Khamenei’s Nuclear Rhetoric

Khamenei’s Nuclear Rhetoric: How does the leadership of the IRI communicate the aims and consequences of its nuclear program to the Iranian public? 

By Benjamin Anderson

As tensions between the US and the IRI increase over the nature and progress of Iran’s nuclear program, it is prudent to consider how each nation views a potential conflict. American perspectives (diplomatic, military, civilian) are well-publicized, but the various Iranian perspectives are given far less attention outside of Iran, partly because they are so difficult to nail down. Specifically, the manner in which this issue is presented to the Iranian public by its own leadership is largely ignored by the rest of the world. The limitations of the available scholarship on this topic make it impossible to know exactly how the highest levels of Iranian leadership view the possibility of conflict: the private thoughts of Ayatollah Khamenei are unavailable to the amateur researcher. However, what is available is a wealth of public speeches archived on government websites, which, given their easy accessibility and wide dissemination, perhaps are just as important as the Ayatollah’s personal reflections for understanding the way Iran addresses the nuclear issue domestically. Given the incredible risks involved in the pursuit of its nuclear program, Iranian leadership must be able to communicate and legitimize its course of action to its people, who would suffer the consequences of a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The regime has been able to do so effectively by conflating its pursuit of an active nuclear program with concerns for Iran’s sovereignty, its geopolitical position, and its duty to carry on the mission of the Islamic Revolution. The aim of this paper is to analyze how the aims and possible consequences of an active nuclear program are communicated by Iranian leaders, specifically Ayatollah Khamenei, to the general public.

To support this thesis, I will focus primarily on the evolving views of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as they appear in several public speeches and interviews. I emphasize Khamenei’s role as chief rhetorician because of his relationship to Iranian nuclear policy, which I outline briefly before the main analysis. I will then discuss crucial events in the Iranian-American relationship (beginning in 2002 with George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech) and with particular attention given to the evolution of Khamenei’s rhetoric in the subsequent period, focusing on the text of his speeches. Ultimately, I will consider the effectiveness of his rhetoric in light of the foreseeable risks and rewards of Iran’s having an active nuclear program. It must be noted that I evaluate the statements made by Ayatollah Khamenei and the rhetoric contained within them ‘at face value’, and not in order to uncover some purportedly ‘true aims’ of the Iranian nuclear program. Unsubstantiated guesswork will be avoided as much as possible: the goal here is to examine the evolution of the regime’s public position on the topic of the nuclear program in the hopes of discovering why many Iranians knowingly or tacitly accept the risks associated with it. Citing a 2005 fatwa that declared “that the production, stockpiling, and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam, and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons,” I argue that Khamenei’s rhetoric is supportive of a peaceful energy-based program only (IAEA 2005).

Nuclear policy in Iran is determined by the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), which is composed of high-ranking government and military officials, and headed by the president. However, all policy created by the SNSC must be approved by the Supreme Leader before it goes into effect. Because the Supreme Leader serves for life, he inevitably outlasts most other members of the Council, making his influence the most heavily felt over the longest period of time. He is also a highly visible public figure who represents the government as a whole in the eyes of many Iranians. Due to the Supreme Leader’s massive influence on nuclear policy and his visible public persona, he serves as an excellent analytical focus in order to gain insight into how the rationale for Iran’s nuclear program is communicated to the public, despite the enormous risks the nuclear program entails.

The key events in Iranian-American relations from 2002 to 2006 are critical to understanding how Iranian leadership legitimizes the nuclear program. In 2002, the Bush administration began pursuing a hard line toward Iran, signaled by Bush’s well-known “Axis of Evil” speech. The administration’s aggressive and neoconservative foreign policy led it to forfeit a number of unique opportunities to thaw relations between the USA and the IRI, which culminated in the first UN sanctions on Iran in 2006. In turn, Iranian leadership under Ayatollah Khamenei increasingly centered its opposition to the US and other powers on the development of its nuclear program. The combination of these factors and others which cannot be addressed here has created a legacy that has forced the Obama administration down the same path as its predecessor. Iran can argue rather effectively that due to America’s preeminence in the international community, its economic and military strength, and its apparent unwillingness to negotiate, Iran must take up a defensive posture and pursue the nuclear option if it is to survive.

