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Iran and the pitfalls of the "nuclear" temptation

By Ali Mostashari

Ph.D. Candidate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Note: This article was originally published as part of the Iran Analysis Quarterly Summer 2003 issue. Please refer to for the original article.



The issue of Iran's nuclear program has recently become a center of attention again. With Iran maintaining that it needs its nuclear power plants to provide for future energy needs and industrial expansion, and the U.S. and Israel accusing Tehran of developing weapons of mass destruction, the stage is set for a new WMD game with the UN and the IAEA acting as embattled referees. It could be argues that the U.S., by choosing military action against Iraq which lacked nuclear capability and preferring diplomacy for the case of North Korea, has given Tehran a clear signal that it would be wiser for Iran to develop nuclear capability and announce it boldly, instead of adhering to a civilian nuclear program.

While there is a focus on the present government of Iran, many argue that the nuclear ambitions of Iran are more or less a matter of national consensus for any future Iranian government. This paper will focus on the potential role of the nuclear option in Iran's long-term defense strategy, regardless of the regime in power from an Iranian national interest perspective. In the context of this paper actions that benefit Iran's national interest are defined as:

        actions that ensure the long-term sovereignty, territorial integrity and self-determination of Iran

        actions that improve the economy of Iran, preserve long-term economic interests and increase the welfare of the Iranian people, including prudent allocation of resources

        actions that result in better relationships with neighboring countries, stabilize the region and therefore contribute to increased security for Iran

The goal is to identify the potential military, economic, political and safety implications of such a strategy for Iran in the long-term. As such, it will not shed any new light on whether Iran's current nuclear program is peaceful or geared towards WMD production, which has been analyzed in detail by Beeman (2003), Rubin (2002) and Shaffer (2002) who offer arguments on the two sides of the issue.


The main drivers of Iranian nuclear ambitions


The main drivers for Iran's nuclear ambitions are its lack of regional security, failure of foreign policy, national prestige, as well as frustration with international double standards in NPT enforcement. In the case of the current regime, it also serves as insurance that the United States will not initiate regime change as it did in Iraq.


Lack of Regional Security: Surrounded by neighboring countries with which it has had a turbulent history, Iran under any regime would feel the urge to demonstrate itself as an indominable power. The uneasy relationships with its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf, its history of war with Iraq, which resulted in more than a million casualties, its uneasy relations with other Caspian Sea nations, in the use of natural resources and its ambivalent relationships with Turkey and Pakistan, and last and not least its troubled relationship with Israel could push Iranian leaders towards the development of nuclear capability. In fact the first attempts to develop nuclear capability were started in the Pahlavi era, in the 1970s. Even with the current regime however, it is unlikely that such a capability would be used for aggressive purposes against Israel or any other nation, rather it would be used a bargaining tool for the current regime to stay in power, or for future Iranian governments to assure Iranian national interests in International disputes and negotiations. Given that according to U.S. intelligence, Iran probably possesses chemical and/or biological weapons the lethality of which is not less than nuclear alternatives, it seems logical to assume that the mere membership in the nuclear club is the most sought after goal and not the use of such weapons.


Foreign Policy Failure: Iran has rarely been capable of forging alliances with its neighbors in strategic issues. In the Pahlavi era, Iran had good relations with Europe, the U.S. and Israel, and forged alliances with Turkey and Pakistan. These alliances however served the purpose of the cold war and had nothing to do with Iranian national interests. Relationships with Arab countries were inadequate, and Iran tried to establish itself as a solitary regional power, by creating a strong military force. After the revolution, Iran initially focused its foreign policy objectives on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The hostage-taking crisis and its aftermath relations with the U.S. led to the relative isolation of Iran from the International community. At this time Iran's foreign policy influence shifted towards Lebanon and Sudan. Its relationships with the Arab states soured even more with the outbreak of the Iran-Iraqi war. While foreign relations improved dramatically in the past decade, they still fail to serve the national interest of Iran. Iran's current foreign policy is not an issue of Islamic ideology either. In the tension between India and Pakistan, Iran has backed India, in the conflict between Azerbayjan and Armenia, it was the Armenians who were supported. Not to mention the better relationships with Greece than with Turkey. All this has resulted in Iran having no allies in the region, a fact which has constantly driven Iran towards seeking a stronger military capability.


