Is nuclear power really the core of Iran's identity?

Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, woos the US with a plea to acknowledge Iran's alleged core identity in its nuclear program. President Obama can point to Iran's conflicting identities as the country's source of weakness.

Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, waves after his swearing-in Aug. 4 in Tehran.

Americans will get a closer look at Iran’s new president this week. Elected last June in a surprise win, Hasan Rouhani is in New York for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly. President Obama might also size up the Scottish-educated Muslim cleric if they hold talks. The two have already exchanged letters. A warming is in the air.

The American scrutiny is welcomed by Mr. Rouhani as he seeks to end economic sanctions and a threat of military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. He’s been tweeting like a teenager. In an op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post, the Iranian leader said the world misunderstands Iran’s core identity, one that extends to its embrace of a “peaceful” nuclear energy program.

This may seem odd. Why would a nation wrap its identity around mastery of the atomic fuel cycle, especially when more advanced nations are giving up such complex, costly, and dangerous technology? The claim only adds suspicion that Iran seeks a capability to make nuclear weapons – a suspicion reinforced by the lack of transparency in its nuclear program.

It is also odd that Rouhani speaks of national identity. In hardball diplomacy, negotiations usually focus on a balancing of specific interests of power and security, and often only material interests such as weapons, oil, ports and trade.

“We must also pay attention to the issue of identity as a key driver of tension in, and beyond, the Middle East,” he wrote, saying Iran’s dignity and place in the world centers on being able to generate nuclear power.

Balancing interests between nations is easier than understanding identity. A nation’s self-perception involves shared ideas and social factors that are often intangible. Yet the key to avoiding war with Iran may indeed lie in understanding the conflicting identities of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Since its 1979 revolution, Iran’s semidemocratic theocracy has operated with several missions beyond its borders: as would-be leader of the Muslim world, as would-be leader of smaller nations against big powers, and as restorer of the country’s glorious imperial past when ancient Persian culture and power dominated the Middle East.

These transnational identities help account for the regime’s dislike of other regional powers, especially Israel, and of other Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, that don’t follow Iran’s export of revolutionary political Islam. Its Persian nationalism is encouraged by the regime to overcome past injustices by other countries and to lessen Iran’s historical sense of insecurity and injustice.

Out of this mix of identities, Iran sees nuclear power as playing a dominant and restorative role. In a speech last year, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke of the “jihad spirit” of Iran’s energy scientists. He said they help fight evil. Nuclear power will keep Iran energy independent and enable it to stand up to big powers such as the United States “like a lion” (a Persian symbol of power).

Yet this identity is faltering. Much of the Muslim world rejects the Islamic Republic’s attempt to export revolution. Its neighbors fear a militant revival of Persian-style dominance. The US, as well as the UN Security Council, only see the secrecy of Iran’s nuclear program as cover for military use of Iran’s enriched uranium, not a drive for energy independence.

With its global mission in doubt or under severe challenge, Iran is in an identity crisis. The costs of its global missions are too high. The ruling clerics face wide Iranian dissent to their authority. Sanctions are finally biting the economy hard. Iran is a kingdom divided against itself and must resolve its conflicting ambitions.

No wonder then, the supreme leader announced last week, that Iran will now show “heroic flexibility” in its foreign policy. And Rouhani is on a charm offensive in the US, hoping negotiations will ease the sanctions and save at least that part of Iran’s identity centered on only peaceful nuclear power. This will not be easy. Reconciling with the US will weaken the Iran regime’s very claim to power. Confrontation of “enemies” helps justify its police state.

A nation’s true identity can never embrace conflicting demands without the risk of building its interests on sand. Rouhani is right that “we” must pay attention to identity in the Middle East. But the “we” is more in Iran than elsewhere.

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