What factors fould motivate Iran to acquire nuclear weapons?
Iran's Security Concerns
There are some generally accepted explanations as to why states acquire nuclear weapons capabilities. It generally comes down to two perceptions on the part of the states' leaders and decision-makers: (i) an acute sense of insecurity and vulnerability, and (ii) a strong desire to secure the freedom to project power unhindered. Though these twin objectives are linked in the majority of cases, to date, it has been the former which has swayed most decision-makers. In the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, particularly, insecurity has been the real driver for those parties which have acquired a nuclear-weapons cababilities, including India, Israel and Pakistan. At various points in their histories, the leaders of these countries became convinced that the possession of nuclear weapons would deter attacks on them, even attacks with conventional forces. Of course, this belief did not always prove correct, as demonstrated by the Egyptian/Syrian attack on Israel in 1973; still, this perception of insecurity has been the determining factor in these nations' decisions to acquire nuclear capabilities.
Analysts have justified Iran's pursuit of nuclear capability on the basis of the security dilemmas facing Tehran and, indeed, other regional actors. The ruling Iranian establishment is said to be vulnerable to the United States' repeated calls for "regime change" in Iran. The U.S did change the Iranian regime through a covert operation once - in 1953 - and the period between 2002 and 2008 is replete with direct and indirect threats by the Bush administration to repeat history, or to conduct military strikes against Iranian nuclear and military facilities. Of course, it should also be acknowledged that the bellicose language from the U.S. is sometimes a response to provocations from Tehran. Iran has provoked the U.S. on more than one occasion, beginning with the seizure in 1979 of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, to the Hizbullah bombings of the U.S. Marines barracks and embassy in Beirut in 1982, the bombing of the U.S. Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, and current activities in Iraq. So, what ought to be acknowledged is that there is a long and tangled history of perceived injustices, provocations and resulting hostility on both sides.
Without strategic allies and an effective conventional military machine, Iran might feel a need to be able to deter this persistent enemy, as well as other threats, by every means possible. For Ray Takeyh, the primary motivation for Iran's nuclear drive is to be found in its desire "to negate the American and Iraqi threats."1 Israel and its nuclear weapons capability, according to him, are not seen by Iran to be a sufficient factor to justify the program or to constitute an existential threat to Tehran.
For most analysts, Iran faces a real security dilemma in its tense relations with the U.S. which, at the very least, provides additional incentives for Iran's nuclear drive. Kasra Naji notes that President George W. Bush's 2002 "axis of evil" comment during his State of the Union address led to an acceleration of Iran's nuclear drive.2
Iran's bitter experience in the war with Iraq (1980-88) is another factor driving its nuclear program. The country suffered very high casualties during this conflict and was the victim of attacks with lethal chemical weapons.
Many Iranians believe that if they had nuclear weapons then, Iraq would not have dared used chemical weapons against them, or that they could have retaliated effectively.
The Iran-Iraq war experience is one side of the strategic coin that defines Iran's perception of its need for nuclear capability, the other being its single-minded effort to be independent and self-sufficient in as many realms as possible.
The strong U.S. military presence on Iran's doorstep is clearly a concern. The U.S. navy is a resident navy in the Persian Gulf and is also its largest and most powerful. Unlike any other naval force in the region, it has extensive support and logistical facilities in several Arab Gulf states - in Qatar, Bahrain (since the Second World War), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman. The U.S. has substantial military assets and a strong military presence in Kuwait as well - if for no other reason than to support its forces in Iraq - in addition to a major air base in Qatar.
As far as Tehran is concerned, the U.S. military is also omnipresent on land, close to Iran's borders. There are over 150,000 well-armed and well-supported U.S. military forces in place in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. has also established a minor military foothold in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Add to these the close partnership between the U.S. and Pakistan and the picture is complete as far as Tehran's perception of encirclement is concerned. Further still are the strategic partnerships Israel, the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East is developing, including its relations with Turkey (a NATO member) and India. All three countries are of great importance to Iran's strategic planners and Israel's links with them is a worrying development as far as Tehran is concerned.
