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Gatestone Institute: How Iran's Rulers Think about the Nuclear Program

As the Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic revolution in Iran, said: The Muslim world is engaged in a war with the non-Muslim world, a war which will end only when the non-Muslim world converts to Islam.[1]

What, then, is Islam, and what is the form of this religion that Khomeini wished should rule the world?

Although Khomeini, a staunch Shiite, wrote before he returned to Iran that Islam was "one," and that the differences between the Sunnis and Shiites were secondary, he also constantly argued that the problems facing the Islamic world were the result of three sources: the hated Rashidun Caliphs, who were the first four leaders of the Sunni world after the Muslim prophet, Muhammad, died; the Umayyads, who ruled the Muslim world from Damascus from ca. 660- to 750 AD/CE, and the Abbasids (750-1258) from Baghdad.

The Sunnis, however, who make up about 85% of the approximately 1.4 billion Muslims throughout the world, see these Sunni rulers as the very embodiment of the Golden Age of Islam.

This is the context in which we should understand why obtaining nuclear weapons in so essential for the Iranian regime.

Possessing nuclear weapons addresses both of the problems mentioned above: At one end, it addresses Islam's eternal battle with the non-Muslim world.

Nothing of this is lost on the overwhelming majority of the Muslim world, whether Sunni or Shiite, who, from their point of view, see that the non-Muslim domination and control of most of the world goes against the basic precept of Islam: that Islam is Allah's [God's] most recent and final revelation to man, and therefore is a supremacist religion that must rule the entire world. To think anything less would be heresy. Hence the massive admiration by all Muslims – even the Sunnis -- of Iran's dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons.

At the other end, a nuclear-armed, defiant Iran would seriously threaten most of the Sunni dictators and tyrants who rule the Arab world whom the West (usually inaccurately) labels as "moderates." Over the years, these dictators and tyrants have whipped up anti-West and anti-Israel hatred as an a way to focus the anger and frustrations of their own people towards the outer world, so their people would not blame them, their leaders, for the massive poverty, corruption and lack of accomplishment everywhere, despite the staggering oil-wealth of many of these nations.

Along comes Iran and demonstrates that these Sunni Arab leaders have failed to push back the West, while Iran has stood up to the West, threatened it, and successfully caused it to retreat. A nuclear, anti-Western Iran would enable the Muslims to hold their heads high and force the West into retreat. Of all the Muslim countries, only Iran will have proven that it is willing and able to stand up to the non-Muslims and to the Sunni rulers of the Muslim world.

This is what the acquisition of nuclear weapons means to the present Iranian regime, and why nothing the West does short of changing the current regime will stop the Iranians from acquiring these weapons.[2] From the regime's point of view, nuclear weapons free them to make the political calculations they would like, both in the international arena and within the Muslim world. They do not even have to be used: the mere threat of their use would be sufficient to cause most countries to capitulate to whatever they were asked, especially if there were nuclear-tipped weapons pointed at every capital of Europe.

Who, then, runs the regime in Iran, and what should we examine if we want to understand how to control that regime's nuclear designs?

The Iranian Revolution at first was Islamic, with the vast majority of the religious establishment standing behind of the regime. Since the late 1970s, however, more and more members of the religious establishment have become alienated from the regime, which it seems to see as destroying their beloved Shiite Islam. People are now blaming the current regime for Iran's disastrous economic situation and international political isolation. From the religious establishment's point of view, Islam can only be saved by the religious leaders of Shi'ism returning to their mosques and worrying about the spiritual needs of the people. Many senior clerics in Iran have started showing their disdain for the regime throughout quietism: they refuse to pray in the mosques. The masses, knowing that their religious leaders could be arrested or suffer other worse fates, seem to understand this quietism as a protest against the clerics behind the regime.

Today, Iran is no longer run by the religious establishment but by the praetorian guard, whom Khomeini established as a counter-balance to the regular military, which he apparently believed could potentially be disloyal. The praetorian guard – called the Pasdaran (the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC) – with its extreme form of Shi'ism that even Khomeini feared, have taken over the country and are now running the nation. They have a few religious leaders to whom they are at least nominally subservient. Nevertheless, as best we know, it is the IRGC that calls the shots, and is unswervingly committed to a nuclear Iran. The IRGC has, in effect, created a coup against the clerical establishment, and even found a few ayatollahs to give them a "religious stamp of approval."

