The real reason Iran wants nukes

Right or wrong, Iran's motives will hold the key to successful talks.

By Francesco Bastagli

In their talks today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama will no doubt have discussed the uncomfortable subject of Iran. Israel views that country's nuclear program as an existential threat; rumors abound that military action might be on the table. The United States firmly opposes Iran's nuclear ambitions, but after decades of estrangement, the United States and Iran look closer to sitting together at the negotiating table than at any point since 1979.

If the United States wants negotiations to work, there is one key prerequisite: Each side must understand the expectations of the other. What the United States wants from Iran is clear: a halt to its nuclear program. But what is on Tehran's mind? Perceived as a major menace in Washington and Tel Aviv, Tehran sees itself under attack. To understand Iran's expectations, just turn the Western perspective around 180 degrees.

First, the United States will have to grasp why the nuclear program is so popular on the streets of Iran. If Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's domestic economic and social policies have alienated many, his foreign policy enjoys wide support. In light of the quiet, but intense competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia for leadership in the Persian Gulf, the nuclear program strikes a nationalist chord. Rhetoric denouncing Israel is of little interest to the man in the street, but it helps distract from festering problems at home. That benefit goes both ways; both Iran and Israel may be using their mutual enmity to divert attention from tough domestic choices. One hears often in Tehran that the Israeli government is Ahmadinejad's best ally -- and vice versa.

History is also indispensable in understanding Tehran's mood. Foreign meddling in Iran dates back to the early 19th century, so it is hardly unexpected that requests for noninterference are a recurrent theme in the country's negotiations with the West. Take the last formal agreement between Iran and the United States, the Algiers accords of January 1981. The terms for the release of U.S. hostages -- accused by Tehran of spying -- included a pledge that the United States would not intervene in Iran's internal affairs. It is hard to argue that this pledge was honored. Encouraged by the United States and bankrolled by the Saudis, then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein began his war against Iran around the time of the accords. The conflict lasted eight years and took 1 million lives. For many Iranian families, the wounds of that conflict are still open.

Meanwhile, U.S. trade and financial sanctions began with the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and since then, U.S. intelligence has allegedly helped prop up rebel groups in the Baluchistan, Kurdistan, and oil-rich Khuzestan regions of Iran. Iranians widely believe such allegations, especially as U.S. soldiers fight in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan and U.S. allies Israel and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons.

Still, on the ground in Iran, the mood is anything but warlike. During a recent southward journey from Tehran, along a road dotted with antiaircraft outposts to protect the Natanz nuclear facilities, I heard travelers on a bus repeat the official line about Iran's sovereign right to pursue a nuclear program for peaceful purposes. Only with a bit of prompting did they question the credibility of current nuclear countries acting as judges of who should and should not have nuclear weapons. To them, the only answer was a nuclear-free Middle East.

Iran stands both insecure and defiant. As Western capitals talk about the containment of Tehran, Iranians of all walks of life have told me that it is the United States and its allies that need containing. They see Iran's behavior as reactive rather than aggressive. Support for Hezbollah and Hamas is Iran's "forward front," keeping the opponent engaged in more distant theaters. The Iranian nuclear program, if it is indeed intended to produce a bomb, is perceived at home as a deterrent in a region where nuclear weapons are in Israel's hostile hands.

What matters is not whether these Iranian perceptions are justified. Progress on Iran's nuclear adventure will prove elusive if these views are ignored, and if noninterference and mutual respect do not figure in the talks. Credible regional security guarantees must also be factored early on into the negotiating process. No matter how problematic a grand bargain with Iran looks, anything less may turn out to be no bargain at all.

Francesco Bastagli served as the United Nations' resident coordinator and the United Nations Development Program's resident representative in Iran from 1999 to 2002.

Photo: ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images