Furthermore, Iran's awareness of Israel's nuclear capability implies that should a confrontation with Israel be expected in the medium term, it would make sense, from Tehran's perspective, to have a nuclear deterrent in place to counter Israel's considerable military advantage. Israel's possession of nuclear weapons has for decades played a large role in Iran's motivations, especially given the fact that Israel was also able in 1981 to destroy Iraq's nuclear reactor without retaliation from Baghdad. Iran wants to be able to deter nuclear threats by Israel in the event of a new war with Syria or further conflict in Lebanon that would involve Iran. Others fear that, once developed, Tehran could use its nuclear capability for coercive ends vis-à-vis Israel in the context of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Indeed, at the height of the Gaza conflict in January 2009, Iran acknowledged that it could not mobilize in support of Hamas and that its hands were tied "in this arena," according to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.3
For Tehran, the utility of a nuclear capability would be its deployment in circumstances in which the country was directly threatened or in which its wider strategic interests were indirectly threatened. The possible scenarios in which Iran might see utility for its nuclear weapons could be: (i) conflicts between Israel and Iran's allies, Syria or Hizbullah/Lebanon, in which Israel might be tempted to make nuclear threats; (ii) situations in which France might act on its threat to utilize its nuclear force against any state that made weapons of mass destruction available to terrorist organizations thereby threatening France's national security interests; or (iii) serious conflicts between Iran and the Arab Gulf states in which Iran's nuclear weapons might be used to deter U.S. intervention.
Iran's Regional Ambitions
Iran is said to have regional ambitions and, from a predominant Arab perspective, it is also seen to be entertaining unreasonable claims to the region's political-security agendas hitherto regarded as Arab concerns. Claims that Iran entertains ambitions to dominate the region originate from two sources. The first is Iran's own bellicose statements and pronouncements which leave observers with little doubt that many Iranian leaders regard the present epoch to be their historic opportunity. Iran's so-called "neocons," the rightist factions that have supported Ahmadinejad's neo-populist and neo-revolutionary policies, backed by the spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei, are convinced that Iran should be bold and determined enough to fulfill its historic mission to lead the region and the wider set of Muslim countries towards a just world.4 Some amongst the elite interpret this as a messianic role, while for others it is just a matter of policy.
In addition, the perception of Iranian domination is also being fed by strategic developments in the region since 2001. Iran stood to gain from the regime changes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, between late 2001 and late 2004, Iran had to do very little to benefit from sea-changes in its neighborhood.
There is real concern amongst Iran's close neighbors and, of course, in Israel that Iran's ambitions run counter to their interests. Though Arab public opinion has generally been supportive of Iran's efforts to "stand up to the U.S. and Israel," the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have been willing since 2005 to comment publicly about the dangers of Iran's nuclear program - seeing the program very much in terms of a geopolitical balance of power.5 Fears of Iran's actions persist despite repeated high-level contacts between Tehran and GCC capitals since 2005.
To be able to preserve its own position and to be taken seriously as a big player by these powers, even an ambiguous nuclear posture can be beneficial as far as Tehran is concerned. This is a trick that Iran clearly learned from North Korea when the latter was developing its nuclear program in the 1990s, and from the regional states' reactions to North Korea's nuclear diplomacy. There is much to be gained from pursuing nuclear capabilities, if the consequences can be controlled and do not lead to military confrontation, as happened in the case of Iraq in 2003. Let us not forget that it was Baghdad's deliberately ambiguous posture in the 1990s and early 2000s - ironically intended to deter Iran - which U.S. leaders used to justify military action.
It may be premature to see Iran's nuclear program as leading to a "grand bargain" with the U.S.; nevertheless, it is possible to see the nuclear program's depth and diversity as providing Iran with a wide range of negotiable pawns in any deal with the international community. Unlike Libya and more like North Korea, the more complex the program the greater the opportunities for negotiations.
The danger is that such implicit and ambiguous threats can also lend support to those who advocate preventive military action against Iran: "Because the ultimate goal of prevention is to influence Tehran to change course, effective strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure may play an important role in affecting Iran's decision calculus," according to advocates of military action, Clawson and Eisenstadt.6 The depth and complexity of Iran's program, according to these analysts, implies Iran's retention of a "breakout option" that must be stopped even by force.
Iran's Proliferation Concerns
Iranian leaders have spoken about the dangers of proliferation in the Middle East; they have even welcomed the news that Libya had surrendered its clandestine nuclear program to the IAEA. The long shadow cast by Iraq's use of chemical weapons and ballistic missiles against civilian and military targets in the 1980s remains vivid in the Iranian mindset and Iranian leaders rarely miss an opportunity to remind visiting guests that their country remains one of the few victims of deadly non-conventional weapons attacks since the First World War. That experience, it is reiterated, had made Iran a strong advocate of disarmament. Proliferation, according to this logic, is bad for Iran and for its future. Yet, Tehran was one of the first to congratulate Pakistan on its nuclear achievement when it announced its nuclear weapons status in the second half of the 1990s. Also, under Ahmadinejad's presidency, Iran has been offering a range of Muslim countries - Kuwait, Sudan, Syria and Turkey, to name but a few - as well as other nations of compatible political persuasion, the gift of its nuclear know-how and technologies, apparently by-passing the IAEA's strict guidelines about nuclear states' obligations toward non-proliferation. In short, Iran's record with regard to counter-proliferation is inconsistent.
