The Audience War: The Challenges of Iran's Nuclear Rhetoric

Ever since its inception in 1979, the Iranian regime has deployed opaque yet highly charged rhetoric against enemies and to garner support at home and abroad. That policy is becoming unstuck in the case of the nuclear programme, where fewer people are convinced of the civilian nature of Iran's nuclear ambitions altogether.

By Ariane Tabatabai for 

More than ever before, Western audiences are paying close attention to the Iranian leadership's narrative on its controversial nuclear programme.  Indeed, American and European media outlets now broadcast translated versions of major statements issued in Iran. Recent examples include Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei's address during the weekly Tehran Friday Prayer, for the Thirty-third anniversary of the Islamic Revolution; his speech to Iranian nuclear scientists; and, President Ahmadinejad's announcement of key nuclear achievements.

Several themes feature consistently in Iranian declaratory policy on its nuclear programme, each of them targeting a particular audience: independent technological progress; the existence of an enemy; and, the unacceptability and indeed illegality of nuclear weapons in Islamic law. It is crucial to consider these narratives and audiences in order to reduce the chances for misunderstanding and escalation in the midst of a crisis of confidence over Iranian nuclear developments.  Analysis suggests that the Iranian regime's 'divide-and-conquer' declaratory policy, which has made its nuclear messaging convoluted, is in fact failing to create the Iranian regime's desired response from its targeted constituencies.

Technological progress

One of the cornerstones of Tehran's discourse since the inception of the Islamic system has been the progress narrative. Perhaps the single most important example here of post-revolution national progress lies in the technological advancement of the nuclear programme. Accordingly, the leadership systematically highlights the indigenous nature of the programme and the fact that it has been achieved in spite of the hardship imposed by the 'enemy'.

This emphasis is closely linked to the regime's newfound interest in nationhood and nationalism. Indeed, the regime is aware of the fact that its legitimacy has arguably hit rock bottom since the 2009 elections, which marked a new phase of Iranian nationalism. The Supreme Leader's address during his Friday prayer preceding the Thirty-third anniversary of the Islamic Revolution illustrates this idea:

Had they [the West] not implemented sanctions against us and had they built the Bushehr centrifuge and had they not closed the doors of science on us, today we would not have all this incredible military and scientific progress, we would not reach excellence in enrichment.[1]

Such statements, feeding into the divide-and-conquer strategy, are aimed at the domestic audience, especially a specific faction: regime supporters. Similarly, the 'achievements' announced by Ahmadinejad in February 2012 [2] were aimed primarily at entrenching support from those already in the regime's camp. However, a specific component of the nuclear 'progress' narrative targets other audiences, namely the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM): Iranian advancement of the nuclear programme was achieved 'independently', in accordance with one of the Revolution's slogans, and in the face of internationally imposed sanctions.

Indeed, the Iranian authorities, especially the Ahmadinejad administration, have been trying to expand Iran's influence in NAM countries, in order to prove to Western and non-supportive domestic audiences that Iran is not an isolated state. Iran's growing isolation, lack of international recognition, and its declining influence have been recurring topics of debate in Iran. Ahmadinejad retorted to opposition candidate Mehdi Karoubi's claims that Iran is being increasingly isolated, by stating that the world is not limited to a few European and American states. He further asserted that Iran has friendly relations with several states belonging to the NAM.[3]

Recent surveys show that the Iranian population's support for its nuclear programme is declining[4] in spite the authorities' best effort to sell technological progress as an element of national pride. Similarly, Iran's increasingly weak position in the region and the growing hostility of the Arab world towards the country show that the second target audience is also not adhering to Tehran's argument. Hamas's recent announcement that it would not back Iran in the case of an attack by Israel shows that Tehran's attempts to buy support from fellow Muslims, especially those it has helped, are unsuccessful.[5]

'The enemy'

As already mentioned, the 'enemy' features notably in Iranian declaratory policy on its nuclear programme. The idea of the enemy fixing obstacles in the way of the country's nuclear programme and attempting to stop its technological progress is in fact the most consistent component of the authorities' rhetoric. All of the regime's personalities support this idea, and have consistently done so for the past thirty-three years. Arguably, adherence to this notion has increased in the past decade. The Iranian leadership has convinced itself that existence of a clear adversary is vital to its survival. This narrative is the foremost method used to divide-and-conquer target audiences.

