Iran’s Nuclear Programme and the West

In an intensive effort to halt Iran’s nuclear programme, the West led by the United States have been increasing pressure with sanctions and threats of war. None of it has worked yet. Iran is continuing its nuclear programme that the West fears is aimed at building weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which it denies. The European Union (EU) is a strong supporter of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). However, the EU does not question the right of Iran, which ratified the NPT in 1970, to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. As for the NPT member, these rights are conditional on compliance with the obligations of Iran not developing WMD and not contributing to proliferation. This is why all nuclear activities must be under the full control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The discovery in 2003 of nuclear activities undisclosed by the Iranian regime to the IAEA casts serious doubts on the character of Iran’s nuclear programme as does the reluctance of Iran to cooperate proactively with the IAEA. If Iran, working on nuclear energy, is really trying to build WMD – and of course there is no guarantee that at some point it will not – the question to ask is: should Iran be allowed to continue its nuclear programme? Before answering this important question, one needs to look at Iran’s possible intention, why Tehran may want the WMD capability. To do so, it will be helpful to analyse briefly Iran’s position in the region and threats to it.

The immediate regional threats that Iran faced before 2003 were Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Taliban’s Afghanistan. After a costly and indecisive war with Iraq that lasted for eight years (1980 – 1988), Iran was concerned that a resurgent Saddam might still have his eyes on the Khuzestan region of Iran, where key oil fields are located and is home to much of Iran’s ethnic Arab population. Iran was also concerned about the possible resumption of Iraq’s WMD programmes. In Afghanistan, Iran was alarmed by violent and extremist Sunni-Deobandi ‘students’ who viewed Shi’ites as heretics. Although the Taliban were not believed to be as dangerous as Saddam, they were still considered capable of causing serious difficulties. Other than these two states, the Islamic regime in Iran has faced no significant regional military threats. On the ideological front, it is noteworthy that Saudi Arabia seeks to maintain its position as religious leader of the Islamic world but the Saudi Kingdom has no illusions of having the military capability to mount an offensive challenge beyond the Arabian Peninsula. Egypt, on the other hand, has long abandoned Nasser’s call for an united Arab nation under the banner of Arab nationalism which could have been a challenge to Iran’s regional ambitions; thus no Arab state has the size or ability to threaten Iran, regardless of desire. Nor is a coalition of states, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), realistically able to challenge Iran, given the internal problems of distrust amongst key members of this organisation. Although Turkey has both the population and the military capability to mount a threat to Iran but it has not showed any signs or actions of aggressive intent to the Iranian regime or Iranian state since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Nor does Israel harbour offensive ambitions towards Iran. No territorial claims are at issue between Iran and Israel, unlike the frontline Arab states. Furthermore, Israel has no imperial ambitions towards Iran, a fact that Iran’s Islamist leaders well recognise. Of course this is not to deny the degree of enmity between Iran and Israel that presently exists but it can be argued that this enmity cannot be viewed as a product of a Herzian security dilemma, as much as the threat that stems solely from Iran’s offensive pursuit and rhetoric towards Israel. Even Russia which is geographically very close to Iran, whose current relations are based on the coincidence of interests that are transient in nature, does not pose threats to Iran in the near to the mid-term that justify Iranian pursuit of nuclear arms. What is more, analysts favouring nuclear non-proliferation politics argue that the Western cultural invasion (which has always been one of the central propaganda themes since the revolution in 1979) lacks military component, rendering nuclear arms of little value in defending against it.

Further to the points made above regarding regional threats, one reason is that Iran’s pursuit of WMD is useful in building domestic support for the Islamist regime. Although not accountable to the people, the Islamist regime has successfully framed the nuclear issue in terms of nationalism. Burdened by growing political, economic, and social problems, the clerical elites look for opportunities to refocus the attention of the Iranian people. International efforts to enforce the requirements of the NPT have been presented as Western discrimination to deny Iran its due respect. In this context, the nuclear programme enjoyed broad popular support (55% – according to a 2010 University of Maryland survey) since it promised energy independence and scientific progress. But the programme has not been subject to informed debate or open public discussion about its ultimate goals, the costs, and the relationship with Iran’s other objectives. But Iran does not wish to, for example, acquire nuclear security benefits, and try to minimise these negatives by allying with a nuclear state. In the case of Iran, the ideology and the conduct of the Islamist regime have severely limited its capacity to do so. Operating under Khomeini’s doctrine of independence from the international community, the regime has been ideologically constrained from pursuing close cooperation with external powers – even in Shanghai Cooperation Organisation format. The key to unravelling the Islamic republic lies in understanding Iran’s perception of itself. More than any other Middle Eastern nation, Iran has always imagined itself as the natural hegemon of its neighbourhood.  As the Persian Empire shrank over the centuries and Persian culture faded with the arrival of more alluring Western mores, Iran’s view of itself remained largely intact.

One can also look at the constructivist model which emphasises the symbolic importance leaders attach to nuclear arms. By acquiring the nuclear capability, states hope to establish their identity as technologically advanced independent powers deserving special recognition. In short, states seek honour and prestige to take top seats on the international political scene. However, some analysts have suggested that if prestige was the primary motivation for the Islamic regime, then the rational policy would be to develop a nuclear capability without actually building a nuclear weapon. By doing this, Iran would place the world on notice that it had the ability to produce nuclear weapons. But such virtual weapons can also be highly unstable for the Islamic regime, as doubt about whether the Islamists have actual weapons would increase the chances of a pre-emptive attack. Thus, as suggested, WMD is not just a matter of prestige, but can also be viewed as the primary device for achieving regional supremacy as it strengthens the Islamic Republic’s claim to be a regional hegemon.

To go back to the main question whether Iran should be allowed to continue its shadowy nuclear programme, one thing to remember is that in the age of on-going unfulfilled existing obligations agreed by the international community to minimize nuclear weapons stock, ratified by The International Court of Justice, the world’s highest court, more might be more dangerous with uncertain consequences. Despite claims that WMDs have prevented a ‘Third World War’, with its Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) factor, it’s so far successful strategy can also encourage other states to follow suit in such a conflictual and politically unstable region as the Middle East. Furthermore, despite the fact that the leading members of the UN Security Council are also the five ‘legal’ nuclear powers under the NPT will not escape notice, the international non-proliferation regime should try to work hard towards diminishing the prestige of WMD in a meaningful way. Thus, ensuring that soft-power attempts to construct new non-proliferation norms will not fail to overcome hard-power.

The purpose of international law, like all laws, is to escape anarchy and enable peaceful coexistence. If the threat or use of WMD has been declared generally illegal by the World Court in 1996, and if nuclear armed nations are serious about upholding international law, they ought to continue negotiations on the policies of NPT and WMD reduction. As this analysis tried to show, in terms of regional threats Iran’s pursuit of nuclear programme believed to be aimed at building a nuclear weapons capability cannot be justified, especially in a region like the Middle East. In order to avoid further regional instability, policy on NPT should be strongly upheld, especially in such a conflictual region as the Middle East, and keep the Pandora’s box firmly closed.


Irakli Tusiashvili is a researcher at Liberation. His research interests include Iran and Saudi Arabia, with an emphasis on Political Islam and their foreign policies.


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