What is the aim of Iran's insistence on advancing its nuclear program? The question might seem odd, or an unnecessary elaboration of a question answered long time ago. However, recent developments in the region and negotiations with Iran have highlighted the urgent need to stop and ask the basic questions once again and formulate responses suiting the current conjuncture.
It is clear that while it is still a long way ahead, Iran's nuclear program ultimately aims to be able to reach at least to a level where it could weaponize its nuclear stock. There are two major reasons why a country would want to do that, and in the case of Iran, those two main reasons have been debated ad nauseam.
The first of these is deterrence. The potential to have nuclear weapons, if not having some, would strengthen Iran's sense of security and stand against other countries in the region which it deems to be a potential threat or competitor.
The second is aggression, a reason continually spoken of by the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and a host of voices in the West. In this reading of Iran's nuclear ambitions, the ultimate goal is actually attacking Israel and threatening the region.
Since no sane human being would clearly pursue such a path, it is said that the religious framework of the regime as well as Ahmadinejad's bizarre references to millenarian visions mean that if Iran was to have nuclear weapons, it would use them even though it would also mean the destruction of Iran itself. After all, once you believe in a hidden imam and a mahdi, what would stop you from taking the world down with you?
Both of these explanations, however, assume that the nuclear program is exclusively about Iran's foreign policy. While it is true that deterrence is a major motivation, there is a less spoken but equally important domestic reason: legitimization.
Ever since the initial euphoria of the 1979 revolution, the regime has been in need of dialectic external pressures to be able to maintain its power. Since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini and the end of Iran-Iraq war, the regime has faced a powerful routinizing process, a fate well known by social scientists.
The emotive momentum of the revolutionary project and an actual armed conflict gave way to the banal challenges of running a country, crippled with a weak economy, poor international relations and chaotic governance. Since, accepting such a poor outcome of the promised glories would undermine the foundations of the regime's public image, everything that has gone wrong has been said to be the undertakings foreign powers.
Therefore, the regime needed the nuclear program to remain elusive and non-conclusive but operational, not so much so that it could reach the capacity to fulfill its weaponization, but because by creating a tension with the 'Great Satan-U.S.,' it was able to brush all of its malfunctioning, corruption and idiocies under the carpet and unite Iranians in support of the regime against a common enemy.
During a trip to Iran at the height of Bush versus Ahmadinejad verbal threats and declarations of evil intent of the other, dozens of Iranians told me that while they do not like Ahmadinejad and his crazy rhetoric, nevertheless they support him because he has stood against Bush Jr., who seemed fixed on attacking Iran.
This has always been the case and will always be so. Outside threats have a way of legitimizing the regime that has lost so much credibility in the eyes of many Iranians. Yet, when they perceive a threat against their country, they rightfully opt for protecting it. Thus, even though the international pressures are hurtful, many Iranians still see an imperial foreign aggression in the face of Iran's attempts to produce nuclear energy and if necessary have a deterrent against Israel, where politicians seem to daily urge the world to attack Iran at once.
If this reading is true, then negotiations with Iran cannot simply be a matter of nuclear armament pressured by clear threats. The mimetic escalation of stand off must be defused, as the more the regime finds itself as a 'victim' of Western 'imperialism' the more it entrenches its hold on Iran. What seems to matter to Iran's rulers most is not the end goal of weapons, but the very process of tension with the outside of world. If we simply focus on stopping Iran from having nuclear weapons, the regime might in fact stand to gain more in the end.