In New York back in 2013, Zarif told our group that acquiring what he called “strategic” capabilities (meaning nuclear weapons) would make Iran less safe, rather than more. Iran, he said, is now a regional powerhouse in terms of its economy, natural resources, and conventional military power. If Iran were to acquire, or even appear to attempt to acquire, strategic capabilities, it would cause outside powers to interfere and make it a target. In retrospect, he was signaling that Tehran had shifted its strategy after Rouhani’s election in 2013—from steady pursuit of a nuclear weapon in defiance of the UN Security Council, to a willingness to scale back its nuclear program and put the weapon option on the back burner in return for sanctions relief and regaining a place in the international community.
Although some in Tehran surely continue to harbor nuclear weapon ambitions, what Zarif told us in New York not only makes sense, but also challenges the prevailing rationale that weaker powers must acquire nuclear weapons to prevent encroachment upon their sovereignty and security by greater powers. During my visits to North Korea over the years, Pyongyang officials told me that history has taught them that a nuclear deterrent is necessary to keep the United States out. They told me that if Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya had had nuclear weapons, their countries would not have been at the mercy of the Americans and their regime-change tactics. Now, Tehran is taking exactly the opposite approach, namely not pursuing nuclear weapons (or at least putting the possibility on the back burner) in order to keep the Americans, and assuredly the Israelis, out.