But the main direction of Iran's proliferation concerns has invariably veered toward Israel, which it, and virtually every other regional state, see as the only nuclear weapon state, and, therefore, chief proliferator in the Middle East. It is largely for this reason that Iran has embraced the Arabs' concept of a nuclear-weapons-free zone Middle East. But given the largely rhetorical orientation of this position, it is unlikely to cause Iran to develop a well-thought out policy for the prevention of the proliferation of non-conventional weapons in the Middle East.
Moving to Zero
If one assumes, as do Anthony Cordesman and Khalid Al-Rodhan that, were Iran "to acquire nuclear weapons…it will use them largely as a passive deterrent and means of defense," then we must also make the working assumption that there is not a military solution to the current situation. Rather, Iran's position should encourage the opportunity for a negotiated settlement of the nuclear dispute. But, if we accept the contrary argument that Iran will deploy its nuclear weapons arsenal, "to put direct or indirect pressure on its neighbors, threatening them to achieve goals it could not achieve without the explicit or tacit threat of weapons of mass destruction," then clearly getting to a negotiated settlement will require the exercise of some tough choices.7
Today there is a new atmosphere in Washington, as reflected by the initiatives of former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senator Sam Nunn, and also by the fact that both presidential candidates, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, made speeches devoted to nuclear problems in which they expressed support for the goal of disarmament and outlined specific measures toward that end. With Obama now in the White House, there is hope and expectation that his administration will commit seriously to fulfilling this campaign pledge.
China, India and Pakistan are modernizing their nuclear forces more rapidly than the others, but their programs seem to have a more focused regional dimension to them. All three nations continue to express rhetorical support for disarmament, but maintain that given the much larger size of their nuclear arsenals, it is up to the U.S. and Russia to take the first steps. Moving to zero requires flexibility from Iran and also an offer that Tehran simply could not refuse. Some progress on the latter has certainly already been made, but we need to make a final assessment of Iran's endgame. Is it to acquire a nuclearweapons capability, and is this for deterrence or for power projection?
Gawdat Bahgat notes that "it is apparent that convincing Iran to give up its nuclear program would require prolonged and complicated negotiations. The crux of these negotiations is to persuade Iran's policy makers that the risks of pursuing a nuclear program exceed the rewards." 8 Before this stage can be reached, however, governments must understand Iran's maximalist position regarding its nuclear rights under the NPT and weigh it against the possibility of offering credible security guarantees as part of a set of incentives to Iran to give up its nuclear program. On the first issue, Iran will need to be persuaded that being asked to end (or curtail) its fuel-processing capabilities may be asking it to compromise its NPT rights, but, at the same time, the IAEA can demonstrate that this proposal is not politically driven. The issue, as Wade Huntley has usefully shown, is the fact that as many as 40 countries may now possess the industrial and scientific infrastructure for nuclear weapons manufacture: "This concern has generated new proposals to restrict fuel-cycle capabilities of non-nuclear countries more widely."9 By all estimates, Iran is one such country and its offer of sharing this knowhow with others - though probably made with the best of intensions - is actually to encourage unregulated proliferation.
The trick is preventing a global initiative to restrict fuel-cycle capabilities internationally from becoming hostage to those groups in Iran who might successfully foment pro-nuclear nationalism through their manipulation of Iran's complex political identity. The answer to this dilemma lies in the mix and nature of the rewards being offered and the price that non-compliance would otherwise cost. First, a serious initiative by the nuclear weapon states to negotiate a disarmament treaty that includes global agreement that fuel cycles must all come under multinational control needs to be put in place. Second, while these negotiations are proceeding, near-term resolution of the current crisis must be considered on the basis of the November 2004 Paris Agreement, with the amendment that the 5+1 (five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany) agree to make available aid and wider support at the same time as Iran is ceasing enrichment activities. The problem, so far, has been that Iran has been asked to end enrichment before the incentives would kick in.
A general regional proliferation, following Iran's apparent intransigence, is not in Iran's security interests and the strategic fallout from Iran's efforts in this field could be strongly demonstrated to Iran by the IAEA, particularly if it is true that "Tehran might fear the prospects of American and Israeli nuclear retaliation less than Western strategists would hope."10 In other words, once the threat of the use of force had receded, then the door would have been opened for deeper discussions about the security consequences for Iran and other regional states of proliferation of nuclear know-how, and the falling into wrong hands of a "dirty bomb" or the equivalent that could directly damage Iran's own security.