Two trends have contributed to this centralisation. Firstly, the international community has exerted increased pressure on the regime since the disclosure of the sites of Arak and Natanz in 2002, and particularly since the November 2011 IAEA report. Secondly, internal support has been decreasing since Ahmadinejad's first term as head of government.

Thanks to a virtually constant threat of a war with Israel and the US - more prominent in the past year - the Islamic Republic has further exploited the enemy narrative to its advantage. The notion is purposefully vague and encompasses different political entities depending on the situation. The US and Israel are represented as the two constant 'enemies' of the  Islamic Republic, with association occasionally extended to the EU. Even the IAEA has been portrayed as a player for the opposing team - a platform for the 'enemy' to pose obstacles in the way of Iran's progress in the nuclear field.[6] Furthermore, the more regime legitimacy decreases, the more ferociously the enemy narrative is seemingly promulgated.

This discourse targets two main audiences. The first constituency is found on a national level and is composed of supporters and opposition groups. In particular, actions by the latter are condemned through alleged connection with the enemy. In light of the covert operations and assassinations targeting Iranian nuclear scientists, this narrative becomes a vital component, which can be used against domestic opposition groups, linking them to 'the enemy' (Israel and Mujahedin-e-Khalq). The second audience encompasses the Muslim world, and more generally, NAM, whose support is sought to grow and maintain Iran's external influence. This shows the internal audience, as well as the 'enemy' that the regime is not the isolated state it is depicted to be, but a significant actor on the international stage. The Supreme Leader's statement on 22 February 2012 provides a good example of this narrative:

The bullies of the themselves the international community, while the international community is not them, it's the nations of the world and their governments, they talk on behalf of the international community and give orders, talk, deny, in its name.  

Emphasising the hardship the country is going through in order to have its nuclear programme, the regime tries to contrast itself from global 'bullies'. As such, it persistently reminds the world that its achievements are not merely those of the Iranian nation, but also of the NAM, in particular, the Muslim world. Therefore, the Supreme Leader in his Friday prayer address preceded his statement on the nuclear programme by speaking in Arabic to the 'Arab brothers' on current affairs in the Muslim world. He reiterated Iran's commitment to help them.

The concept of the enemy has certainly convinced a faction of the Iranian population, which continues to support the regime, while, on the other hand, a growing number of people do not understand the isolationist actions undertaken by the Islamic Republic vis-à-vis the states that 'matter'. And yet, those states that do matter in the eyes of the Islamic Republic, are seemingly abandoning Tehran. Thus, as previously mentioned, a majority of the NAM states, and in particular its Arab members, including those which have received some form of support from the Islamic Republic, either oppose it or refuse to support it.

Religion as a limiting factor

The Iranian leadership argues that 'nuclear weapons' are prohibited under Islamic law. However, it remains unclear whether it is the production, possession, stockpiling or use of such weapons that is disallowed. An example of this declaration can be found in the speech Ayatollah Khamenei pronounced in front of a group of nuclear scientists:

It is really not in our interest, in addition to the fact that from a theoretical, logical, and religious point of view, we see this as wrong. We consider the use of these weapons as a great sin and their possession a useless and dangerous thing.[7]

Such statements are meant to convince two audiences of the absence of Iranian intent to weaponise. The first is the international community, which is provided with the religious justification as evidence of the country's compliance with international law through its remaining in the framework of Islamic law. Essentially, the leadership tries to convince the international community that its nuclear programme is a peaceful one and in accordance with Iran's obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). In order to do so, it relies on this legal framework as a tool that is complex, barely understood by practicing Muslims, let alone non-Muslim decision makers and international commentators.

