Nuclear Weapons and Iranian Strategic Culture
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An important foundation for analyzing such implications and questions is to look at Iran’s strategic culture. A country’s strategic culture is a vital starting point for understanding the possible actions and decisions of that state, because strategic culture is the rational “framework within which a state debates strategic ideas and finalizes defense decisions.”6 In broader terms, strategic culture is a country’s “set of shared beliefs, assumptions, and modes of behavior, derived from common experiences and accepted narratives that shape collective identity and relationships to other groups, and which determine appropriate ends and means for achieving security objectives.”7 Though Iran has a heritage of over 2,500 years of strategic thought,8 the four elements of Iran’s strategic culture that most relate to its drive for nuclear weapons include: (1) an all-encompassing conviction in Shia Islam as the bedrock of the regime’s political legitimacy and the country’s national identity; (2) a hypernationalistic belief in the IRI’s rightful place as the leader of the Islamic civilization and regional hegemon; (3) a pervasive sense of external and internal vulnerability; and (4) an ingrained perception that the United States desires to dominate and destroy the Islamic civilization. This paper will argue that Iran’s strategic culture strongly indicates it is not likely to employ nuclear weapons offensively, given its fear of retaliation and the constraining political interests within the regime. Rather, Iran’s drive toward a nuclear weapons capability is to provide a deterrent that will advance its desires for regional hegemony and mitigate its insecurity.
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Recognizing the growing popular discontent and the loss of credibility to the regime’s ability to maintain power and protect what was left of the revolution, the clerical leaders chose to preserve the state of Iran over the continuation of an ideologically motivated conflict. Before the war, revolutionary leaders believed they could violently export the revolution throughout the Middle East and throw off all diplomatic restraint as a model for imitation by other Muslims;27 however, as the realities of the war became apparent, the bloody battle demonstrated the inadequacy of using religion as the basis for executing military strategy28 and isolating Iran diplomatically.29 Since that time, the theocratic regime in Iran has chosen to conduct its policies primarily from a realist perspective, putting Iran’s state interests over the pursuit of its revolutionary ideology. As David Menashri, Senior Research Fellowat The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at TelAviv University, has noted, “with few exceptions, whenever ideological convictions have clashed with the interests of the state—as prescribed by the clerical ruling elite—state interests ultimately have superseded revolutionary dogma in both foreign relations and domestic politics.”30
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Other examples of this tradeoff between Iran’s interests and its ideology include Ayatollah Khomeini’s resumption of Iran’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs toward the end of the Iran-IraqWar in 1987.31 He sought to ensure that the state of Iran never remained as vulnerable as it did during Iraq’s chemical attacks against Iran, despite his stated belief that WMD were immoral and that they violate the Koran’s prohibition against the use of poison.32 Also, the IRI stopped support for terrorist activities33 toward the end of the 1990s in Europe and against the United States and its Arab allies in the Middle East, the result of a pragmatic decision to pull back its terrorist support in the face of America’s threat of military retaliation against the regime.34 Despite its anti-American fervor fueling actions to eradicate American influence in the region,35 Iran backed away from its terrorist operations and “conceded the need for mending fences with key global actors . . . as necessary for the vitality of the nation.”36 Iran’s interest in ensuring the state’s survival, which it views as the ultimate protector of the revolution, has become paramount. Though Iran demonstrated a willingness to sustain significant losses in pursuit of its ideology, history has shown that Shi’ism is pragmatic and “like all other political actors, Shi’ism, believing it can best serve the cause for which it stands, places much importance on preserving power. As such, much domestic and foreign policy is directed toward that goal.”37
