Iran's nuclear programme was started under the Shah. He wanted the bomb to transform Iran into a Middle East superpower. For many Iranians, however, the real need for nuclear armament was most keenly felt after Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and civilians during the eight-year war between the two countries in the 1980s. Iranians felt helpless, at the mercy of the Butcher of Baghdad and without any way to deter him -- with barely a whimper of criticism heard from the west against his abuses of international law.
As someone who lived then in Iran, I remember those days vividly. One of my Muslim friends however, saw me, his Jewish neighbour, as his protector. Why? As far as he was concerned, Saddam did not care about killing Muslims. But Saddam would think twice before risking the death of thousands of Jews by dropping chemical weapons on Tehran, my friend reasoned, because Israel could obliterate him in response. The sense of irony and pride that my Shia Muslim friend felt protected because my family were living near him in a Tehran neighbourhood has never left me.
Today, numerous Iranians are all for nuclear technology in order to produce electricity to meet their country's 8% annual increase in demand for energy. Although their country has abundant gas and oil supplies, they would prefer to export it and use the income to develop their country's infrastructure.
But do not imagine that thinking underpins the Iranian leadership's latest call, on Sunday, to accelerate enrichment of its uranium stockpile. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's main motivation for following the current nuclear policy is to keep Iran isolated. The thinking among Tehran ultra-conservatives is that by raising the ire of the west and keeping Iran isolated from the rest of the international community, it will be easier for them to crack down against opposition at home. Khamenei's second priority is his hope that, once Iran becomes a nuclear power, nobody would dare attempt regime change from the outside.
With the leadership sensing mounting pressure, more than ever it wants to pursue the nuclear programme. To Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this programme is one of the only examples of progress made under the revolution. As the 31st anniversary approaches, and Iranians look at their country, they see that in a majority of cases it has gone backwards. It is a poorer country. Corruption is more common. Increasing numbers of educated Iranians prefer to leave their country. They carry the third most worthless currency in the world, while getting foreign visas with an Iranian passport has become an even more miserable experience. The nuclear programme remains the one area where the government believes it can show progress. With everything else in such a sorry state, trumpeting its success has become an important tool in claiming support and legitimacy.
There is also the question of longevity of the revolution. Iran's refusal to accept the terms of the recent deal offered by the international community -- which called for Iran to first ship 75% of its uranium abroad, and then to receive it back in the form of nuclear fuel -- has more to do with domestic politics. Khamenei is worried that such a deal would boost Obama's image in Iran.
The reality of a black US president with the middle name Hossein has neutralised years of claims by the post-revolution Iranian government that America is a racist, anti-Islamic state. Unhelpfully for Khamenei, the name Obama can also be pronounced as oo-ba-ma, meaning "he is with us" in Farsi. All these factors have endeared the US more than ever to the people of Iran. The last thing Khamenei wants is to boost America's image by reaching a deal; in doing so his regime could lose the anti-American glue that it increasingly relies on to hold it together.
Sunday's announcement is unlikely to be the last; many more such provocative policies should be expected from Tehran in the coming months. The more threatened the regime feels internally the more it will try to provoke the west.
Although the west, especially Israel, has every right to feel threatened, it would also do well to remember that it faces a weakened regime, which is losing legitimacy every day, and is beset with infighting on an unprecedented scale.
The response, where possible, should be measured. Although sanctions seem inevitable, they should target the regime. And if President Obama is looking for a double blow, he should also remove sanctions against the sale of commercial aircraft to Iran, which are making life very difficult for Iranians. Improving the image of the west among ordinary people, while singling out the rulers, is a double punch which the regime could find extremely difficult to recover from. Perhaps more so than a military attack.
This article appeared in The Guardian.