Ever since the Iranian nuclear program was disclosed in 2003, numerous articles, reports and analyses have explored various aspects of it. There is, however, one important aspect that has not been fully understood. This concerns the psychological significance of the nuclear program for many Iranians, including much of the country’s leadership.
The nuclear program has meant for many Iranians a sense of security: an assurance against being attacked by the Islamic regimes’ powerful enemies. Some analysts may dismiss this proposition and blame the Islamic regime’s own behavior for creating real or perceived enemies. And while it is true that Iran’s behavior internationally, particularly under its current hard-line president, does not leave it with many friends, the threat perception many Iranians feel is much more complicated than that implied by President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad’s behavior and goes much deeper than the last four years during which Ahmadinezhad has been in power. The fact that the nuclear program was started in the late 1980s and early 1990s demonstrates that the underlying reasons for it were cultivated during the 1980s.
In the course of the struggle against the late Shah of Iran in 1978 and 1979 the Islamic leaders, including the late Imam Ruhollah Khomeini, felt that the outside world, including the western powers, was not against them. The feeling of self-righteous and self-confidence prevailed and was intensified after the revolution. The world media broadly treated the Iranian revolutionary leaders as heroes who had managed to overthrow a ruthless and despotic ruler. The Islamic regime was welcomed by the major world powers and was immediately recognized by them. There were of course some hesitations on the part of the Carter administration to establish full diplomatic contact with the newly-formed Islamic regime, but the rest of the world was ready to establish ties with Tehran.
In short, the Islamic leaders had no cause to fear the outside world. They went so far as to cancel some of the advanced military weapons the Shah had ordered from the US. The list included long-range missiles, advanced jet fighters, anti-aircraft missiles, submarines, warships and other offensive military hardware. Rightly or wrongly, the first generation of Islamic revolutionary leaders felt Iran had no enemy, had no quarrel with any of its neighbors and was not contemplating fighting any other state. It therefore didn’t need the huge arms stockpile the Shah had gathered and was still receiving from the US at the time of his downfall. Indeed, the Shah’s policy to play the role of so-called "gendarme of the Persian Gulf" was always criticized by his opponents, including the Islamists who were now themselves in power. To convert the country’s tanks into tractors was ironically a slogan mentioned many years earlier by Ayatollah Khomeini in one of his attacks against the Shah.
The war with Iraq, however, changed much of that early euphoria. To begin with, Iranians never imagined that Iraq would invade their territory. As a just, popular, revolutionary and Islamic regime that enjoyed the support of 98.5 percent of its people, it was inconceivable for the Iranian leaders and public-at-large to imagine that another country would attack them. Even more incomprehensible was that the world would simply stand by and not even condemn Saddam’s invasion of their territory. To Iranians’ astonishment and horror, neither the West nor the East, neither the Islamic states nor the Arab world, indeed no one at all was prepared to condemn Saddam’s invasion of Iran, let alone support Iran in defending itself against the might of the Iraqi army. On the contrary everyone–the European Union, the UN Security Council, Iran’s Arab neighbors and Muslim leaders repeatedly urged Iran to restrain itself and "try to resolve the dispute peacefully."
The new Iranian leaders learned their first bitter diplomatic lesson: if you want to remain independent of both the West and the East (one of the cardinal slogans of the Islamic Revolution), then neither will support you even if you are the victim of the most blatant violations of international rules and norms. Iranians learned that rather than waiting for the international community to take action to force the Iraqis to leave their country, they must rely on themselves.
There were more bitter lessons for the Iranians to learn. Having pushed back the Iraqis with huge sacrifices, thereby winning the world’s admiration, Iran was once again advised to accept a ceasefire and negotiate with the Iraqi regime. Even opponents of the regime replied to the world, "What about justice, should those who invaded another country go unpunished?" The world showed a similar reaction when the Iraqis, in violation of international sanctions, used chemical weapons. To Iranians’ horror, the world once again turned a blind eye on Saddam’s atrocities when thousands of Iranians were killed by these weapons.
The eight-year war with Iraq taught Iranians that in this world they are on their own. Ironically, during the war many Iranians experienced the same feeling of loneliness and abandonment by the outside world that perhaps many Jews felt in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. Hence it was no accident that, immediately after the war, it became a top priority for the Iranian leadership to turn the country into a nuclear power.
In a further irony, the West’s response to Iran’s nuclear program has proved to Iranians that they indeed embarked on the right course. During the past three decades, the only issue regarding which the West has taken Iran seriously is its nuclear program. The West has, inadvertently, taught Iranian leaders that you are taken seriously only when you present the world your "nuclear credit card".