Picture obtained from the Iranian ISNA news agency on Dec. 16, 2009 shows the test-firing at an undisclosed location in Iran of an improved version of the Sejil 2 medium-range missile which the Islamic republic says can reach targets inside Israel. VAHI REZA ALAEE/AFP via Getty Images
On Feb. 8, Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, in an interview with Iranian state television, made a veiled threat about his country’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon. “The supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] has explicitly said in his fatwa that nuclear weapons are against sharia law and the Islamic Republic sees them as religiously forbidden and does not pursue them,” Alavi said. “But a cornered cat may behave differently from when the cat is free. And if they [Western powers] push Iran in that direction, then it’s no longer Iran’s fault.”
The unprecedented public threat captured wide media attention. Domestic critics, particularly hard-liners, slammed President Hassan Rouhani’s intelligence minister for harming Iranian interests by undermining Khamenei’s religious edict against weapons of mass destruction. Middle East watchers abroad focused on the fatwa factor as well, mostly to demonstrate Iranian leaders’ untrustworthiness. Others construed Alavi’s statements as a “pressure” tactic to spur the Biden administration into rejoining the 2015 Iran nuclear accord—officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—or otherwise lifting sanctions.
All these responses misunderstand the real significance of Alavi’s “cornered cat” threat. The whole debate over Khamenei’s fatwa banning nuclear weapons has always been much ado about nothing; it never really mattered in the first place for either side. (The very fact that world powers engaged in marathon talks with Tehran from 2013 to 2015 to verifiably curb its nuclear program in exchange for economic relief confirms as much.) Far more important is what the comment reflects about an ongoing shift in Iran’s thinking about the bomb. Wide swaths of Iranian society, among the public and policymakers alike, seem to increasingly see the weapon not just as an ultimate deterrent but as a panacea for Iran’s chronic security problems and challenges to its sovereignty by foreign powers.
Alavi’s statement came against a backdrop of repeated national humiliation in the form of a string of embarrassing security breaches and counterintelligence failures. In recent years, Iran has lost Qassem Suleimani, the chief architect of its regional strategy, and seen some of its key military and infrastructural facilities, including at Natanz and Khojir, targeted in a series of mysterious explosions and sabotage operations. The culmination came last November, when Iran’s nuclear strategy architect, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, was assassinated near Tehran.
Shortly after the U.S. assassination of Suleimani in January 2020, Tabnak—a popular conservative media outlet in Tehran with nationalist leanings—published a rare piece asking its readers about nuclear deterrence and the ways it can advance Iran’s national security interests. “Some analysts believe that Iran’s possession of a nuclear deterrent will check Israel’s regional ambitions, while others maintain that it can deter big powers from stoking tensions and starting new wars in the region,” the article read. A similar story in Alef—another conservative news source—contended that Washington’s “destructive policies” against Iran and “Europeans’ inaction” continued to push Tehran to the verge of making the “big decision.” “Why should Iran commit to international regulations and refrain from constructing nuclear weapons while its enemies are all equipped with these weapons and threaten to destroy Iran on a daily basis?” asked another analysis published by Sputnik in Persian following the drone strike assassination.
These questions and concerns had been a present yet largely marginal part of public debate in Iran ever since its nuclear scientists were targeted for the first time during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005-2013). It is no accident that self-proclaimed realist theorists such as John J. Mearsheimer, Stephen M. Walt, and his late mentor Kenneth N. Waltz are among the most familiar references and authors whose works and arguments in favor of nuclear deterrence and balance of power have been widely translated into Persian and made available to Iranian news consumers. But it wasn’t until after Israel’s killing of Fakhrizadeh that popular sympathy for Iran’s geopolitical vulnerability and support for nuclear weapons as an effective and sustainable solution to it gained vast traction among the public and ruling elite alike.
“It seems our logical response to this assassination should be a scientific response,” Fereydoun Abbasi, the chair of the Iranian parliament’s energy committee, said in a December interview, suggesting heightened political proclivity for decisive nuclear capability action among Iranian decision-makers. “So we will take steps toward deepening our scientific and technical knowledge” of nuclear power. Notably, Abbasi himself survived an assassination attempt in 2010 when he was heading the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Another commentary run by Rahborde Moaser, a state-affiliated strategic news outlet, in December urged Tehran’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty so it could accomplish “sustainable deterrence” against powerful adversaries, a proposal that echoed calls for production of “deterrent weapons” as the “only way” to ensure national security. Other observers have gone so far as to defend the bomb as a prerequisite for economic development in Iran, arguing that nuclear deterrence is the “only option” that can resolve Tehran’s chronic “security dilemma” once and for all and enable it to focus on national prosperity. The intelligence minister’s “cornered cat” threat was in fact a more explicit expression of these decreasingly marginal and subterranean temptations and tendencies.
In his groundbreaking work The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions and Foreign Policy (2006), the political scientist Jacques E.C. Hymans investigates four various conceptions of national identity held by political leaders—their sense of “what the nation naturally stands for and of how highly it naturally stands” in comparison to others—that ultimately determine their nuclear choices and decisions, from abstention and restraint to threshold nuclearization and full acquisition. He draws special attention to “oppositional nationalism,” a certain conception of national identity, driven by fear and pride, that functions as an “explosive psychological cocktail” for nuclear policymaking. Oppositional nationalist leaders “see their nation as both naturally at odds with an external enemy, and as naturally its equal if not its superior,” Hymans elaborates, concluding that such leaders “develop a desire for nuclear weapons that goes beyond calculation, to self-expression.” By this definition, Khamenei should be a good example of an oppositional nationalist who aspires, in the face of massive international opposition, to elevate his revisionist country into the foremost power in the Middle East.