National Prestige: Culturally, Iranians are concerned with the image they project. While cultural traits have rarely been used in strategic analyses, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that many actions by Iranian leaders have traditionally been fueled by the desire to impress other nations (or at least themselves). Iran's purchasing of submarines for use in the shallow Persian Gulf waters, its bid to purchase the MIR space station from the Russians, its desire to build airplanes when even the Iranian car industry has not yet produced quality vehicles are part of this cultural phenomenon. The Bushehr nuclear power plant project was initiated by the Shah in the 1970s. Rather than serving any immediate electricity needs, it was seen as an essential element in projecting a modern image of Iran within the country and abroad. Iran is currently producing CD-ROMS and fiber optics, although they are far more expensive and have a far lower quality than their Southeast Asian counterparts. These are technologies where most experts would agree that Iran could not have a competitive edge, even in the long-term.


Also important is the issue of economic and industrial backwardness. Iran has always tried to leapfrog in technology, to reduce the technological gap between itself and industrialized countries. The motivation for this approach however has not always been economic in nature. Advancement in technology has served as a way to regain self-esteem for a nation humiliated by hundreds of years of foreign intervention and rule. Similar to the Chinese desire to send manned missions to space with no immediate (or even long-term) economic potential, Iranians have tried to demonstrate that they have the potential to be part of the developed world.


The basic idea imprinted in the national consciousness is that if Iran develops nuclear capability, it will have to be respected by all of its neighbors, Europe and the United States. 


Double-standards in NPT enforcement: Currently Iran and Israel are not engaged in active hostility. Both sides however are quite concerned with their mutual nuclear capabilities. While Israel was a close ally of Iran's in the previous regime, and supplied weapons to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war even after the Islamic regime came to power, both countries currently view each other as the most important threat to their national securities. Specifically, the double standards set by the U.S. in allowing Israel to stay out of the NPT, while forcing Iran and other countries to aggressively undergo scrutiny on their activities has created a feeling of resentment, both within the current government of Iran, as well as the general population. Pollack (2003), one of the Bush administration's closest advisers on security issues describes the U.S. approach to NPT as follows: 

"All this matters because although the United States preaches a policy of universal nuclear nonproliferation, in practice, Washington has consistently, and probably correctly, been much more concerned with proliferation by its enemies (such as Iraq and North Korea) than by its friends (such as Israel and, to a lesser extent, India). American fears about Iran's nuclear program might well be lessened, therefore, by the emergence of a pluralist and pro-American government in Tehran (although even then Iranian nuclear advances would cause a major headache because of their inevitable effects on proliferation elsewhere in the region)." (Pollack 2003)

Impact of nuclear defense capabilities on Iran's national interest


It can be argued that in the case of a strong national consensus on the need for nuclear defense capabilities, it would be hard to stop Iran from accessing the technology in the long-term. Given Mr. Pollack's arguments, the U.S. would even turn a blind eye if a pro-American (or at least friendly) government in Iran tried to develop such weapons. It further seems that current U.S. efforts do not really reflect a deep worry among the U.S. intelligence community that Iran may be near such a capability rather this is used as a pre-text to delay or derail the nuclear program until a friendlier regime has taken charge in Tehran. Interesting enough, this approach along with the military action in Iraq may eventually lead to an acceleration of the current regime's efforts to achieve such capability.


Aside from the regime conservation argument, which is only valid at the present time, it can be argued however that the pursuit of nuclear weapons may not address Iran's security needs and concerns. I will categorize my arguments based on the drivers mentioned earlier in this paper.


The nuclear option as a solution to regional security: At this point of time, and for the foreseeable future Iran does not face an external threat that would require a nuclear response from its neighbors and from Israel. Border tensions with Iraq, Turkey and Azaerbayjan can hardly be settles with nuclear weapons. Neither can the issue of drug trafficking fro Afghanistan be addressed with this capability. None of Iran's neighbors at the moment have territorial ambitions that would affect Iran, except for UAE, which is not considered a military threat. It is a known fact that Israel's use of nuclear weapons will be limited to a war of annihilation, in which Iran is unlikely to take part at any given time in the future. This essentially leaves the U.S. threat of invasion, which is only a concern to the current regime. However it seems that a give-and take approach and behind the curtain dialogue among Iranian conservatives and their U.S. counterparts is a more effective way of ensuring the current regime's survival, at least in face of an external threat. On the other hand, Iran's possession of nuclear weapons can have serious downsides. The question of who controls such weapons in Iran would be a critical issue to ensure that it is not accidentally fired, or that rogue operations don't occur. Should Israel feel the possibility of a nuclear attack, it is likely that it will try to attack preemptively, plunging the entire region and maybe the world into a devastating war whether or not the strikes are successful.


