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The imagined nationalism and its role in Iranian offensive nuclear policy

By Ali Omidi - posted Wednesday, 7 March 2012

At first glance, the relationship between nationalism and the ambitious nature of Iran’s foreign policy seems far from believable. Many aspects of Iranian foreign policy are not simply explained by ‘nationalism’.  However, because Iranian political culture is to a degree unique within the international state system, it is to be expected that ‘nationalism’, especially from the Iranian perception, can explain many aspects of its foreign policy.  On this basis, ‘nationalism’ can elucidate part of Iran’s nuclear policy.

A desire to interact within the state system on the international level, is a central characteristic of Iranian cultural. Most Iranian political schools - including all the different factions, be they left, right, conservative or liberal however, take this further in that they believe Iran is somehow the center of the universe. Accordingly, Iran’s political stance isn't simply defined by its physical geography. Rather, the legacy of the Persian civilization; Iran’s geographic location within the East-West relationship; the role of Iran in ancient world empires;  Iranian geopolitics in the global Cold War era; and the importance of oil as well as Islamic fundamentalism have all led to the sustained pursuit of a global perspective in Iranian foreign policy.

After the collapse of the Safavid period (1501 - 1722), Iranian grandeur began to decline, weakening Iran’s position against foreign powers.  Fath Ali Shah Qajar (1797 – 1834) was the last Shah of Iran who was crowned with the sword for power.  Since then foreign elements have factored more prominently in establishing the Iranian monarchy. Nevertheless, the humiliating defeat of Qajar kings and the loss of large parts of Iranian territory to Russia in the early 19th century did not prevent Iranian kings from calling themselves Kings of the Center of the Universe. Indeed this image was still projected at the end of the Qajar era (1785-1925) when Iran was at its weakest in terms of international political power.


The emergence of Iran’s Pahlavi dynasty (1925-79) saw the shaping of modern Iran, thereby opening a new chapter in Iran’s role in the world politics. Restoring the grandeur of ancient Iran was the engine of Pahlavi’s foreign policy far beyond its national borders. This dynasty was eager to be the leading power in the region. Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah (father and son) adopted a defensive alliance with the West and aligned themselves with the powerful countries of the world primarily to influence the global equations and promote Iranian status. Indeed Reza Shah tried to play off great powers, to further Iran’s role in world politics. Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s problems in playing the role of the Persian Gulf’s ‘gendarme’, was based on this viewpoint. His delusions of grandeur no doubt lead Iran  to pay a heavy price politically.   He once said, “Cyrus, sleep in peace, we are awake”, which seems to analogize well the repercussions Iran suffered from a misplaced glorious heritage. He apparently wanted to assume the role of Cyrus in the modern times.

Mausoleum of Cyrus the Great (around Shiraz) when the then king of Iran extends his salute to it

After the 1979 revolution, Islamic Iran however did not change the direction of this foreign policy; only the shape of it.  Which is to say the Islamic superiority against West, and animosity toward the west has been replaced by an alliance with the West. The Iranian nuclear policy and Ahmadinejad’s claim for participation in world management, is rooted in this Iranian national character. Still, many Iranians regard themselves as belonging to an empire. Iran does not consent to its borders. For many Iranians, an empire of Iran is still a fervent hope. Some wish for the revival of Cyrus the Great. Esfandyar Rahim Mashaie, the head of Office of Presidency of Iran for example, has caused much dissent for posing ideas of the Iranian political school, instead of pure Islamic ideology.

Either way, Iran is perhaps the only country in the state system that won’t move beyond its ’glorious past’. Many Iranian people cling to the romance of ancient empires. Some Iranian elites think that if foreign powers did not intervene in Iran’s contemporary history, Iran would still be a great power in the world, regardless of the interconnected nature of global politics in the 21st century. They’re in a time warp between ancient and modern eras.

