Why GOP Presidential Hopefuls Miss the Point on Iran's Nuclear Program

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Vahid Salemi / AP

A group of Iranian students pray in front of the Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility during a gathering in support of Iran's nuclear program on Nov. 15, 2011

The price paid by ordinary Iranians for their country's nuclear program is rising as sanctions bite at their standard of living. The past year has seen rents soar; electricity bills have doubled; meat and fresh fruit, even vital medicines, have become luxury items; and the national airline has become unsafe and inconvenient, with sanctions blocking refueling access at Western airports and the sale of replacement parts for its fleet of aging American planes. The choking effects of economic sanctions are being felt, in different ways, from the low-slung apartment blocks of south Tehran all the way to the gauche penthouse towers of the capital's north. But despite the decline in living standards accelerated by economic isolation, Iranians remain remarkably united behind the country's nuclear program.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last week called into question Iran's insistence that all of its nuclear work has been directed at energy production, citing evidence that appears to suggest research into warhead design, particularly before 2003. And Western countries' belief that Tehran's civilian nuclear program creates cover for a secret weapons program is the reason for the rising tide of sanctions. Still, despite the burden those sanctions impose on their lives and their own grievances with the regime, the majority of Iranians still appear to back their country's nuclear stance. As one Iranian blogger, Abbas Khosravani, put it in a post responding to the new IAEA report: "These political games won't divert us from pressing forward with our rights."

The "rights" question is a point of national pride: while Iran's rights as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) don't include weapons development, they do include uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes. And the Western powers have demanded, starting with the Bush Administration, that Iran give up the right to enrichment. (Tehran is currently required by the U.N. Security Council to suspend enrichment until it has satisfied transparency concerns raised by the IAEA, but the starting point of the U.S. and its allies when the sanctions began was that Iran could not be trusted to exercise its NPT right to enrichment.)

The regime is able to stoke nationalist resentment at the idea that their country is being singled out unfairly, particularly in light of the nuclear program of Israel, which has not signed the NPT and is widely assumed to have a substantial nuclear-weapons arsenal. An Islamic student group issued a letter following the IAEA report demanding that Iran withdraw from the treaty, under which its program remains under IAEA inspection. "The majority of Iranians still feel [a nuclear program] is something they should have, especially if others do," says Sanam Dolatshahi, a journalist at BBC Persian service who monitors the Iranian blogosphere.

Republican presidential candidates, when trying to outdo one another in promises to pressure Iran, paint a portrait of a population awaiting rescue through U.S. intervention. The way to stop Iran's nuclear program, many of them argue, is to help "Iranian rebels" overthrow the regime, as if a more democratic Iran would offers itself up to the world as a nuclear eunuch. That may simply be wishful thinking.

The opposition Green Movement may have fizzled in the face of a harsh government crackdown, but even at its height, the Greens stood staunchly behind what they view as Iran's national right to nuclear power. Many wouldn't have minded an Iranian bomb, or at least the know-how to build one. They may have been critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's provocative bombast, but they largely agreed that his government shouldn't concede to Western demands.

Today, call-in television programs, Facebook pages and the widely active Iranian blogosphere — which reflects a diverse range of positions on the current government in Tehran — all suggest that a majority of Iranians remain committed to their country's nuclear ambitions. "The nuclear program is an issue of national pride that ties many Iranians together," says Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the RAND Corp., who conducted a 2009 survey showing that 87 percent of Iranians backed the nuclear-energy program.

The debate has not, however, remained static. A side discussion is emerging among activists, academics and businesspeople about the growing costs of the nuclear program. One group of mostly exiled Iranian dissidents last week put out an open letter urging Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment. But no major opposition figure has taken this position publicly, and the debate over the cost of nuclear defiance is largely confined to elites, according to Dolatshahi of BBC Persian service.

"The discussion right now has passed the point of 'Should we have it or not?' or 'Does the world have the right to dictate us?'," says Mehdi Yahyanejad, the founder of Balatarin, the leading Persian Web 2.0 website tracking news trends. "The program is now seen as a reality and people online are looking at the consequences, whether foreign intervention is a good thing or not."

That most Iranians now take their country's nuclear program for granted — a fact on the ground rather than a hot topic for debate — may sound jarring to a Republican-presidential-debate audience, but it reflects the reality that Iran's program long ago passed the redline drawn by the Bush Administration. President George W. Bush, after all, had insisted that Iran should not be allowed to "master the technology of uranium enrichment" — a milestone the Islamic republic passed in 2006. And while GOP presidential hopefuls berate President Barack Obama for failing to stop Iran or do enough to support the opposition, they seem oblivious to the fact that much of the opposition actually backs the government's stance on the nuclear issue. For many young Iranians like Saeed Lotfian, writing on a Facebook page devoted to the issue, the calculus is simple: "A nuclear bomb is actually a very good thing. If we get one, we cannot be invaded."