The nuclear option as a substitution for foreign policy: The approach of using military power as a bargaining chip has been used by Israel in the last 50 years. While it may have helped Israel's survival through creating fear, it has not resulted in respect or friendship for Israel in the region. It is not surprising then to see Israel's economy in shambles and in dire need of U.S. aid. Unless Iran wants to continue its solitary path in the region, it would be wiser to engage in active diplomacy to ensure Iranian national interests. Faced with the choice of fear and respect, Iran would be wiser to choose the latter. Regional economic blocks are far more effective in reducing security risks than unconventional weapons, which other countries can also obtain given the proper incentive. Iran has many other points of leverage it can use in International negotiations. The most important of these, which is currently being used to a certain extent, is playing off the Europeans against the Americans and vice versa. Currently, Iran and Syria are the only countries not under direct or indirect U.S. control, which are providing oil for the European Union and Japan. Good relations with Central Asian states and the U.S. can also result in Iran being used as a transit route for Central Asian energy sources, making it even more important. Strategic allies such as Russia, India and China can provide Iran with sufficient leverage in many international negotiations, if handled correctly. Even cordial relationships with Israel is a crucial element in Iran's national interest, since it would provide Iran with a voice in helping the Palestinian situation, should this really be a foreign policy objective for current or future regimes in Iran. This would also reduce the threat of Israeli aggression, thereby rendering nuclear weapons unnecessary. The reduction of external threats for Israel can arguably improve the Palestinian situation, by allowing Israel to shift from a emergency-response state to a state concerned with foreign relations, economic cooperation and mutual respect.

The nuclear option as a strategy to boost national and international prestige: The national prestige associated with having nuclear defense capabilities are relatively short-lived. In the long run they give way to concerns on the safety and security of the country, in terms of accidental launch, sabotage, foreign attacks on nuclear sites and a general rise of anxiety. Even providing more funding for the Iranian national soccer team may be more effective and longer lasting in that regard. The victory of Iran in the 1998 World Cup over the United States is still alive in the national Iranian consciousness, and is well remembered by more than 3 billion soccer fans across the world who watched the games that year.


The nuclear option as a way to defy double standards in NPT enforcement:  Iranians and their Arab neighbors have always complained about the fact that the United States has always exempted itself and its allies from International law, and many political analysts agree that the U.S. has only emphasized those parts of the International law that further its interest while ignoring those which it found incompatible with its interests. However using this as a pretext to defy international law is counterproductive. While the power balance in Iran-U.S. relationships tip in favor of the U.S., Iran in association with other Asian countries and the European Union can have significant leverage in forcing the U.S. to adopt a harder line on Israeli weapons proliferation. If the goal is adherence to the International law, undermining the law in the same way that the U.S. and Israel have done will not help Iran or other concerned countries. A "justice-seeking" approach is only effective when it is combined with strong diplomatic and collective efforts, not when violence or defiance of law is used to highlight the injustice. Furthermore, the acceptance of Israel's right of existence along with an emphasis on a contiguous and viable Palestinian state will make it easier for the U.S. to put pressure on Israel. In a world with uneven power distribution, emphasis on international law and the use of economic and diplomatic pressures to enforce it is one of the most effective ways a society can approach achieving global justice.


The real cost of nuclear weapons:  This brings us to the national defense cost argument. While many argue that theoretically countries with nuclear weapons can relax their spending on conventional arsenals, this has not been the case for any nuclear power. Aside from the traditional Nuclear club (U.S., Russia, France, Britain and China) which have not reduced defense spending since obtaining nuclear weapons, the recent examples of India and Pakistan are important in that they provide two important insights: 1) Having nuclear weapons does not help in the reduction of border tensions. 2) It does not help reduce conventional military costs (Cordesman, 2001). Given that the economy of countries like Iran, unlike the United States, do not benefit from producing weapons, it can be argued that the money could be better spent on other parts of the Iranian economy. The example of North Korea and its "Army first" principle show the impact such strategies can have on the national economy. Currently Iran spends far less in terms on its military on a per capita basis than most countries in the Middle East and far less than the U.S. or Israel, still resources for industrial and social development are limited, even if corruption in the current system were minimal. In general to assess the full costs of nuclear weapons development, the following costs must be taken into consideration:


1)      Cost of actual development of the weapons and their targeting systems

2)      Cost of international sanctions that are likely to follow such a move and the impact of loss of trade opportunities on the national economy.

