As the international sanctions on Iran intensify, we reexamine the structure of the Iranian regime and examine possible channels for change on the nuclear issue.
The state of Iran has been a party to the Treaty for Nuclear Non-Proliferation (NPT) since 1970. However, in 2003 it was determined by the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) that Iran was not complying with the terms of the treaty. After years of international pressure and sanctions, Iranian society succumbed and opened up to negotiations with the international community on its nuclear program. In 2015 a new treaty was achieved between Iran, the P5+1, and the European union. The deal was applauded by many, but there were also many fears, one of which was that Iran would not comply with the deal as it hadn’t before. By analyzing and applying a framework proposed by Xinyuan Dai in her paper “Compliance Without Carrots or Sticks: How International Institutions Influence National Policies”, I seek to study the behavior of domestic institutions and civil society under the period of the NPT and suggest additional key factors in the role of domestic politics in compliance with international treaties. I posit that Nationalism, indirect impact, and the unique structure of the Iranian political system are important characteristics of Iran’s relationship to the NPT that are missing in Dai’s paper that can contribute to a more comprehensive model for domestic compliance.
This paper aims to study domestic politics because of their integral role in the shift of Iranian policy in 2013. While there are many existing papers that study the effectiveness of sanctions, specifically in Iran, not many study their interaction with domestic politics in the country. Similarly, there are several existing theories on domestic sources of compliance with International law, though none of them provide a specific framework for thinking about nuclear non-proliferation treaties. Some researchers, such as Kimberly Gilligan have attempted to apply other domestic compliance theories, specifically human rights treaties, to nuclear non-proliferation. Alternatively, Xinyuan Dai’s paper attempts to develop a comprehensive theory on international institutions affect on domestic mechanisms of compliance. Her work touches on both localized violations such as environmental damage, and treaties concerned with interstate relations such as the Helsinki accords. The breadth of her study suggests broad applicability, which I seek to test against the case of Iran.
In her paper, Dai attempts to “specify the principal agency relationship between domestic constituencies and policymakers” in order to determine “what would a policymaker lose if he/she does not comply with an international agreement” (Dai 60). Her thesis is that a government’s choice of compliance level is determined by the electoral leverage and monitoring ability of domestic constituencies. International institutions facilitate national compliance by increasing the electoral leverage and improving the monitoring ability of pro-compliance constituencies (Dai 61). Dai attempts to formalize and prove this using specific empirical models. These models are useful in analyzing the types of cases she describes, however, they are not necessary to understanding the crux of her argument. There are two main characteristics of the Dai’s argument that are important in the analysis of Iran. The first is how the argument plays out in Democracies and non Democracies, the second is the important role of information in Dai’s model.
Iran has a unique form of government that is a combination between a theocratic authoritarian system and a parliamentary democracy. The country has an elected president and parliament which have a role in determining the country’s laws and policies. However, the country leans heavily towards authoritarianism because of the role of the “Supreme Leader”, the countries effective ruler, and his clerical representatives. The clergy heavily limits the options of the parliament and presidency, and ultimately has the final say in all decisions (Fisher 2017).
The quasi-authoritarian nature of Iran makes for a unique relationship between the government and its constituency. However, being an authoritarian state is not a requirement for having domestic mechanisms of pressure and compliance as pointed out by Dai;
In democracies, domestic constituencies can exercise their leverage over political leaders through regular repeated elections. Public support, thus, is crucial for political leaders to stay in power. In authoritarian states, the mechanisms that domestic constituencies can exercise their leverage are less institutionalized. Nevertheless, the support and confidence from constituencies are often important to the solidarity of the leadership. Generally speaking, the basic logic of the agency relationship is the same in different political systems. That is. national leaders maximize political support from relevant constituents, whether in the form of guns, dollars, or votes (Dai 66)
In Iran, specifically, the parliamentary system provides a mechanism for the authoritarian leadership to gage public sentiments and respond accordingly. This is evidenced in the election of moderate presidential candidate Hassan Rouhani as described in the New York Times; “To some, Mr. Rouhani’s election in 2013 was the system at its most democratic. He appeared to enjoy widespread popular support and has brought significant changes, like a diplomatic agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. Though hard-liners opposed these changes, and Mr. Khamenei also expressed skepticism (as well as appearing to favor another candidate in the race), they bent to public will” (Fisher 2017). Rouhani was elected after years of having tough economic conditions due to sanctions and mismanagement under hard-line president Ahmadinejad. From this we see that although the country is authoritarian, it is able to respond to public concerns as Dai predicts.
