Iran Sees Nuclear Program as Last Line of Defense Against West, Expert Says

In interview with Haaretz, Mehdi Khalaji, senior Iranian scholar and son of Shi'ite Ayatollah, says sanctions, dialogue will not thwart Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

There isn't any real chance of thwarting Iran's nuclear program through escalated sanctions or negotiated compromise, an Iranian expert told Haaretz, days after the International Atomic Energy Agency published a report indicating that Tehran was seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the Iranian regime considered its nuclear program as the utmost tool to preserve its survival, meaning that pressure by the West could not sway Tehran away from further advances.

Iranian uranium conversion facility - AP - 10112011

Khalaji is considered one of Iran's premier scholars, also because of his own personal background. He was born and raised in the city of Qom, Iran's largest center for Shi'ite Muslim scholarship.

He studied theology and Shi'ite legislation for 14 years in one of the largest religious seminaries in Qom, a city which still serves as the home for Khalaji's father, a chief Shi'ite clergyman, or Ayatollah.

In 2000, Khalaji left Iran for France, later moving to the United States.

Speaking with Haaretz, the chief researcher said that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei believes that the West is trying to depose Tehran's Islamic regime, going as far as considering U.S. President Barack Obama's offer for compromise to be a scam.

However, he added, Iran's leadership was equally distrustful of other nations for working to undermine their regime, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan, and even China and Russia.

He said Iran was very isolated, leading its rulers to believe that a nuclear program was the only way to forestall a future attack. That mistrust, Khalaji said, is not due to go away any time soon, which spells doom to any attempt for compromise.

When asked if Iran would use a nuclear weapon against Israel once it develops one, Khalaji said he didn't feel anyone in Iran is thinking of using a nuclear bomb, and that the regime's only goal was to achieve regional supremacy.

Moreover, the Iranian researcher said that the use of nuclear weapons would be a suicidal move by the Islamic Republic.

Referring to a possible Israeli strike, Khalaji said the Iranian regime did not consider that to be a viable option, adding that Tehran knows that the potential price of such a move deters anyone who would be involved from undertaking it.

He added that the fact that the subject was so extensively discussed in the media indicated that neither Israel nor any one of its potential partners were actually considering such a move.

When asked of Iran's reaction to a possible strike, Khalaji estimated that a strike would unite Iran's citizens around the regime, but adding that the direct consequences of a military strike were hard to predict.

The Iranian researcher also discounted the notion that Iran would initiate a preemptive strike, saying that the country's military doctrine stipulated that Tehran would try to avoid armed conflict on Iranian soil, choosing to wage its wars against the West elsewhere: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories.

Iran's regime is threatened by both war and peace, Khalaji said, saying that was the reason Khamenei sought to preserve a tension that was neither peace nor war.

Khalaji also said he felt recent tensions between Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would have no effect on Iran's nuclear path, since Khamenei had complete control over the country's nuclear program.

However, he added, there were those in Iran's political elite who felt the country did not need to develop nuclear weapons.

When asked who he thought would inherit Khamenei as Supreme Leader, Khalaji said that while Khamenei ruled Iran using the country's Revolutionary Guard, he thought that situation would reverse after his reign, believing that Revolutionary Guard officials would choose a weak spiritual leaders while they effectively run the country.

Khalaji also referred to the disappearance of Iran's political opposition, since the great rallies of 2009, saying that anti-government sentiment was in fact on the rise.

However, he added, dissenters had no real structure or framework, saying that it would take a while before a real opposition comes into being.

The Iranian scholar said, however, that Khamenei had turned Iran into a "classic dictatorship," a regime that the Iranian people have already shown to be able to depose.