These leaders see a confrontation with the West, Israel, and the Sunni world not as a deterrent, but as an inducement. In their view, by provoking a confrontation with the non-Shiite world, they will hasten the return of their beloved 12th Imam, a messiah-like figure who will show the world once and for all that the the Shiite view of Islam is the correct one, and then the non-Muslim world will succumb to the 12th Imam's will. From their point of view, the IRGC leaders are well on their way towards accomplishing their goals.

The only way to stop them is to change the regime, so that Iran's new rulers – whether religious or non-religious -- would return to the traditional Shiite view of the world: that the Imam will come whenever he presumably feels like it, and cannot be provoked or encouraged by the actions of the Shiites or anyone else. These new leaders would therefore, one hopes, worry about the practical and political interests of the Iranian people -- not about the religious salvation of Iran, Islam, and the world.

Iran's current leaders seem to reason that once they acquire nuclear weapons, no one will attack them because Iran's enemies will be afraid of the consequences of doing so, just as President Obama declined three different ways of destroying the US drone aircraft even before the Iranians had nuclear weapons. The IRGC leaders probably reason that nuclear weapons would be an even more effective deterrent.

At the same time, however, there would be no reason for this Iranian regime not to use -– or threaten to use -- these weapons against the Sunni Muslims and their oil fields, and against Iran's non-Muslim enemies in Europe, the US, Israel and beyond. If Iran's rulers provoke a conflagration between the Shiite view of the world and everyone else, they reason, and if the outside world were to retaliate, their Imam would come and save them.

Given Iran's traditional view of the world and how the West has used every opportunity to avoid confronting Iran over its nuclear policy[3], this regime must by now assume it can pick the time and place of its choosing to break out these weapons. Until then, the regime will work to acquire nuclear weapons, and then wait for the moment it believes it can use them to its best advantage.

If Iran's pursuit of its pursuit of nuclear weapons eventually were to causes a huge number of civilian casualties, it would not matter to the regime. Regarding civilian casualties, either from an accident at one of the nuclear facilities, bases for deployment of non-conventional weapons, and the like, the Iranian government evidently has little regard for the wishes of its people and would probably do its best to blame foreigners for anything that happened. A government that has so little regard for its own population will have even less for its neighbors or foreigners.

Further, if there were a massive loss of life for which the people blamed the government, these could spark in the larger cities riots and demonstrations, which the government might have a problem putting down.

Whereas in the West we are judged not by our thoughts but by our actions, in Islam if your intent can be seen as furthering the cause of Islam or Allah, you are promised eternal Paradise. In classical Islam, non-Muslims – most notably the Jews, Christians, and others claiming to have a holy book revealed to them prior to the advent of Islam - are offered the choice of converting to Islam; living under Islam as a "protected," albeit inferior, second class citizen, called a dhimmi --- or death. The fate of large numbers of non-Muslims who refused to succumb to conversion was not exactly compassionate.[4] Those who refused either status were almost always murdered.

As for the territory which the State of Israel occupies today, as it formerly belonged to the Islamic Ottoman Empire, and as in the Muslim worldview, any land that once was under the rule of Islam must stay under the rule of Islam forever, in Muslim minds, Israel belongs to Islam. To them, it is wrong that infidels, especially the most-loathed Jewish ones, rule this territory; and if the Jews are not prepared to relinquish control of the territory, they deserve to suffer the consequences, even if that means bombing them all.

If Muslims would be killed if an Iranian bomb either in Israel or in other Muslim lands such as today's Saudi Arabia, the Iranian regime would not have a problem here either: these Muslims would simply become shahids, or martyrs, and thereby immediately be sent to Paradise, where their seventy-two perpetual virgins await them. Moreover, these Muslims are almost all Sunni, so their death would a way for the Shiite rulers of Iran to avenge the 1,400 years when Sunnis murdered Shiites.