Following the “Axis of Evil” speech, the next critical juncture in the Iranian-American relationship from 2002 to 2006 was the Bush administration’s rejection of Mohammad Khatami’s “Grand Bargain” in 2003. From the perspective of the Iranian regime, this rejection indicated that the US was unwilling to negotiate on reasonable terms. Sent by fax to Washington via the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, the “Grand Bargain” was Iran’s offer to address concerns about its weapons development and to eliminate military support for Hezbollah and Hamas in exchange for renewed diplomatic ties (Frontline 2007; Parsi 2012, p. 1-5). Senior officials in the Bush administration doubted the document’s authenticity, and many agreed that “…the vice president, the secretary of defense, and… the president himself– were opposed to this kind of diplomatic effort with Iran” (Frontline 2007). Confident in its positions in Iraq and Afghanistan, America saw no benefit to diplomacy with Iran, and the offer was ignored (Frontline 2007; Parsi 2012, p. 3). When news of the offer broke in Iran, senior officials distanced themselves from it, and a debate arose as to whether the offer had really been approved by all levels of government (Frontline 2007). Perhaps to save face, Khamenei never addressed the offer publicly. Gary Sick, White House aide for Iran under Carter and Reagan, summarized the Iranian reaction: “The Iranians [that had been part of the process]… say that they regard [rejection] as sort of par for the course. They make a positive gesture, and it’s either ignored or is actually turned against them” (Frontline 2007). After the rejection of Khatami’s bargain, Khamenei adjusted his political rhetoric in order to justify entrenchment and a renewed commitment to the nuclear program. .

This adjustment continued after Khatami left office. In the early 2000s, Khamenei’s rhetoric largely centered on Palestine, the struggle against domination (broadly interpreted), and the mission of the Islamic Revolution and its commitment to human dignity. By 2005, his focus had shifted to the external pressures faced by Iran. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was worrying, but Iran had limited communication and even cooperation with the US early on in the conflict (Parsi 2012, p. 1). Bush’s designation of Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil” in 2002 and the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 changed Khamanei’s rhetorical focus. Iran was no longer only the exporter of a revolution which the great powers were opposed to, it had also become the target of regime change and was surrounded on all sides by wars initiated by those powers and by governments which were both hostile to it and better armed than it was (Parsi 2012, p.1-4). Khamenei began to publicly assert his concern for Iran’s sovereignty. He addressed a graduating class of army cadets in September of 2005:

“If a nation does not have the power to defend itself, nothing can ensure its honor and dignity. In the present world, in which the material desires and ambitions of those wielding power have replaced spiritual and human values, only a nation that relies on its inherent ability and potential will be able to protect its honor and dignity. A nation should be self-reliant in order to be capable of securing the honor that it deserves. It should be scientifically advanced in order to be held in high regard. Scientific power gives a nation the ability to defend itself” (Khamenei 09/28/2005).

Khamenei’s assertion that Iran’s sovereignty is dependent on its scientific and technological advancement appears to be a thinly veiled reference to the nuclear program. Khamenei portrays Iran as a rising power that should be able to defend itself, and that technological advancement, broadly interpreted, is a useful means to this end. Seeing the diplomatic window closing indefinitely, Khamenei here begins to campaign openly for a defensive plan.

Five months later, Khamenei further consolidates his defensive position. On February 7th, 2006, in a speech to members of the Iranian Air Force, Khamenei addresses the nuclear issue at length and speaks of its “price” for the first time (still ten months before the first UN sanctions came into effect):

“In order to attain independence and achieve national sovereignty and honor, any nation will have to pay a certain price. But nations should incur such expenses and make every effort to achieve the above objectives. They should be hopeful of the valuable results of their endeavors, despite all the attempts that are being made by the enemies to undermine their hopes and aspirations” (Khamenei 02/07/2006).