In this broader context, revisiting of the November 2004 Paris agreement between the EU3 and Tehran may provide some useful insights regarding the appropriate next steps.11 It notes that:
The EU3 and Iran have agreed to begin negotiations, with a view to reaching a mutually acceptable agreement on long-term arrangements. The agreement will provide objective guarantees that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes, it will equally provide firm guarantees on nuclear, technological and economic cooperation and firm commitments on security issues…A steering committee will set up working groups on political and security issues, technology and cooperation, and nuclear issues."12
As part of the agreement, the EU3 committed the Union to "actively support the opening of Iranian accession negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO)" and the parties confirmed their determination to combat terrorism.
Glimmers of hope still exist and one can find silver linings not only in the new U.S. administration's expressions of commitment to find a negotiated solution to the crisis, but also in Iran's nuanced responses to international pressures and offers of negotiations. It is also worth noting that in a poll of 35,000 Iranians in June 2008, 50% of the respondents said that Iran should accept the 5+1 package with some modifications and a further 21% said that Iran should accept the package in its entirety. Thus, the vast majority, over 72% of those polled, want a negotiated compromise on the basis of the package of incentives. Only 24% of the Iranians polled said the package should be rejected.13
Readers must also be conscious of the fact that alongside any package of rewards, the Western nations should pursue strategies that will "relieve Iran's regional tensions and avoid provoking nationalistic reactions [which] could not only deflate Iranians' perceived strategic need for nuclear weapons but also help promote more moderate domestic forces less dependent on threat-based nationalism for support."14 The international community still finds it very difficult to strike the right balance between these imperatives.
The essence of Iran's security doctrine needs to be taken into account. For the Islamic Republic, defense (and therefore deterrence) has been a policy imperative. So long as this is the case, the West's conventional and non-conventional capabilities will be regarded as potentially threatening. Tehran regards U.S. conventional forces as more dangerous in practical terms than its nuclear arsenal, for example. Changing the Iranian mindset so that the West is no longer seen as an existential enemy will take time and much effort on both sides. A glimpse of what is possible was found in the Paris Agreement and its successors; but at the same time we have also seen how easily matters can spin out of control and even nosedive. For the moment, the best that we can hope for is for the dogs of war to be kept at bay until the new administrations in Tehran and Washington have been able to take stock and decide to show the courage that would enable them to retrace their steps back from the edge. Once this happens, anything is then possible!
This article is excerpted from a longer paper, "Nuclear Security Series: Unblocking the Road to Zero," prepared for the Henry L. Stimson Center, a thinktank in Washington, DC, which focuses on pragmatic steps for global security.
1. Ray Takeyh, "Iran Builds the Bomb," Survival, Vol. 46, no. 4 (Winter 2004-05), p.53.
2. Kasra Naji, Ahmadinejad: The Secret History of Iran's Radical Leader (London: IB Tauris, 2008). 3. Michael Slackman, "Iran Tones Down Its Support for Hamas," International Herald Tribune, January 13, 2009.
4. Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Mahjoob Zweiri, Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives: The Politics of Tehran's Silent Revolution (London: IB Tauris, 2007).
5. Emile El-Hokayem and Matteo Legrenzi, The Arab States in the Shadow of the Iranian Nuclear Challenge (Washington, DC: Henry L. Stimson Center, May 2006).
6. Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt, The Last Resort: Consequences of Preventive Military Action Against Iran (Washington DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2008), p. 7.
7. Both quotations are from Anthony H. Cordesman and Khalid R. Al-Rodhan, Iranian Nuclear Weapons?: Options for Sanctions and Military Strikes (Washington DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, August 2006), p. 3.
8. Gawdat Bahgat, Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East (Tampa, FL: University Press of Florida, 2007), p. 41.
9. Wade L. Huntley, "Rebels without a Cause: North Korea and Iran and the NPT," International Affairs, Vol. 82, no. 4 (July 2006), p. 733.
10. Richard L. Russell, Weapons Proliferation and War in the Greater Middle East: Strategic Contest (London: Routledge, 2005), p 87.
11.Yaphe and Lutes note that the non-nuclear benefits of this offer were indeed substantial. See Judith S. Yaphe and Charles D. Lutes, Reassessing the Implications of a Nuclear-Armed Iran (Washington, DC: National Defense University, 2005).
12. Signed in Paris on November 15, 2004.
13. The poll was conducted by Tabnak organization news site, www.tabnak.ir.