3)      Cost of an early detection system identifying when a hostile nation has launched their missiles and making sure the attack is nuclear in nature so that a response can be initiated.

4)      Cost of creating a safety mechanism and keeping a functional hierarchy for fast response to an attack.

5)      Cost of protecting nuclear sites against hostile attacks and acts of sabotage.

6)      Cost of capital not spent on economic activity

7)      Increases in conventional military spending that normally follow nuclear development, such as higher range missiles, military aircraft, anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems etc.


This does not take into consideration the cost increases imposed on neighboring countries that will probably try to ensure their own security by boosting their own unconventional defenses.


Iran's internal territorial challenges


In fact what this analysis leaves untouched is internal threats to territorial integrity that are looming over the Iranian society, as separationist tendencies have increased in the last two decades. If the wants of ethnic and religious minorities is not met, Iran will face a serious problem in the years to come, whether or not the current regime stays in power. The oppression of cultural identities and religious freedom has resulted in major discontent in border areas that need to be addressed. It can be argued that these threats are far more serious than external threats. The discontent can be abused by foreign national interests, which may try to destabilize Iran without military action. This is a situation where possession of nuclear weapons cannot act as a deterrent. Nor can any other military solution solve the problem, as the military crackdown on Iranian Azerbayjan in 1946 and the 1980-81 suppression of Kurdish separatists have shown. The use of military force has only exacerbated hatred and strengthened the tendency for separation.


Alternative Strategies


Based on the above analysis, different alternatives can be chosen to reduce threats to Iran's national sovereignty and territorial integrity. One suggestion that I will pursue in more detail in a separate paper, will be the creation of regional economic blocks with neighboring countries, based on mutual interests. With the Iraq situation being unclear at the moment, such a strategy could entail strengthening the ECO by creating free-trade agreements, strengthening the relationships with India and China (actions that are currently being pursued to a certain extent) and the pursuit of common economic interests with Persian Gulf Countries. Also important is an expanded economic relationship with the EU. Unconditional diplomatic relations with all countries in the world is a vital step towards ensuring Iranian interests. This includes the State of Israel and the United States. I have left out the United States from closer economic ties intentionally, since in my opinion it will take a longer time to establish equitable and balanced economic relationships with the U.S., which is used to dominating in its negotiations. Iran's relationship with Israel can be based on mutual economic needs, with Israel providing assistance for the Iranian agricultural sector, and Iran providing energy and heavy machineries, as well as chemicals and petrochemicals.


On the defense side, Iran could forge military pacts with the Persian Gulf states, Turkey and Central Asian states. It could also expand its military ties with Russia, India and China. Iran has to diversify its military allies so that it does not become a bargaining chip between different countries. In general, the current prospect of peace between the Palestinians and Israel could change security relations in the region. Of course non-linear developments in Iraq can always compensate for any positive developments on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but there is always more room for hope than despair.




Regardless of international consequences, and the current political games played on Iran's WMD issue, this paper analyzed the pros and cons of nuclear weapons as part of Iran's long-term defense strategy. It concluded that even if the International community turned a blind eye in case of a future more pro-western regime in Iran, it would be unwise for Iranian national interests to pursue such a strategy. The main arguments for nuclear weapons development were analyzed and counter arguments were offered for each. In the end, it is recommended that Iran bolster its conventional defense capabilities by creating defense pacts with its neighbors, and pursue aggressive economic and diplomatic relationships with countries in the region and the world.




Beeman, W. and Stauffer, T. "Iran's WMD problem", Pacific News Network, July 1, 2003

Cordesman A., "A Comparative Summary of Military Expenditures; Manpower; Land, Air, and Naval, Forces; and Arms Sales", Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 2001


Pollack, K. , "Securing the Gulf", Foreign Affairs, July/August 2003


Rubin, M. "Iran's Burgeoning WMD Programs", Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol4. No.3, March-April 2002


Shaffer, B., "Partners in need: Russia and Iran's strategic relationship", Policy Papers, Washington Institute For Near East Policy; June 2001



Ali Mostashari is a Ph.D. Candidate in Engineering Systems/Technology Management and Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is currently the President of the Iranian Studies Group at MIT. He received his B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Sharif University of Technology, a M.S. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Nebraska, an M.S. in Engineering Systems/Technology and Policy from MIT and a M.S. in Civil and Environmental Engineering/Transportation from MIT. His main area of research interest is the sustainable technological development of developing countries.




... Payvand News - 8/14/03 ... --

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