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Reading IAEA in Tehran

The Iranian regime is proud of its nuclear ­program.

Nov 21, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 10 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Reading the Iranian press last week after the International Atomic Energy Agency released its report on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program elicited a sense of déjà vu: It could have been the year 2002, when the Iranian opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq (Holy Warriors for the Masses) revealed to the world the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. Back then, the clerical regime did not try to censor coverage of the Mujahedin’s discovery in the domestic press. Last week, the Iranian press similarly regurgitated in detail Western reporting on the IAEA’s revelations about nuclear weaponization. 

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The regime can, and usually does, set stringent guidelines on what the media can report. In 2001, when Mohammad Khatami’s reformist government still influenced what could be printed, a sensitive censorship guide for book publishers got released as a book and became a minor bestseller. Its title gives a good idea of how the clerical regime likes to control what Iranians read: Censorship: A review of 1,400 documents from the Office of Book Censorship. This guide brilliantly reveals the regime’s eccentricities. When it comes to internal politics, sex, and the machinations of foreigners, the Iranian censors have demanding standards. So when the ruling mullahs and their praetorians, the Revolutionary Guards, decide to give the Iranian people full access to a Western discussion through officially approved media outlets, they do so for a reason. 

In 2002 the regime allowed the Natanz revelations to be fully aired because doing so made the government, in particular Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, look good. Average Iranians, let alone the civilian elite, thought then, as they think now, that the Islamic Republic is far from a first-world country. In a land where quality control is almost nonexistent, where people who have any money always buy foreign-made goods, people expect little from their government. For a regime that had collapsed the country’s living standards in just a few years to be capable, nevertheless, of building a gleaming, stainless-steel facility that could enrich uranium verged on the miraculous. 

Before the 2009 presidential election made foreign journalists more aware that many Iranians do not love their government and can, quite easily, separate their deep patriotism from the aspirations of the ruling elite, the Western media​—​especially the BBC​—​loved to conflate Iranians’ pride in technical nuclear achievement with a popular endorsement of the government’s nuclear policy, if not the government itself. 

Although Tehran had tried to conceal its nuclear ambitions (violating in so doing the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a party), it reversed gears after the Mujahedin-e Khalq’s revelations. The regime adopted a new openness​—​IAEA inspectors were allowed to visit regularly and install cameras at Natanz​—​undoubtedly in part out of fear of George W. Bush, who’d taken down the Taliban and was preparing to invade Iraq. But Khamenei and the ruling elite also liked the attention. 

Above all else, the supreme leader sees himself as the protector of the Islamic revolution. He is the Muslim paladin turning back the Westernization of his homeland and defying the West’s great power, the United States. Uranium enrichment was and is an expression of Khamenei’s and the Islamic Republic’s religious virility. 

 It is impossible not to see the same emotions at play in the -Iranian media’s extensive coverage of the IAEA’s latest revelations. The regime wants the Iranian -people to know about its progress with nuclear triggers, explosive computer -modeling, and ballistic-missile -warheads. The regime is proud of these achievements. 

Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, conveyed this pride pithily just before the IAEA report was released. Formerly a senior nuclear official and undoubtedly a man familiar with the gap between what Iran says it’s doing and what it’s actually done, Salehi remarked: “Let them publish and see what happens.” Tehran may well think that its public defiance of the IAEA is a crowd pleaser at home, and it probably is with the government’s revolutionary base (perhaps 20 percent of the population). But Khamenei​—​whose personality and preferences increasingly dominate the regime​—​doesn’t play primarily to the people; he plays to himself, to his Manichean division of the world. 

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