The death of the many civilian Shiites – both inside Iran, in the Persian Gulf, or in Lebanon -- as a result of such an attack, or a Western retaliatory attack on Iran, would also not be a problem for the Iranian regime: such attacks, they believe, would precipitate the return of the 12th, or "Hidden," Imam [a leader or ruler anointed my Allah] -- a descendant of Mohammed and messianic savior whose second-coming would rescue the Shiites from disaster and enshrine Shiite Islam over the world forever.

There is no reason, therefore, for us to believe that the current Iranian regime would not use nuclear weapons should it acquire them. The conflagration they caused would bring their messiah, after the regime decided on the most felicitous time and place.

Moreover, just having nuclear weapons – or the world's believing they had them – would probably be sufficient for the regime to accomplish its initial goal of first deterring the West and the rest of the Muslim world before the regime's expected triumph of Shiite Islam throughout the Muslim world. Finally, after 1400 years of suffering at the hands of the hated Sunnis, whom they see as having killed Shiites at will, the blood of the Shiite martyrs finally would be avenged.


Classical Iranian culture, however -- as opposed to Shiite messianic -- argues for another, almost contradictory, approach to gaining insight into how Iranians understand WMD.[5]

Historically, people who head both the military and political institutions of Iran have a Darwinian ability to know when power is shifting and then act accordingly. This means that once the senior officials in the government, in the IRGC and in the regular military, once they realized we were serious about regime change – if we were – might be very willing to cooperate with us as opposed to lose their jobs. The regime must believe that its reign is over, period. If and when that happens, today's senior leaders might turn out suddenly to be our best friends.


A few years ago, the regime gave orders to its lower-level military personnel in the Persian Gulf that if, during warfare, they were cut off from the center, they were to use whatever they had to wreak havoc in the Gulf – especially to blockade the Strait of Hormuz. We do not know if these orders were given for other situations as well. Such orders were amazing in themselves as they go against one of the basic rules of Iranian culture: that superiors make decisions, not inferiors. Inferiors are authorized to make decisions only when superiors cannot do so themselves. In such instances, superiors can only hope that those beneath them would be prepared to do what their superiors would have wished. If this actually were to happen, it would be an indication that the superiors had lost power, and that the future of the country would be in play. In such a situation, the inferiors would first try to determine whether they would be at risk in following those orders. If the inferiors believed that there would be any risk to themselves, their families, or their assets, it is doubtful that they would be prepared to carry out the orders, especially if the men were are not part of the small group of people who believed that by provoking a conflagration, their messiah will come.

It is also hard to imagine that the lower ranks would follow orders from their superiors if they saw the regime falling apart. By and large, the leadership view the lower ranks with disdain, which the people in the lower ranks know all too well.[6]

As a well-known story in Iran has it:

During the Second World War, the Iranian military created two defensive lines along its northwestern/Caucasian border with the Soviet Union. The first line was opposite the Soviet forces. The second line – the fallback line - was some distance inland. Both lines were manned by simple Iranian soldiers, mostly peasants. The senior Iranian officers, to make some money, sold those in the first line positions in the second line.

During the early days of the Islamic revolution, the government could count on the revolutionary fervor in recruiting soldiers to sacrifice their lives for Islam and their country. Then, the word "to die" (mordan in Persian) disappeared from people's vocabulary; almost everyone replaced this word with "to become a martyr" (shahid shodan in Persian). But that period is long gone. Iranians today seem to view their government and the IRGC with disgust. The commitment to the Islamic revolution is gone, except a very few who are well-paid by the government -- and even they appear to be having second thoughts. Today, therefore, it should be relatively easy to gain intelligence, and influence the lower ranks of the military, should that be useful.


In patterns and apparatuses of command and control, Iranians do not trust each other: the military therefore keeps tight control both of its most important weapons and those which could be turned against the regime. Since Khomeini set up the IRGC to insure the regime's survival, the people appointed to senior ranks of the IRGC are considered the most loyal to the regime. If the regime falls, they have the most to lose.

Nevertheless, the regime recently dismissed 250 IRGC leaders who had supported the opposition leaders -- demonstrating that political loyalty matters more than military competence.

It is unclear who controls the Iranian nuclear program. Although there have been defectors from the program, some have been being double agents, returning to Iran after having supposedly defected to the West. It is hard, therefore, to judge the reliability of their information. What appears to be true, is that only a few people at the top of the Iranian government's pyramid have decision-making abilities on the nuclear issue – but those leaders are the messianists who could easily use these weapons.