In order to understand the specific case of nuclear-non proliferation in Iran, it is important to look at Iran’s history with the issue. Bahman Baktiari explains a concept called “Nuclear Nationalism” in his paper “Seeking International Legitimacy: Understanding the Dynamics of Nuclear Nationalism in Iran”. Baktiari speaks of Iranian nationalism generally as such;
Iranian leaders have long been preoccupied with how to sustain a perception of Iran as a country with 2,500 years of recorded history and a civilization that deserves recognition and respect. Most Iranians perceive their nation as a great civilization that has been deprived of its rightful status as a regional superpower by foreign intervention (23)
He then draws the connection to the Iranian Nuclear program, saying that
in the context of Iran’s post revolutionary experiences of chaos, war, sanctions, and estrangement from the international community, we can understand the impact of initiatives that greatly enhance national prestige and solidarity. The nuclear dispute creates a shared sense of embattlement in a hostile environment, allowing the postrevolutionary state-builders to portray themselves as the true guardians of Iranian dignity and independence, with the internal added benefit of promoting scientific growth and discovery (26).
In an article by Farideh Farhi titled “Atomic Energy Is Our Assured Right”, the author explains how “The domestic audience learned about Iran’s civilian nuclear program from journalists, parliamentary deputies, political pundits, and commentators as well as from those trying to sell it as a ‘national project’” (6). She then says that “Given the roots of the Iranian revolution, its celebrated mottos of independence and liberty, and years of war and isolation, the Iranian public proved receptive to the ideas of self-sufficiency and moving away from reliance on oil and gas as the sole sources of energy” (6). This means that the Nuclear issue is one that the Iranian population is generally supportive of, at least when it comes to Nuclear energy. However, on the opinion of Nuclear weapons, the population is more split. Baktiari states in his article “that 41 percent of Iranians interviewed strongly support the development of nuclear weapons” (26). Among these, many would be willing to risk sanctions or war. However, another large portion of the populace is wary of war and “concerned about the direction in which the country is headed, also express uncertainty about the nuclear project” (27). The conclusion is that there is general support for Nuclear energy, and Nuclear weapons in theory, but that there is a clear limit to what the Iranian populace is willing to endure for the sake of them.
Public opinion on the issue of nuclear policy is obviously important when considering how domestic pressure can influence compliance. Under normal circumstances, there would be no reason for the Iranian public to pressure the government to curb its nuclear program. However, there was public pressure in the past ten years that prompted the government to negotiate on their nuclear program. Dai argues in her paper that public pressure arises not as a response to policy, but as a result of the direct experiences of the public. She states that
constituents usually do not directly observe a government’s compliance efforts. Rather they observe only their own welfare, which depends jointly on the governmental action and a variety of exogenous probabilistic factors. Thus, constituents usually base their support on their welfare that they directly experience instead of on the governmental action (Dai 68)
In the case of Iran, this matter is complicated because the welfare of the constituency is not impacted directly by the nuclear policy of the government. Rather it is impacted indirectly through the economic ramifications of sanctions imposed by international actors as a response to non-compliance. This is important because in Dai’s model, a lot of importance is given to the role of information in activism and compliance. She claims that increasing access to information empowers citizens to act and gives them legitimacy, and she shows that this is effective in increasing government compliance. This brings into question the role of information in the case of Iran and compliance with non-proliferation treaties. Due to the indirect effect of non-compliance on Iran’s populace, I conclude that information in the case of Iran is important in two ways. The first of which is in the international community’s access to information about compliance, and their resulting ability to impose consequences. The second is in the Iranian populace’s access to information about compliance, and their ability to link non-compliance with the economic ramifications that follow. Only with both of these streams of information in place can public pressure be applied effectively. This can be seen in the timeline of non-compliance of Iran with the NPT in the early 2000s. Iran declared nuclear ambitions domestically for years, however, the domestic populace did not care because they saw no consequences to the program. The International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) eventually investigated, and determined non-compliance (NTI 2018). The international community was then empowered to act by imposing sanctions. After several years, the population responded by pushing for a regime shift.