The phrasing used here suggests the eventuality of open conflict, coming from a leader who knows he must justify upcoming hardships to his people. Previously, Khamenei portrayed Iran as a nation that should be able to defend itself; in this speech, he implies that Iran will eventually have to defend itself against oppressive powers. By loading his argument with the language of sovereignty and not grounding it in a particular era, Khamenei recalls every struggle against oppression that Iran has ever faced, from the 1979 revolution to the Iran-Iraq War. Later on, he specifically frames the looming conflict with the West as a continuation of the revolution. He argues that the West wishes to return to the Pahlavi era, when weak and selfish rulers allowed Western powers to take advantage of Iran so they could benefit personally (Khamenei 02/07/2006). It is an effective rhetorical move, to be sure. Khamenei continues to say that “…domineering powers are opposed to the independent nations’ attainment of scientific and technological power,” again invoking the evils of the colonial past while implicitly arguing for Iran’s right to engage as an equal with the other world powers.

Keeping in mind that in the February 7th address Khamenei is campaigning explicitly for a peaceful nuclear program, it appears that he is framing the issue in terms of human rights, not military power (Khamenei 02/07/2006). Khamenei states that prominent Western officials are lying about the purpose of Iran’s nuclear program, and that they are manipulating international organizations in order to deliberately cause Iran harm. He emphasizes this point by asking:

“Why should nations submit to the will of those countries that are bullying and trying to dominate others, those countries that attach no worth and value to the sovereignty of other nations? They do not want the Iranian nation to possess nuclear technology. They want our nation to be dependent and lag behind in science and technology. These countries do not want the gap between domineering powers and other nations to narrow. It is clear that what Western countries want is by no means acceptable to the Iranian nation” (Khamenei 02/07/2006).

These statements demonstrate how Iranian leadership can tap into very powerful modes of thought to persuade the general population to accept the sacrifices and risks of pursuing a nuclear program. Regardless of whether or not Iran is using its nuclear program to develop weapons, Khamenei claims that Western powers will treat it as if it is. This is why Khamenei’s rhetoric is so effective: because it appeals to the easily accessible fear and distrust of the West in addition to national values such as sovereignty and dignity. The point is that Iran is by no means an aggressor, but rather a sovereign nation seeking the advancement and progress that is the right of all nations. Khamenei argues that if the West refuses to treat Iran with respect, the solution is not to bow to the West’s whims, but to boldly march ahead so that Iran can engage with it on equal terms.

Later in February, another opportunity arose for Iran to justify its defensive stance and to demonstrate again that the United States could not be negotiated with. In mid-February of 2006, IAEA Director Mohammad Elbaradei suggested a deal in which Iran would limit its enrichment program to small-scale facilities and import its nuclear fuel from Russia (IAEA 2006). Iran acknowledged the deal, and although it was unwilling to halt uranium enrichment, it was not opposed to a compromise (IAEA 2006). However, the Bush administration quickly rejected the deal on the grounds that any enrichment at all on Iran’s part within its own borders was unacceptable, but a later version of this arrangement was accepted after all, with Iranian enrichment efforts being conducted in and overseen by Russia (IAEA 2006; Katz 2006). There is a marked change in Khamenei’s rhetoric after this episode. He had already publicly embraced the idea that among Iran’s best options for competing with the West were scientific and technological advancement. After the rejection of the IAEA deal, he begins to paint the nuclear option as the only way to safeguard Iranian sovereignty from specifically American aggression, as opposed to aggression from the West in general. On February 27th, in a meeting with the interior minister and governor-generals of various Iranian provinces, Khamenei frames matters once more:

“In their confrontation with the Islamic Republic, hegemonic powers, especially the United States, are trying to foment division and insecurity and undermine national unity in our country. They are also trying to halt our country’s scientific progress. The reason is that scientific progress is the secret of economic, political and military power and high morale of any nation. The scientific campaign which was launched in our country many years ago has so far yielded remarkable results, but they intend to bring our scientific campaign to a halt” (Khamenei 02/27/2006).