As Ali Afshari, the Iranian political dissident and analyst observed: “Iran’s being as large and powerful entity in the world … makes up a part of the Iranian political identity”. This attitude goes against the status quo and of course contributes to an offensive foreign policy. Within this context, foreign powers are considered to be a barrier to Iran’s progress, and the reasoning has manifested a degree of xenophobia. The critical point of this attitude is that Iran is still considered as the center of a universe to so many Iranians, which could well encourage Iranians to think that international powers conspire against Iran, manifesting mistrust all round.  Iranian leaders for example, believe their eight-year war against Iraq (1980-88), involved the world backing Iraq.  Likewise their intent for nuclear energy is indeed mistrusted by the ‘west’.  Little wonder, Iranian leaders consider Iran to be the core of all global decisions.  

Nationalism, thus lends much support for the country’s nuclear program.  As Ray Takeyh, the US scholar observed: “Whatever strategic benefits ……[the nuclear technology] offer a state, they are certainly a source of national prestige and parochial benefits to various bureaucracies and politicians  …  the emergence of bureaucratic and nationalist pressure in Iran is generating its own proliferation momentum, empowering those seeking a nuclear breakout.”


So far from being a simple political issue, the emerging popular sentiment is that, as a great civilization with a long history, Iran has a right to acquire  nuclear technology. Acquiring nuclear capabilities would serve as a status symbol for Iran. There’s an element of prestige associated with joining the nuclear club and becoming an influential power at least in the Middle East. In this context, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei opined that “Iran will not be intimidated by war threats or sanctions by the United States and the European Union, and will not retreat from its nuclear programs”.  Furthermore, when addressing officials of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and a number of Iranian nuclear scientists, Ayatollah Khamenei said: “The goal of the arrogant system’s hues and cries (against Iran) is stopping the Iranian nation’s scientific progress. Pressure, sanction, threat and assassination will not yield any results (for the enemies) and the Iranian nation will continue its scientific progress”. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also criticized Western countries for manipulating Iran’s nuclear case merely as a “political ploy” and stressed, “I am repeating that Iran’s nuclear train has no brakes and no reverse gear.” He stressed: “The West, the US and its allies in particular, are not interested in independence and advancement of nations… This is the reason behind their hostility toward us”.

Iran’s position on the future of its nuclear program is very clear. Iranian leaders have stated categorically that Iran would not give up its uranium enrichment program. Even many Iranians who oppose the Islamic regime believe that Iran must continue its peaceful nuclear program despite disagreement and pressure from the West. A reliable survey showed that more than 70 percent of Iranian students supported the country’s nuclear program, while over 50 percent stated that Iran must not give in to pressure from the US, Israel and the EU over its nuclear program even if this means war.

Many Iranians believe that the US is simply trying to punish Iran for its defiance of American policies. In this regard, Sadeq Ziba Kalam, Iranian political analyst, suggests:”Many Iranians believe that US pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear program is a conspiracy by the Western powers to deny or prevent Iran from acquiring advanced technology and keep Iran backward and dependent on the West”.  Against this backdrop, no political faction in Iran can afford to argue for giving up to the West the country’s nuclear program.

In any case, given the popularity of the country’s nuclear program among many Iranians, any strike against Iran’s nuclear sites would generate nationalist enthusiasm and automatic support for the Iran’s leadership. With the bleak prospects the West faces vis-a-vis Iran’s nuclear program, the best scenario is the so-called “diplomatic solution”.  It means that the world should accept an Iranian peaceful nuclear program, but make sure that it is under strict supervision. The key question remains though: how do you arrive at acceptance? Does it not involve trust within a relationship?  Accepting the Iranian nuclear program thus could involve forging an open progressive relationship between the West and Iran. Unfortunately, the West and Washington’s policies at present are merely inflaming Iranian nationalism. As George Perkovich, a US scholar on Middle East once observed: “Nothing fuels nationalism like resistance to public diktat by arrogant, perhaps hypocritical outsiders”. 

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Laurelle Atkinson contributed to editing this article.

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About the Author

Dr Ali Omidi is Assistant Professor of International Relationsat the University of Isfahan-Iran.

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