Given the fear that the senior leadership generally has about the loyalty of those around them, we should be wary of thinking that certain individuals or people holding particular positions are in charge. The Iranian leadership knows that today's ally can become tomorrow's enemy, so it probably constantly re-evaluates who is permitted access to the nuclear program.

It is also difficult to know on what Iran's nuclear scientists are working. One way of trying to ascertain this, however, is to follow their open publications: the particulars about which they write give us insight into what they are thinking about, and might also tell us on what kind of problem they are working.

The same deduction holds true for conventional weapons. Loyalty -- to the rulers of the country, not to Iran – matters above all. It appears that political commissars both in the regular military – a holdover from the Shah's regime - and in the IRGC have more decision-making power than do the military officers who often outrank them.

Although during the Iran-Iraq war religious leaders were stationed at the front and often instructed the military in such matters as in which direction the troops should shoot – despite the religious leaders' lacking military experience -- it was their decisions, not those of the military leaders, that were implemented.

Such is not the case today. Instead of religious functionaries, who have overwhelmingly abandoned the regime, it is the political commissars, again possibly with little military experience, who are closest to the regime, often because of familial, ethnic, or religious ties. But these political commissars are also under scrutiny and, like the 250 senior IRGC officers who were fired, the regime constantly worries about their loyalty. If the regime has any doubts about them, they are replaced. This concern about loyalty most likely means that the regime has divided up command and control of different parts of these weapons, so that none besides those permitted to decide when and how to use these weapons would be able to do so.

However, if they or their colleagues who control other parts of the system are prepared to work together to employ these weapons and thus bring about the return of their messiah, there is a serious danger that the weapons could be used.

As always, can those in the senior echelons of the Iranian government, -- who are responsible for the nuclear and other non-conventional weaponry -- be sure that they, and only they, have the decision-making authority regarding these weapons? This is a question that must plague them. They may fear that the moment they appear to have lost control over the country, these weapons will no longer be theirs to control. Those who actually have possession of the weapons could make their own decisions as to whether it is in their interest to use them. Should the Iran's rulers lose control, it would be wise for foreign governments who might be threatened by this regime to devise plans to take control of these weapons, in a way similar to how the US addressed the need to capture the Iraqi oil fields during the early stages of the Iraq Libration War in 2003.[7]

If the regime does appear to be tattering, many of the IRGC leaders might try to make deals with people whom they perceived would in the future be the new leaders of the country.


Another subject that should worry us is nuclear and other WMD proliferation. The Iranian government has proxies all over the world, especially in Lebanon, but also notably in South America. It would therefore not be surprising if the Iranian government distributed nuclear and other non-conventional material to their allies in these countries: the Iranian leadership understands that the US, Europeans, and other enemies of their regime are less suspicious of Latin American countries. If Iran wanted, for example to smuggle weapons into the US, it could be much easier to do so via Latin America,[8] where our guard would be down. Culturally, this way of indirectly attacking an enemy is classically Iranian.


The Iranian regime views the deployment of nuclear and other non-conventional weapons differently from how it used Lebanon for storing conventional weapons. In Lebanon, the Iranians, via their proxy Hizbullah, stored weapons in buildings where civilians live, and next to hospitals and schools. The Iranian regime and its allies use the international media as a weapon in its arsenal against its enemies, claiming that those attacked by Israel or the US are victim of "human rights abuse" and of "a disproportionate use of force." Hizbullah places cameras near the hospitals and schools in which it plants explosives so it can photograph the Israeli destruction of these supposedly civilian targets.

Inside Iran, the regime is more cautious. To be sure, they have put nuclear facilities near population centers, as is clear both in Natanz, where civilians can travel around the outer perimeter of the fence[9] surrounding that facility, and in the mountain next to Qom. But we have no indication that whatever nuclear and non-conventional weapons the Iranians possess are located in populated areas. Perhaps there was concern that the weapons might draw too much attention from people who live in those areas; however the only way the Iranian government could ensure these weapons were in safe hands – and not be able to be used against the government itself – was by placing them in areas over which the government believed it had complete control. The government would not want place these weapons in remote locations to which people the government doesn't trust might have access.