The process described above was drawn out over many years and was far from the type of more immediate activism that Dai describes in her paper. Two questions then arise. The first is about the structure of information and discourse under the current regime. The second is whether this type of public monitoring could have occurred more effectively and directly under the JCPOA. To address the first question, effective action by the public requires passage of information in the public sphere. This is far from a given under an authoritarian regime such as Iran’s where media and elections are controlled by the state, especially when the agenda is contrary to the regime’s ideology. Nonetheless, Rouhani was allowed to field a moderate stance publically, even criticizing the theocratic regime;
Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, has used a presidential TV debate to accuse the country’s powerful revolutionary guards of attempting to sabotage its nuclear agreement with the west by testing ballistic missiles with provocative anti-Israeli messages written on them (Dehghan 2017).
In his paper, “Why Revolutionary States Yield”, Maximilian Terhalle explains that this is all within the regimes control.
The fact that this could happen on television and that the subsequent debate about the issue could occur at all revealed not only the ‘establishment’s awareness of the regime’s increasing vulnerability’; more importantly, it ‘could only be understood as an intervention – one initiated by the regime’s most stalwart supporters and intended to rescue the system’. Therefore, precisely because the hardliners had felt the pressure that had been imposed on them, they let Rouhani win the election in June (603)
In the rest of the paper, Terhalle explains how the ultimate survival of the regime is a political priority and is ideologically justified by the theocratic regime. It can be posited that the parliamentary system serves not as a check against the clergy, but rather as a buffer, that allows the regime flexibility in the face of popular discontent. This has big implications for the nature of domestic pressure on a government’s policy in general, and more specifically on compliance with international law. It suggests that while domestic pressure can cause a regime to comply in the short term, it can not cause an ideological shift in governance, barring actual regime change. This leads to vulnerability of the treaty and policy in the long term.
Dai’s model for international institutions’ effect on domestic actors does not take several factors into account and thus is imperfect in describing the case of the Iran deal. It assumes that international treaties bear tangible benefits for domestic constituencies that can be empowered to act in favour of the treaty. However, It fails to take into account ideological preferences, such as “Nuclear Nationalism” carried by constituents that are in contrast to the aims of compliance. Thus it doesn’t take into account cases where domestic constituents can only be forced into acting because of external forces, and doesn’t provide a model where these constituents are affected only indirectly. Additionally, it accounts for democratic and autocratic systems, which partially describes Iran’s system, however, it doesn’t provide a model for a hybrid system such as Iran’s which combines elements of an authoritarian and democratic state, whose prevailing regime does not have to answer to the populace directly. Understanding Iran’s history of compliance with the Treaty of Nuclear Non-Proliferation can give several predictions about the future of Iran’s compliance with nuclear treaties, specifically the JCPOA. It proves that Iran’s regime is responsive to it’s populace, and in the case of vulnerability will act to comply in ways that might be opposed to its ideology. However, it also shows that the regime is self-preserving, and acts to hold onto political and ideological control. While the fate of the JCPOA is uncertain in the hands of the international community, on the Iranian side several things can be predicted. That in the case of high visibility, and continued economic vulnerability, Iran will likely continue to comply with the terms of the deal. However, because of the lack of substantial ideological shift in the regime or the opinion of the populace, critics of the longevity of the deal have reason to fear eventual non-compliance if the regime no longer feels politically vulnerable.
Related Resources and Links
Dai, X. (2000). Compliance without carrots or sticks: How international institutions influence national policies. In D. Snidal, J. Fearon, & C. Lipon (Eds.): ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Dehghan, S. K. (2017, May 5). Revolutionary guards tried to sabotage Iran’s nuclear deal, says president. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/05/iran-president-hassan-rouhani-nuclear-agreement-sabotaged.
Fisher, Max. “How Iran Became an Undemocratic Democracy.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 May 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/05/17/world/middleeast/iran-presidential-election-democracy.html.
“Iran.” Nuclear Threat Initiative – Ten Years of Building a Safer World, May 2018, www.nti.org/learn/countries/iran/nuclear/.
Maximilian, T. (2015). Why revolutionary states yield: International sanctions, regime survival and the security dilemma. The case of the Islamic Republic of Iran. International Politics, 52(5), 594. doi:10.1057/ip.2015.31
Nuclear politics in Iran. (2010). Washington, D.C: National Defense University Press.