On 13 December 2021, the ACRPS Iranian Studies Unit (ISU) hosted Rouzbeh Parsi for a lecture titled “The Sword of Damocles: The Domestic Repercussions of the Nuclear Saga in Iran.” Parsi is Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. The lecture was moderated by Mehran Kamrava, Director of the ISU and Professor of Government at Georgetown University in Qatar.

Parsi began by discussing the evolution of Iran’s nuclear programme. He stated that the Iranian idea of nuclear power dates back to the days of the monarchy, and it was part of the Shah’s attempt to show the world and the Iranian society that Iran was no longer a Third World country. Iran’s nuclear programme was temporarily halted in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution. At the time, according to Parsi, Iran did not have an operational nuclear power station and only had a research reactor in Tehran. However, the reactor did not produce nuclear power, nor did it enrich uranium, as “enrichment entails mastering the entire fuel cycle and having the industrial capacity to produce everything required for nuclear power.”

The idea of the nuclear programme was revived in the 1990s, with some support from North Korea. “This suggests the weapons dimension as something on the horizon as a potential, which does not necessarily need to be operationalized. Nevertheless, the fact that one insists on enrichment on its own soil means that one learns to master the fuel cycle and that opens the door for such a development later on.” Parsi noted that these projects take on a life of their own, with many repercussions. The nuclear programme project had a devastating effect on Iran’s development as a country and a society, and it has so far proved to be a tremendously expensive endeavor with a minimal payoff.

According to Parsi, starting in the 2000s, the nuclear programme became much more of a problem and something that started to characterize Iran both domestically and abroad. Following the 2002 discovery of Iran’s nuclear programme, the country has been at odds with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. It has been negotiating whether the programme is legitimate and whether enrichment is allowed under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a signatory. Most importantly, Parsi observed that “negotiations also become part of Iranian domestic politicking. It is being used by various factions as a way of showing what each faction believes to be a proper foreign policy. It has also become a litmus test to what extent one can have a relationship with the Western world.” Parsi also pointed out that this is happening at a time when Iran is rapidly transitioning towards a postrevolutionary society with a young population.

During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, the nuclear programme became a prestige project, making it difficult for him to negotiate because any compromise would jeopardize his status, an issue that Iran still faces today. Another obstacle, according to Parsi, is that Iran has a political system replete with factional in-fighting, so the issue is not that no one wants to negotiate; rather, they want to negotiate in order to succeed over other factions. “Some of the limbo in which Iran finds itself in the 2000s is due to the fact that those conducting the negotiations have been sabotaging past administrations’ attempts at negotiation, which has come at a significant cost to the country.”

Parsi then discussed how the negotiations in 2013 and 2014 resulted in a solution to Iran’s enrichment program. He argued that “the reason why the negotiations were serious and succeeded was because everyone had to take a very hard look at what was its own strengths and how much it had overestimated the weaknesses of the counterparts.” While sanctions against Iran had an effect, the Obama administration recognized that they were ineffective in halting Iran’s nuclear programme. According to Parsi, “the Obama administration realized that its prerequisite for negotiations, zero enrichment, was not going to work; instead, it had to aim for zero enrichment at the end of negotiations.” In the waning days of Ahmadinejad’s administration, the Supreme Leader realized that this particular issue needed to be resolved with the Americans since the Iranian economy and polity could not develop as needed.

 Iran and the US were able to reach an agreement in 2015 that worked for both of them. However, the economic incentives that made Iran sign the deal did not have time to bear fruit following Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May 2018. Parsi further maintained that given the Europeans’ inability to fill the void left by Trump’s withdrawal, Iran launched its own pressure campaign, enriching more and deviating from the agreement.

Lastly, Parsi highlighted that neither side is making progress because of the fact that “Trump’s action destroyed the political position of those in Iran who said we could have a functioning agreement with the United States. Another problem is that the Biden administration appears to have forgotten what the Obama administration learned, which is that this is not going to be solved solely through pressure because the Iranians are, if not immune, at least immunized to some extent against US pressure.”