The difference in tone here is subtle, but very important. The United States is not simply trying to keep Iran down: it is actively trying to undermine the foundations of the Islamic Republic. Considering how Khamenei framed this conflict in previous speeches, it appears that he wishes to convey that the threat has become more real. The suggested response, however, should not be a fearful one, but a determined one which will embody the unity and strength of the Iranian nation. Shortly after this speech, Iran stepped up its efforts to enrich uranium (IAEA 2006). On April 11th, President Ahmadinejad announced in a nationally televised address that “Iran [had] joined the group of those countries which have nuclear technology” and was greeted with chants of “Allahu akbar” (God is great) (BBC 04/11/2006).

In the aftermath of Ahmadinejad’s announcement, negotiations between Iran and Western powers at the UN who sought an end to Iran’s nuclear program yielded no significant gains. The first UN sanctions against Iran were imposed eight months later, in December 2006, effectively shutting the door on a diplomatic solution. By that point, Khamenei no longer needed one from the perspective of his domestic political designs because the public did not demand one, and the feeble attempts at diplomacy that have since been offered by the American-led international community have only served to shore up support for the regime among its conservative base. The April 11th announcement and the elated Iranian reaction to it represent a massive achievement for Khamenei and other Iranian leaders: in a few short years, they were able to successfully wed the causes of nuclear development, Iranian sovereignty, and the mission of the Islamic Revolution, thereby imbuing the nuclear issue with moral, political, and even religious dimensions which became inextricably linked, as evidenced by Khamenei’s public speeches in that period. By seizing on those crucial moments from 2002 to 2006, Iranian leadership was able to set in motion a process that would ensure it could pursue a nuclear program without significant resistance from the general populace.

The tone of the Iranian-American relationship since 2006 has only become more embittered, further strengthening the regime’s base while leaving moderates out in the cold, and organized opposition to the nuclear program from within Iran remains relatively weak. The Bush administration’s legacy of distrust of Iran and close involvement with Israel have been cited as reasons for which the Obama administration felt compelled to adopt the policies of its predecessor, leading it to do more to undermine the IRI than any administration since the 1979 revolution (Mousavian 2012; Parsi 2012, p. 19). This allowed for Iran to continue to make an easy enemy out of the US and hold up the nuclear program as a symbol of national pride (RAND 2011). Furthermore, the one legitimate attempt at diplomacy by the Obama administration in 2009 was foiled by domestic unrest in both nations as well as by a history of hostility between them. Trita Parsi argues that “…hostility has been institutionalized because either too many forces on both sides calculate that they can better advance their own narrow interests by retaining the status quo, or the predictability of enmity is preferred to the unpredictability of peacemaking” (Parsi 2012, p. 6). Iran has learned that piecemeal negotiations with the United States and the West get it nowhere, and openness about its nuclear program only results in its being sanctioned further (Mousavian 2012). Polite overtures from either side are undermined by shadowy dealings in the background; covert operations allegedly conducted by Israel and the United States within Iran’s borders in 2010 and 2011 resulted in the deaths of several Iranian nuclear scientists and the sabotage of many important centrifuges (Mousavian 2012). The cycle created between 2002 and 2006 has perpetuated itself: each side digs in, the more extreme positions on both sides dominate the discussion, and the potential for diplomacy tends to be forestalled. The worse diplomatic ties with the United States become, the easier it is for Iran to justify its commitment to the nuclear program to the public.

Given how effective Khamenei’s rhetoric ultimately appears, it is necessary to consider the specific rewards it emphasizes and risks it downplays. Considering Iran as a rational state actor, it must be assumed that the rewards of Iran developing a successful nuclear program outweigh the risks of a strike on its nuclear facilities. Understanding the risks involved in Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capability allows for a few different options to be presented to the public: that the likelihood of a strike is low; that the casualties of a strike would be either minimal or acceptable in the long run due to the benefits of the nuclear program; or that the risk of a strike is equivalent or preferable to the consequences of not attaining nuclear capability.