Yet Khamenei’s nuclear decision-making, including his invocation of “heroic flexibility” in 2013 to justify nonproliferation negotiations with world powers, does not fit comfortably in Hymans’s “national identity conception” (NIC) model, and the question remains unresolved: Why hasn’t Iran gone nuclear yet? The answer does not lie in Khamenei’s psychological profile or his nuclear ban fatwa.
Who’s to Blame for Stalling U.S.-Iran Negotiations?
A fundamental problem with Hymans’s NIC model of nuclear calculus is that it is leader-centric, thus reductionist. By reducing an extremely complex dynamic with manifold variables to a given leader’s individual perception of his or her nation and its appropriate place among nations, Hymans in fact neglects the possible presence of such potent inclinations at the collective level—that is, among the public in general and a given state’s supporter base in particular. Iran’s recent nuclear history offers helpful insights in this respect. Most foreign-policy analysts attribute the Iranian leadership’s 2013 decision—to embark on multilateral nuclear negotiations after an extended period of defiant escalation under Ahmadinejad—to effective international pressure on Khamenei’s government, the Obama administration’s eventual compromise on demands for uranium enrichment in Iran, or a combination of both. While both arguments are indisputably valid to a certain extent, they overlook powerful domestic-societal drivers of Iran’s nuclear policy shift at that historic juncture. In other words, the massive force of public opinion and its prevailing narratives in favor of nuclear diplomacy, which was interrupted by electoral fraud in 2009 but ultimately expressed through the popular election of Rouhani, compelled Iran’s top leadership to give diplomacy a decent chance.
The widely held notion that Khamenei wanted talks all along—proponents of which cite his blessing for secret negotiations with the Obama administration in Oman during Ahmadinejad’s presidency—is fundamentally flawed. As later manifested by his tactical treatment of the JCPOA and public opposition to the Rouhani administration’s proposals about domestic and regional JCPOAs, Khamenei, in fact, favored a pragmatic stopgap to a long-term resolution of the crisis. This cynicism was partly rooted in his deep distrust of the United States but also, and perhaps more importantly, a reflection of the serious concerns Iranian leadership harbored about the JCPOA’s transformative potential for instigating domestic political change in Iran. Khamenei and his allies in the Revolutionary Guards feared Iranians’ open engagement with the outside world for its impact on his establishment’s grip on power.
Now almost eight years on, and under the heavy and humiliating weight of U.S. maximum pressure, the same collective forces that compelled Iran to open up to nuclear compromise are nudging it in the opposite direction, thanks to an incremental resurgence of territorial nationalism across society. And Iran’s long-asleep nuclear genie is waking up and dancing its way, to that nationalist tune, out of its bottle.
While there are no public opinion polls to measure Iranians’ view of nuclear weaponization or how it may have changed over time since 2013, a new survey organized jointly by the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland and the Canada-based polling agency IranPoll suggests that anti-compromise views and sentiments have considerably hardened over the past years. Notably, public support for the JCPOA has dropped from 76 percent in August 2015 to 51 percent in February 2021, and 73 percent of respondents endorsed the Strategic Action Plan passed last year by Iran’s hard-liner-dominated parliament to systematically reduce its JCPOA commitments unless U.S. sanctions are lifted. Also, 69 percent maintained that “Iran should not hold any talks with the United States until it first returns to the JCPOA and fulfills all of its obligations.” Pertinently, more than 88 percent of respondents said they wanted Iran to “fulfill its obligations under the JCPOA after the United States is back in full compliance.”
This incremental shift in Iranian public opinion about the nation’s nuclear program is as significant as it is unprecedented and a major reason why statements like Alavi’s “cornered cat” warning carry considerable strategic weight. Fueled by a growing sense of nuclear injustice and indignation, pro-bomb sentiments in Iran will arguably gain further ground and legitimacy in light of expanding nuclear ventures in Saudi Arabia and Israel, Tehran’s chief regional adversaries. Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s de facto rule, the Saudi nuclear initiative is progressing unimpeded, and Israel is expanding its secret atomic infrastructure in the Negev desert in broad daylight.
The potentially explosive shift in the Iranian national attitude toward nuclear weapons is a direct consequence of the U.S. maximum pressure campaign, from economic strangulation to sabotage operations to targeted assassinations. Washington’s decision to exit the JCPOA has served to remove one of Iran’s major political obstacles to acquiring the bomb.
Iran has reached a dangerous moment. What if Iran’s next leader proves to be a real confrontational nationalist who does not shy away from making the big decision against all odds? What if a confrontation with a militarily superior nemesis, such as the United States or Israel, convinces Iranians and their leaders that nuclear deterrence is no longer a matter of choice but a national security necessity? Because the foreign punishment is perceived as unfair, Iran’s societal opposition to nuclear weapons is eroding. If the United States and its regional allies are genuinely determined to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, they need to move beyond conventional reliance on punitive force and consider the unintended strategic consequences of maximum pressure. Otherwise, Alavi’s cornered cat may pounce before anyone expects.
Maysam Behravesh is a research associate at Clingendael, the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Lund University, Sweden. Twitter: @MaysamBehravesh