As we have learned from people who traveled around the perimeter of the Natanz facility, however, apparently government control is clearly not absolute, and the government must therefore constantly be on guard against people who might wish to render inoperable the nuclear and non-conventional programs.

Other significant elements in the Command and Control structure are ethnic, religious, tribal, business, and geographic solidarity. These have always formed, and still form, the backbone of Iranian society. Persians, for example are possibly not even the largest ethnic group in Iran. The largest - probably about a third of the country - are Shiite, mostly-Turkish-speaking Azeris. They are concentrated mostly in the northern part of the country and in Tehran, and are not the ethnic Persians who culturally dominate the country. A large number of these Azerbaijani Iranians no longer even speak Turkish; but even though they have abandoned the Azeri-Turkish language for Persian [Farsi], they still identify themselves as Azeris. Almost all of the Azeris whether Persian- or Turkish-speaking also identify themselves strongly as Iranians. "Iranianness" is, therefore, less of an ethnic identity than a political identity. Even those who do not speak Persian identify themselves as 100% Iranian. Most do not identify with Turkey or with the other Turkic-speaking countries, which are largely Sunni, not Shiite.

The most unifying factor in the country is probably Shiite Islam, to which about 80%-90% of the population adheres. Sunni Muslims, who primarily inhabit the border areas -- such as the ethnic Turkomans, another Turkic people concentrated in the northeast; as well as the Baluchis and the Sistanis in the southeast, and most of the Kurds in the West -- are evidently looked upon with suspicion by the rulers of the country: they are not allowed to rise in the military, and they are not part of the ruling establishment.

Although tribal ties are also important, Iran has traditionally been a settled culture, so tribal connections are not the first things people think of when it comes to forming bonds with people. Most important are familial ties. These have always been paramount in Iran, as they are in much of the rest of the Middle East.

As family connections are important in establishing bonds of trust, whether in the government or the military, mapping out who is married to whom could be essential in dealing not only with the government, but also with the IRGC as well. When it comes to the nuclear program, which requires the utmost trust, familial and female connections could prove very important.

As with many groups throughout the world, plans for survival usually start with the family:

During the US hostage crisis, the father of an important family in Qom, the religious capital of Iran, called his sons together for meeting on how to secure the family's future. It was decided that one son would become a mullah, and most likely rise in the religious hierarchy. Another son would join the military, so he could protect the family. Another went into the Tudeh (Communist) party, because it seemed at that time that the Soviet Union was very powerful. But the youngest son was not "placed" anywhere. When he grew up, his family decided he should go to America and join the opposition, just in case the opposition there might one day convince the US government to overthrow the Islamic Republican regime, or another government, closer to the US, might emerge.

Women, although they appear to be weak, as the regime discriminates against their holding political power, are also important in the Iranian hierarchy: because the regime discriminates against them, they have every incentive to oppose it.


Political beliefs do not seem to be all that important in Iran. People's professed beliefs often appear to change as needed. Although religious messianism among Iran's senior ruling class is essential, and many of its members strongly believe in making the 12th Imam return to save them and the world, ideology is the realm of a relatively small group of people. From what we know, however, it is these people who are calling the shots now in Iran, and it is these people who have been trusted to build, run and launch nuclear weapons when able to do so, and the regime has decided on th most auspicious time to use them. These people who now control the destiny of their country. Should they acquire nuclear weapons, it is this small group of people who will decide when and how to use these weapons, and therefore decide their fate, the fate of their neighbors, and possibly even the fate of Europeans, Americans, and beyond.

Apart from them, family connections are a good way to figure out how the Iranians, with their finely-tuned instincts for survival, think their country is headed. These ties are also essential in connecting with people who now have high-level positions in the government, the IRGC, the nuclear program, and other organizations in the country, and for understanding the Iranian Chain of Command and its decision-making process. In the end, even job title is less important than personal connections, which remain the most important way the Iranian government can ensure that its commands are carried out, and form, in short, an alternate chain of command.

The Iranian government therefore has one additional problem to worry about: How can it ensure that its decisions are being carried out, even with this alternate chain of command? That problem is further complicated by the fact that Iran is a top-down society, in which information is passed down the chain; almost never up the chain. People in lower ranking positions, therefore, will not tell their superiors

bad news, or anything they think their superiors do not want to hear. The ramifications of this are that people in senior positions may really know very little about what is actually happening on the ground, and, apart from family connections, might have very little way of learning the truth.

