Why we should want Iranian candidates to push for uranium enrichment

The pessimistic consensus on the upcoming Iranian elections — no, not that Ahmadinejad is a shoe-in, as Joe Klein rightly stresses — seems to be that all four of the pre-approved candidates are committed to continuing uranium enrichment activities. This is not as bad as it may sound though. In fact, in my reading, it may actually be a good thing.

For one, Iran’s uranium enrichment is already ongoing. They’ve acquired the technology, the centrifuges are spinning, and, as Graham Allison rather crudely puts it, Iran has “lost its nuclear virginity.” Allison’s point is that long-standing U.S. policy of preventing uranium enrichment makes no sense; they’ve crossed that line, and the question now is how to convince the (possibly new) Iranian leader not to move from enrichment to the creation of a nuclear weapon.

The fact that the four candidates to become (or remain) that leader all endorse Iran’s capacity — and right — to enrich uranium makes no difference on that score, then. But here’s where it could prove a boon to unseating Ahmadinejad.

Iran’s fanatical current president owed much of his earlier appeal to his hardliner’s embrace of Iranian nationalism. A chief component of that, as his tenure began, was touting Iran’s nuclear progress and the right of this great nation — particularly when viewed in opposition to that hypocritical nuclear bully, the United States — to enrich uranium, allegedly for “peaceful” energy needs. The Iranian public largely embraced this populist appeal, though it seems much less weighty now that Ahmadinejad’s gross mismanagement has caused the country’s economy to plummet.

That the other three candidates have made uranium enrichment — again at least ostensibly for peaceful means — a part of their platforms thus might be able to dilute the support that Ahmadinejad generated out of this dynamic the last time around. It is no guarantee — nothing in Iranian politics is — but it’s quite possible that at least the two “reformist” frontrunners, Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, would be much more amenable to turning the popular support for enrichment into a program that actually is peaceful, instead of a political ploy to fuel antagonism with the rest of the world — something young Iranians are rapidly tiring of.

(image from flickr user Shahram Sharif under a Creative Commons license)