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Analysis: The strategic shift in Iranian public opinion on nuclear weapons

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The recent surge in Iranian public support for nuclear weapons, as revealed by the IranPoll survey, can be significantly attributed to the ongoing conflict in Gaza and the perceived actions of Israel. Many Iranians believe that, in a hypothetical war scenario between Iran and Israel, Israel would retaliate for battlefield losses by targeting Iranian civilians, much like the alleged genocide in Gaza. This fear drives a heightened desire for a formidable deterrence capability to protect Iran from potential mass casualties inflicted by Israel.

Iran’s strategic culture profoundly influences its population’s support for nuclear armament. Strategic culture encompasses the worldview and policy-making patterns of a state’s political and military leadership. In Iran’s case, this culture is shaped by historical legacies, shared beliefs, collective experiences and decision-making modes that mould the nation’s threat perceptions and strategic thinking.

Iran’s strategic behaviour since the 1979 Revolution is deeply rooted in historical legacies of decline in relative power and frequent interventions by great powers over the past two centuries. This history has instilled a sense of insecurity, resentment and distrust towards the West and Russia. Iranians see themselves as natural leaders of the Middle East, expecting to play a primary role in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Actions undermining this perceived rightful place trigger strong reactions, reflecting the sensitivity of Iranian leaders and people to their status in regional and global affairs.

Geography also plays a crucial role in Iran’s strategic thinking. The desire for a preeminent role in Middle Eastern political and security affairs and maximum freedom of action in its surrounding region stems from both a historical sense of leadership and a need to prevent encirclement by more powerful states. This sentiment resonates with Iranian resentment of past humiliations by world powers during the Qajar and Pahlavi dynasties.

The current Iranian regime’s efforts to blend nationalism with Shi’ism under the slogan “Achaemenian Gene and Hosseini Blood” reflect a strategic attempt to unify the nation. This slogan evokes the ancient Persian Achaemenid Empire and the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, combining historical pride with religious devotion. Imam Hossein’s legacy of resistance against oppression and his willingness to sacrifice for justice are powerful symbols that resonate deeply within Iranian society. This fusion of nationalism and religious identity aims to reinforce a sense of unity and purpose, especially as the society distances itself from strict Islamic ideology.

Iran’s strategic loneliness and quest for independence significantly influence its nuclear aspirations. Historically, Iranian leaders and citizens, both pre and post-1979, have sought to become a developed nation while maintaining independence. This aspiration has often clashed with Western interests, reinforcing a perception that the West opposes Iran’s development and independence. This perception fosters a strong desire for self-sufficiency, with nuclear capability seen as a crucial component of national security and autonomy.

Iran’s geopolitical isolation and history of invasions, from ancient times through the Arab and Mongol invasions, to the occupation during World War II and the eight-year war with Iraq, have shaped a national psyche deeply concerned with security. These historical experiences contribute to a collective consciousness that prioritises a robust deterrence capability to safeguard the nation’s sovereignty and existence.

In the context of systemic transitions and changes in the world order, which are often accompanied by wars, Iranians are convinced of the necessity for a strong deterrence capability. This conviction transcends political systems, emphasising that regardless of whether or not the regime is democratic, the country must be able to defend its existence. While a democratic government is ideal, the pragmatism of realpolitik dictates a focus on tangible security measures rather than ideological aspirations.

The collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), following the US withdrawal and the imposition of new sanctions, has led many Iranians to question the efficacy of diplomatic solutions. The perceived failure of the JCPOA to deliver economic relief and security assurances has fuelled a sense of betrayal and scepticism towards future negotiations. This reinforces the belief that only a strong deterrent, including nuclear weapons, can guarantee Iran’s security and sovereignty.

The shift in Iranian public opinion towards supporting nuclear weapons is a multifaceted phenomenon influenced by regional conflicts, strategic culture, historical experiences and a desire for national independence. The recent development underscores that Iranians are increasingly concerned with security and deterrence, driven by a complex interplay of historical legacies, strategic imperatives and contemporary geopolitical realities. As Iran navigates its geopolitical landscape, the growing public support for nuclear armament signals significant implications for its nuclear policy and regional security dynamics. Understanding this shift requires a nuanced appreciation of the factors shaping Iran’s strategic behaviour and the broader context of its security concerns.

Hamid Bahrami is an independent international relations analyst.

Source: Middle East Monitor

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