The only other way they can ensure that their orders are being carried out is through bribery and others forms of monetary or similar remuneration.

Rulers therefore often try to coerce information out of people, but torture methods often result in people telling their superiors what those tortured believe their superiors want to hear, rather than the truth. This probably applies to the nuclear program as well, even if those working on it undergo scrutiny.

Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and other senior leaders of the IRGC might not really know what it happening in their nuclear program, even with periodic visits to those installations. Iran has always been one big Potemkin village. It is highly likely that no one, especially the rulers, really knows what going on.


So where does all this leave us? Iran is an ancient imperial nation which a deep sense of cultural identity, resilience and ability to survive. enemy after enemy and somehow survived. Over the past 2,500 years, the Iranians may have developed ways to outfox their enemies, but the culture is permeable.

If its people come to the conclusion that the regime does not have both the ability and will to survive, the people have demonstrated time and again that they are eager to remove their leaders. We should therefore find ways to demonstrate to the people that the regime cannot defend itself both internally against its enemies.

When the regime tries to put down local demonstrations and revolts, we should do our utmost to support the protestors and to make the regime look weak, inept, and fragile. This includes above all helping forces inside the country who want to overthrow the regime, and finding ways to make sure that the IRGC and the Basij cannot put down riots and demonstrations, such as making sure that the IRGC and the Basij leaders could not communicate with their troops, and that their headquarters would suffer attacks similar to the recent explosions outside Tehran and inside Isfahan.

Iranians have a refined ability to detect strength and weakness in their leaders. Their history is replete with instances where they overthrow leaders they saw as weak. We have an opportunity to help them do so again. We should not squander the opportunity to do so now.

There is still a chance we can ensure that the present Iranian government will not acquire, then use, nuclear weapons. This effort needs to be well-thought-out and possibly long term, but it can be done. The question is: Are we willing to put in that effort?


[1] It is in this context that we should understand Khomeini's call on former Soviet leader Gorbachev to convert to Islam; or the same offer Ahmadinejad extended to President George W. Bush. The Soviets and we might have seen this as outrageous, but Khomeini and many Muslims throughout the world were totally serious.

[2] It is in that context that we should understand why the activation of the nuclear plant in Bushehr is so dangerous for the West. We might think the issue is the safety of the fuel rods, but the Iranian regime sees this as a political victory in its battle to win the hearts and minds of the Muslims throughout the world in their battle to wrest control of Islam from the Sunnis.

[3] On the nuclear issue, today Iranian regime seems to view the West, Israel, and the Sunni Arabs leaders much as Hitler's regime viewed the UK's Chamberlain and other Western leaders in the 1930s: the West as a paper tiger, and willing to do anything to avoid confrontation. The more we ask them to negotiate, the more the Iranians become sure of that view, just as Hitler and those around him did.

[4] The Arabic word "rahman" – invariably translated as compassionate -- is a characteristic of Allah towards man, not man towards man. There is no equivalent in Arabic of the Western concept of compassion.

[5] Iran has been divided since it was conquered by Arab Muslims in the mid-660s AD/CE. It became Muslim, at least on the surface, but apparently remained Iranian under the surface. Throughout its history, the struggle between classical Iranian cultural attitudes and Islam has manifested itself over and over again.

[6] This was demonstrated in 2009 during the riots after the election results. The basij thugs charged with quelling the riots were not sure which side was going to win, so they went easy on the demonstrators, telling them, "Please remember, we did not hit you" – already mentally preparing for a change in regime.

[7] We were afraid that Saddam might set these fields on fire, as he had done in Kuwait during the Kuwait war, so, during the Iraq Liberation War in 2003, we quickly took over the oil fields so that this would not be repeated -- the only way we could guarantee that they would not be sabotaged.

[8] These include not only Venezuela and Brazil, but other countries such as Paraguay and the areas of Argentina across the Paraguayan border.

[9] In 2007, an American student of architecture in Natanz, who travelled around the perimeter of the fence, reported that the facility was close to, but not exactly, in the highly populated area of the town.

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