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Iran not only considers its role in reviving and purifying Islam as vital,38 it views itself as the region’s natural hegemon and the world’s necessary leader of the entire Muslim population. The words of Hoseyn Musavian, Iranian Ambassador to Germany, best encapsulate Iran’s self-imbued sense of hubris: “Iran is a powerful country in the region and has the final say in the world of Islam at present, and is a cultural and political superpower . . . such a country cannot be ostracized.”39 From an American perspective, such claims seem unmerited due to Iran’s current position in the international system; however, from Iran’s viewpoint, a nation that spans twenty-five centuries of history, possesses a key geographic location and abundant natural resources, and enjoys a position as the Muslim country with the largest economy and strongest military,40 only deserves such prestige. According to Ray Takeyh, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, “[m]ore than any other nation, Iran has always perceived itself as a natural hegemon of its neighborhood... By dint of its history and the power of its civilization, Iranians believe that their nation should establish its regional preeminence.”41
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Politically, Iran has also used inflammatory rhetoric against Israel in support of the Palestinian cause as an attempt to project its influence into the Arab world. Since the election of President Ahmadinejad, this has included calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map”55 and denying the Holocaust as a “myth.” This persistent antagonism toward Israel cannot be solely attributed to its Islamist pretensions; the IRI believes that its strident ideological position on Israel gives it a strategic benefit by legitimizing its leadership of the world’s Muslim population.56 As Arab regimes have gradually come to accept the legitimacy of Israel and have engaged in negotiations that revolve around the dimensions of the Israeli state, rather than Israel’s right to exist, Iran has seized the opportunity to brandish its Islamic credentials by stepping into a political vacuum and embracing inflammatory rhetoric that enjoys support on the Arab street.57 Thus, the theocratic regime is exploiting the Palestinian struggle “to assert its influence, garner popular approbation, and affirm its claims as a regional power.”58 However, though such statements may be popular among the general Arab public, they have caused considerable unease in neighboring Arab capitals, as reminisces of a roguish regional power looms large in the incumbent Arab regimes’ strategic calculi.59
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Thus, if threatened with a full retaliatory nuclear strike in response to its first use of nuclear weapons against U.S. interests (to include Israel), Iran would be deterred from initiating an offensive nuclear strike, because the country’s leaders would be faced with the fact of vast territorial devastation and mass casualties that would ensue in response to its first use of nuclear weapons.118 This second-strike attack would threaten to put out the “beacon”119 of the true Islam, leave the leadership of the Islamic civilization to Iran’s Sunni neighbors, and obliterate the final residence and “throne” of the twelfth Imam.120 In essence, all that the modern IRI bases its existence and identity upon, as well as highly values, would be gone within seconds. As Jahangir Amuzegar, former Finance Minister and Economic Ambassador in Iran’s pre-1979 government, aptly stated, “[s]ome pundits argue that a Shi’ite belief in martyrdom, coupled with the Iranian regime’s extremist ideology, could render deterrence meaningless. Such people know neither Shi’ite martyrdom nor the regime leaders’ instinct for self-preservation, nor even the mullah’s bazaari habit of always looking for the best deal.”121
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Fueled by its sense of grievance from the lack of assistance from the international community while suffering chemical attacks during the Iran-IraqWar, Iran is now driven to acquire similar retaliatory capabilities in order to avoid future strategic surprises. And, as a result, Shahram Chubin, Director of Research at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, has noted that Iran’s “embryonic nuclear program appears to be designed as a general hedge, an option, rather than a crash program with a particular enemy in mind.”107 From a security standpoint, Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapons capability is a judicious attempt on the part of its leadership to supplement its military’s deterrent posture against the wide range of threats it faces.108 Iran lives in a “dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by nuclear powers on all sides and hearing repeated threats from high American and Israeli politicians, a nuclear capability is a credible deterrent and a valuable insurance policy against external threats.”109 Nuclear weapons would lend it a higher level of parity with Israel,110 allow it to balance Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal,111 and would grant it the capability it deems necessary to keep the United States from interfering in its domestic and foreign policy agendas.112 According to one leading Iranian reformist, Mastafa Tajzadeh, “It’s basically a matter of equilibrium; if I don’t have a nuclear bomb, I don’t have security.”113
