Putting aside for the moment the unanswered question of whether Iran intends to militarize the nuclear capability that it appears likely to acquire any time soon, what exactly is driving Iran’s nuclear ambition?
It is not the place of this blog to document the turbulence in Persia from the demise of the Safavid Dynasty in 1792 through to the Anglo-American Coup of 1953, but suffice to say it is a history that is marked by outside interference and conspiratorial exploitation. Lets not forget that the 1979 revolution was fuelled by a deep-seated and popular suspicion of other powers, allied to the belief that the Shah was influenced by successive American administrations.
While we in the West tend to have a short historical memory when dealing with Iran, Iranians have a long and painful historical memory which continues to frame its world view. The quest for political independence allied to a suspicion of other powers has fuelled not only a virulent Anti-Americanism, but also an endless quest for security. The pursuit of nuclear weapons provides the ultimate guarantee against foreign interference. The removal of Gaddafi last year can only have reinforced that view.
The need for protection is equally informed by regional considerations. The traumas of the Iran-Iraq war, which saw the use of chemical and biological agents, continues to be debated in Iran’s universities, coffee shops, and papers. Iranians believe that such weapons are decisive and that if it is to escape similar attacks in the future then it needs a significant means of retaliation. It is no-coincidence that the decision to reactive Iran’s nuclear programme was taken following the end of the Iran-Iraq war. There is a ‘never again’ logic here that needs to be recognised.
Although the 2003 Gulf War neutralised the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the manner of his departure allied to ongoing concerns about Iraq’s long-term development continues to unsettle Iran. The manner of US withdraw from Iraq and the prospect of US withdraw from Afghanistan offers some relief, but the overall turbulence of the last decade has done little to allay Iran’s anxiety of being encircled.
What then are we to make about Iran’s attitudes to Israel? Tehran remains opposed to the peace process and continues to support anti-Israeli terrorist organisations like Hezbollah and Hamas. There is an argument, however, that Iran’s portrayal of Israel as a threat to its security is primarily motivated by domestic considerations.
Despite heated political rhetoric by senior religious clerics that reveals ideological differences between Iran and Israel, both countries have been careful in the past to control their low intensity conflict. Israel’s continued existence is certainly an ideological affront to many Iranians, but it is not an existential threat that demands the production of nuclear weapons.
As important as any threat posed by Israel is the perceived Western hypocrisy in allowing Israel a nuclear arsenal while denying Iran a similar capability. This has fuelled a feeling of victimization that has been aggravated by developments in Pakistan and India.
The lack of any sanction following the May 1998 testing, allied toPakistan’s emergence from the cold following 9/11, leads many Iranians to argue that if Pakistan can earn international and regional deference from its nuclear capability, then Iran must follow suit.
Two points in this debate need highlighting. First, there is the common held view that the Non Proliferation Treaty is overtly restrictive and that its implementation has been far from balanced. Second, there is a cultural dimension which grates at the very thought of a country so inferior and backward as Pakistan possessing such advanced weaponry. Iran’s nuclear programme is as much about national prestige and regional standing as strategic interest.
A few years back Nasser Hadian, a scholar at the Nixon Centre, seemed to capture much of what appears missing from current debates. Hadian’s analysis continues to be relevant today. He writes:
Iran’s anarchical regional environment has all the ingredients of a strategic nightmare: hostile neighbours, a lack of great power alliances, a 25 year face off with the greatest superpower in history, living in a war infested region, contending with ethno-territorial disputes on its borders, competing with a dominant Wahhabi trans-regional movement that theologically and politically despises Iran and coping with nearby nuclear powers (Pakistan, India and Israel). In many ways, Iran is located in the middle of the uncontrollable centre that has been created by post-Cold War and post 9-11 world politics.
Understanding what drives Iran’s nuclear ambition is of crucial importance if the international community is to develop policies that might resolve the current impasse. All too often we portray Iran’s nuclear program as irrational and ideologically driven. Such analysis is misguided and ill-informed and merely reflects our own prejudices and irrationality regarding the Muslim world in general and Iran in particular.
Understanding that Iran’s actions and behaviour are rational, or at the very least not entirely irrational, should help in thinking through whether a nuclear armed Iran poses an existential threat to Israel and whether the conventional doctrines of nuclear deterrence and containment might have any traction in the context of the Middle East.
None of this is to say that the international community is wrong in trying to prevent Iran from realising its nuclear ambitions, that would be a stupid position to hold, but it does suggest that we need to be a little clearer than we have been to date in our public reasoning. It also raises the question of whether there are further steps that can be taken to address some of the security concerns that Iran holds. Such a strategy might not work, but given the current dangerous impasse it is surely worth trying. Isn’t it?