The first audience, the non-Muslim members of the international community, have given mixed responses to this argument. The public opinion does not seem convinced that Iran's intent is a merely peaceful one. However, the argument has the merit of having generated debate amongst analysts. Nevertheless, the debate has added to the complexity and confusion surrounding the Iranian case.

The second constituency for the religious argument is again the Muslim world and Iran's neighboring countries, where the regime has attempted to secure support through its narrative, emphasising its Islamic characteristics. Like attempts to deploy other themes towards this audience, NAM states appear generally unreceptive.

The Muslim world's response has been different from the Western one. Indeed, Muslim leaders have generally ignored Iran's claims that nuclear weapons are 'sinful'. This unsurprising fact is due to two factors, one strategic and one religious. First, a strong Iran would not be in the interest of many Muslim states, especially Arab ones. Secondly, having a better understanding of Islamic law, these states have a more cynical approach to these claims. Furthermore, Sunni-majority countries do not view Shiite rulings as accurate under Sharia. The Saudi case is a perfect illustration of both these explanations: as the Kingdom has shown its mistrust of Iran and its willingness to take advantage of the current situation and its rival's increasing weakness by stating that it would 'go' nuclear, should Iran do so.[8] Therefore, Iran's attempt to divide the international community into dar al-Islam (the House of Islam) and the rest of the world is not allowing it to conquer the former.

Let Tehran's Narrative Reveal its Own Contradictions

Iranian declaratory policy is a complex web of intertwined themes, targeting different audiences. The divide-and-conquer strategy that has been a cornerstone of the Islamic Republic's foreign policy has guided the regime's use of interconnected themes in discussing the national nuclear programme. The narratives mentioned previously attempt to divide the constituencies, both domestic and international, between friends and enemies. On an international level, these are divided between the friendly 'brothers', composed of the Muslim world and some NAM members, and the 'enemy', of which Israel and the US are the permanent representatives.

Similarly, the domestic audience has two components: the regime supporters and those either opposing it or evolving outside its context (neither opposing nor supporting). The establishment may have succeeded in dividing some of its audiences, especially the domestic one, but seems to have fallen short of conquering most of them. Ultimately, Iran's current status in the international sphere shows that few nations stand by its side, and if they do, it is because of their interests rather than the Islamic Republic's rhetoric. The domestic situation is equally worrying for the leadership. Unlike what the Ayatollah and Ahmadinejad suggest, the majority of Iranians would likely rather have friendly relations with the West than with Hamas, Hizbullah, and Bolivia. Tehran, like other similar totalitarian states, compensates its policy shortcomings by toughening its rhetoric, which often does not reflect its actual policy. In fact, Iranian declaratory policy seems to have the opposite effect of what is intended. If Washington continues to avoid responding to Tehran's escalatory rhetoric, it will allow the system to erode from within. Letting Tehran talk, while being aware of whom it is talking to, can therefore promote the conditions necessary for a negotiated solution to the international crisis over Tehran's nuclear efforts.

Ariane Tabatabai is a PhD Candidate in the War Studies Department at King's College London, focusing on the strategic implications of the legality of nuclear weapons under Islamic law.


[1] 'The Friday Prayer Address + Translations of Arabic Address'. 03/02/2012

[2] 'Iran announces nuclear programme "achievements"'. The Telegraph. 15 February 2012

[3] Presidential elections' debate between opposition candidate, Mehdi Karoubi and Ahmadi Nejad. 6 June 2009

[4] 'Why Iranian public opinion is turning against the nuclear program'. The Atlantic. 16 March 2012

[5] 'Hamas denies it will attack Israel in any war with Iran'. BBC. 7 March 2012

[6] Ahmadinejad speech in Chahal Mahal o Bakhtiari province. November 2011

[7] 'Statements in the meeting with nuclear scientists'. 22 February 2012

[8] Riyadh will build nuclear weapons if Iran gets them, Saudi prince warns'. The Guardian. 18 March 2012


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