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As these realities have reinforced Iran’s sense of isolation, Iran has made deterrence, preparedness,71 and self-reliance72 the foundation of its long-term security goals. After the end of the Iran-Iraq War, the residual strength of Khomeini’s legacy allowed for his principles to be codified in the regulations of the Iranian Armed Forces. Stressing loyalty to the supreme leader, self-sufficiency, and maintenance of defense—to deter, defend against, and ultimately punish any aggressor—these regulations “point to an Iranian outlook that is essentially defensive but also zealous about protecting Islam” and outline Iran’s “defensive goals of protecting national independence, territorial integrity, regional interests, [and] the theocracy.”73 The devastating and humiliating experiences of the Iran-Iraq War shifted Iran’s war doctrine away from initiating risky offensive operations (“human wave” attacks) toward avoiding conventional conflict by relying instead on irregular warfare, terrorism, harsh rhetoric, and the implicit threat of WMD to deter or inhibit its opponents.74 Rather than being indicative of its offensive intent, this deterrence-based approach focuses more on raising an adversary’s risks and costs than upon reducing Iran’s own risks and costs to ensure its territorial and political security,75 and thus requires the use of harsh rhetoric and occasional saber rattling to demonstrate resolve to retaliate to an attack.
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While it seems likely that Iran will still try to advance its interests through unconventional means (i.e., its support of terrorism)142 and maybe even more so if it had nuclear weapons,143 Iran does not seek to eliminate the United States or Israel in a first strike with its nuclear weapons, despite what some people perceive in the hard-liners’ rhetoric. Rather, Iran desires a nuclear capability to back up its retaliatory rhetoric so that the “redlines,”144 which seek the protection of both the territorial and political integrity of the republic, will be heeded. As Hans Morgenthau has commented, for both prestige and deterrence purposes nations seek “to impress other nations with the power one’s own nation actually possess, or with the power it believes, or wants the other nations to believe, it possesses.”145 This description seems to fit Iran perfectly. However, what U.S. leaders and analysts need to remember most is that, while Iran has been “aggressive, anti-American, and murderous, its behavior has been neither irrational nor reckless. It has calibrated its actions carefully, showed restraint when the risks were high, and pulled back when threatened with painful consequences.”146 Thus, it seems that in light of Iran’s strategic culture, U.S. leaders should find some hope in the fact that a nuclear-armed Iran could be deterred from offensive nuclear employment if its most valued and esteemed assets were held at risk.147
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Despite this pragmatism, some analysts have argued that Iran’s animosity toward Israel is one of the rare examples of its continued reliance on revolutionary dogma to determine its policy objectives toward this important strategic problem.122 Thus, throughout the years it has continually sought to deter, disrupt, and destroy Israel through its revolutionary rhetoric and support of terrorism as a means to express its hostility toward Israel.123 However, ironically enough, Iran has consistently maintained a “degree of convenience” in its opposition to Israel,124 which is evident in the relative restraint it has demonstrated with regard to its existing stocks of chemical and biological weapons. Since the Iran-Iraq War, when Ayatollah Khomeini decided to reinstate Iran’s WMD program, Iran has maintained sufficient stocks of chemical and biological weapons that could be used to conduct a devastating strike against the population of Israel. Mounting these weapons upon its ballistic missiles, Iran could effectively “wipe Israel off of the map,” as Ahmadinejad’s revolutionary and seemingly undeterrable ideology has called for.
However, though it has extensively supported terrorist activities against the state of Israel and consistently sought to undermine the Arab-Israeli peace process, it has never employed WMD capabilities against Israel, either on its own or through one of its terrorist proxies.125 While some would argue that Iran is waiting until it has a completed its stock of nuclear weapons to conduct such a strike, even at that time Iran would still ardently desire the survival of Shi’ism, would seek to maintain the perceptions of its future hegemonic role in the region and the world, and ultimately would fear a U.S. military retaliation. Thus, as discussed above, it is very likely Iran could be deterred from offensive nuclear employment if those assets were held at risk.126