention given to Iran's nuclear aspirations in recent months, one important question has scarcely been touched on: How do the Iranian people feel about having nuclear weapons?

Iranian officials have suggested that the country's nuclear program is an issue that resonates on the Iranian street and is a great source of national pride. But months of interviews I have done in Iran reveal a somewhat different picture. Whereas few Iranians are opposed to the development of a nuclear energy facility, most do not see it as a solution to their primary concerns: economic malaise and political and social repression. What's more, most of the Iranians surveyed said they oppose the pursuit of a nuclear weapons program because it runs counter to their desire for "peace and tranquility." Three reasons were commonly cited.

First, having experienced a devastating eight-year war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of their compatriots, Iranians are opposed to reliving war or violence. Many Iranians said the pursuit of nuclear weapons would lead the country down a path no one wanted to travel.

Two decades ago revolutionary euphoria was strong, and millions of young men volunteered to defend their country against an Iraqi onslaught. Today few Iranians have illusions about the realities of conflict. The argument that a nuclear weapon could help serve as a deterrent to ensure peace in Iran seemed incongruous to most. "If we want peace, why would we want a bomb?" asked a middle-aged Iranian woman, seemingly concurring with an influential Iranian diplomat who contends that a nuclear weapon "would not augment Iran's security but rather heighten its vulnerabilities."

Second, while a central premise of Iran's Islamic government from the time of its inception has been its steadfast opposition to the United States and Israel, for most Iranians no such nemeses exist. Iran's young populace -- more than two-thirds of the country is younger than 30 -- is among the most pro-American in the Middle East, and tend not to share the impassioned anti-Israel sentiment of their Arab neighbors. While the excitement generated on the Indian and Pakistani streets as a result of their nuclear detonations is commonly cited to show the correlation between nuclear weapons and national pride, such a reaction is best understood in the context of the rivalry between the two countries. The majority of Iranians surveyed claimed to have little desire to show off their military or nuclear prowess to anyone. "Whom would we attack?" asked a 31-year-old laborer, echoing a commonly heard sentiment in Tehran. "We don't want war with anyone."

Finally, many Iranians, youth in particular, are opposed to the Islamic republic's becoming a nuclear power because they believe it would further entrench the hard-liners in the government. "I fear that if these guys get the bomb they will be able to hold on to power for another 25 years," said a 30-year-old Iranian professional. "Nobody wants that." In particular some expressed a concern that a nuclear Iran would be immune to U.S. and European diplomatic pressure and could continue to repress popular demands for reform without fear of repercussion.

At the same time, most Iranians -- including harsh critics of the Islamic regime -- remain unconvinced by the allegations that their government is secretly pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Many dismiss it as another bogeyman manufactured by the United States and Israel to further antagonize and isolate the Islamic regime. "I don't believe we're after a bomb," said a 25-year-old Tehran University student. "The U.S. is always looking for an excuse to harass these mullahs." A recently retired Iranian diplomat who said he is "strongly critical" of the Islamic government agreed with this assessment, saying Iran's nuclear program "is neither for defensive nor offensive purposes . . . It's only for energy purposes."

I draw two lessons from this. First, the European-brokered compromise on Iran's nuclear program, which appealed to reformists and pragmatists within the Iranian government, was also a victory of sorts for the Iranian people, who are eager to emerge from the political and economic isolation of the past two decades and are strongly in favor of increasing ties with the West. A blatant lack of cooperation with the international community would not have been well-received domestically.

Second, a more aggressive reaction by the international community -- a U.S. or Israeli attempt to strike Iran's nuclear facilities -- could well have the unintended consequence of antagonizing a highly nationalistic and largely pro-Western populace and convincing Iranians that a nuclear weapon is indeed in their national interests. Such a reaction would be disastrous for U.S. interests in the region, especially given Iran's key location between Iraq and Afghanistan.

Western and Israeli diplomats and analysts should know that the ability to solve the Iranian nuclear predicament diplomatically has broad implications for the future of democracy and nonproliferation in Iran and the rest of the Middle East. The goal is to bring the Iranian regime on the same page with the Iranian people. A non-diplomatic attempt to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities could do precisely the opposite.

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