It appears that the Iranian public has a limited understanding of the consequences of a strike on one or more of Iran’s nuclear facilities; this is perhaps due to a combination of the regime’s rhetoric and its deliberate censorship of information regarding the cost of a strike, though the latter factor will not be addressed here. The risks are astounding. Khosrow Semnani has addressed the human cost of an American/Israeli strike across a number of case studies and models. His models paint a grim picture: he estimates losses of up to 85,000 lives (Semnani 2012, 41-42). The consequences of strikes on facilities near major cities such as Isfahan would be similarly catastrophic: populations would be devastated, fallout would render certain areas uninhabitable for decades; and irreplaceable cultural monuments would also be destroyed (25-30). Winds would carry a toxic cloud throughout the country, further increasing the number of casualties as well as the possibility of chronic illnesses (26-27). Semnani’s claim that Khamenei simply does not care for his own people is a difficult statement to evaluate. Khamenei’s public statements suggest that he believes that Iran is left with no other choice than to pursue the nuclear option, and that the payoff of Iran becoming a nuclear state must somehow outweigh the risk of this horror scenario. What Khamenei does or does not believe privately is irrelevant; the concern here is whether or not he and other Iranian leaders have been able to legitimize their course of action and persuade Iranians to accept the risks inherent to it.

What gains could possibly justify such incredible risks, and why? Certain analyses have considered this question with regard to a belief that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon, and although I do not take a stance on that issue, the benefits of a peaceful nuclear program seem to be largely the same as those linked with the attainment of a nuclear weapon. A successful nuclear program could allow Iran to deter foreign aggression (without a weapon in hand, this could be achieved through “breakout capability”), to regain its leading status in the Middle East, and to become a major actor on the global stage (Berman 2007; Waltz 2012). The excerpts from Khamenei’s speeches discussed earlier certainly embrace these arguments. However, these gains hardly seem worth the destruction and slaughter on the scale described by Semnani, which suggests that Khamenei is able to somehow overcome this disparity in the cost-benefit analysis he presents to the public. Again, framing is key: Khamenei presents the risks of pursuing a nuclear program and the risks of not pursuing one as being identical: inevitable conflict and violation of Iran’s sovereignty by the West and its allies, and the eventual collapse of the Islamic Republic. Action seems more acceptable than inaction, and the possible rewards, such as greater negotiating power with the West and a greater measure of security, are simply too important to pass up. While the benefits of a nuclear program may be hard to envision for the Iranian public, the fear of domination lurks in recent memory and helps to generate public acceptance.

The analysis presented here demonstrates that the Iranian regime was indeed successful in communicating the rationale for an active nuclear program to the citizens of the IRI and that the rhetoric put forth by Ayatollah Khamenei was an important tool for accomplishing this goal. As recently as 2010, 87% of Iranians surveyed supported “development of nuclear energy for civilian use” and 97% believed nuclear energy to be a national right (RAND 2010). Times are changing, however; a 2012 Gallup poll found that the approval rate of the civilian nuclear program had fallen to 57%, with 19% of surveyed Iranians identifying themselves in opposition to the program (24% either refused the question or “did not know”) (Gallup 2012). This is encouraging data for those who would argue that UN sanctions are working, but it may suggest another trend: the Ayatollah’s message might not resound as strongly anymore. The threats are becoming too real: beyond considerations of lines in the sand, surgical strikes, domineering powers, and the mission of the Islamic Republic lie the fates of thousands of innocent people. However public opinion may shift, the questions of rationale and rhetoric are incredibly important, because although they may not give us insight into the realpolitik of the relationship between Iran and the US, they allow us to more critically consider the ways such a potentially devastating conflict is rationalized to millions of people on both sides. Ultimately, it may fall to those people whose lives are on the line to force the relationship between these nations to change.

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