Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons for defense
The primary motivation behind Iran's nuclear weapons program is its desire to defend itself from an attack. It is surrounded on all sides by enemies and has learned from the Iran-Iraq war that WMDs can be decisive in a conflict and from the U.S. invasion of Iraq that mere possesion of a nuclear weapon could deter similar efforts at regime change in Iran.
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America is not the only potential problem that Iran faces; to its east lies a nuclear-armed Pakistan, with its own strain of anti-Shiism. Although General Pervez Musharraf is routinely celebrated in Washington as a reliable ally in the war against terrorism, Pakistan's past is checkered and problematic. Pakistan perceived the demise of the Soviet Union as a unique opportunity to exert its influence in Central Asia and to capture the emerging markets in that critical area. Afghanistan was viewed as an indispensable bridge to Central Asia, and Pakistani intelligence services did much to ensure the triumph of the radical Taliban movement in the ensuing Afghan civil war. The rise of the Taliban and the eventual establishment of al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan had much to do with Pakistan's cynical strategy. Throughout the 1990s, Pakistani machinations caused considerable tensions with Iran, which was uneasy about the emergence of a radical Sunni regime on its northeastern border.
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Beyond the human toll, the war also changed Iran's strategic doctrine. During the war, Iran persisted with the notion that technological superiority cannot overcome revolutionary zeal and a willingness to offer martyrs. To compensate for its lack of weaponry, Iran launched human-wave assaults and used its young population as a tool of an offensive military strategy. The devastation of the war and the loss of an appetite for "martyrdom" among Iran's youth has invalidated that approach. As Rafsanjani acknowledged, "With regards to chemical, bacteriological and radiological weapons, it was made clear during the war that these weapons are very decisive. We should fully equip ourselves in both offensive and defensive use of these weapons." Moreover, the indifference of the international community to Saddam's crimes also left its mark, leading Iran to reject the notion that international agreements can ensure its security. As Mohsen Rezai, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said in 2004, "We cannot, generally speaking, argue that our country will derive any benefit from accepting international treaties." Deterrence could no longer be predicated on revolutionary commitment and international opinion; Iran required a more credible military response.
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The first reason concerns Iran's motives. As far as can be judged, Iran's basic motives for striving to obtain nuclear weapons are defense and deterrence. Iran initially decided to develop nuclear weapons capability in the second half of the 1980s, apparently as a counterweight to Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, especially because of the severe blow that Iran suffered in its war with Iraq. The Iranians were primarily concerned about the fact that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and missiles with a range covering Tehran and other Iranian cities. Iraq had already used chemical weapons and missiles against Iranian targets, and was on its way to obtaining nuclear weapons. Later, after Iraq was weakened in the Gulf War, the Iranian regime's nuclear ambitions were motivated by its increasing drive to deter the US from using its strategic capabilities against it. The Iranian regime also has an interest in deterring Israel from attacking the Iranian nuclear facilities. Apparently, however, the belief that Israel has nuclear weapons did not play an important role in Iran's decision to develop such weapons itself.Meanwhile, there is no reason to assume that any change has taken place in the dominant role played by defense and deterrence in Iran's considerations. In contrast to Saddam Hussein's regime, the Iranian Islamic regime has so far shown no inclination for risky adventures. Yet if and when Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it cannot be ruled out that these considerations could change. Its inclination to weigh its policy carefully might wane, and aggressive impulses against Israel might become more influential. It can be posited, however, that like other countries that have obtained nuclear weapons, these weapons will be considered a last resort, to be used only in case of an extreme and immediate strategic danger. Iran apparently does not consider Israel a country that constitutes this degree of danger. Iran's wish to destroy Israel is not a supreme interest justifying use of nuclear weapons at any price in order to realize it.
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So what are Iran's possible motives for going nuclear? Prestige is certainly one consideration—that was a factor even when the shah was in power. But prestige does not appear to be the dominant reason in Iran's case today. Deterrence, both regional and extraregional, seems to be a more important consideration. Iran is located in a volatile region, surrounded by hostile neighbors. Russia, Israel, Pakistan, and India all have nuclear weapons already, so regional deterrence issues probably loom large for Tehran. Iran very likely is also reacting to U.S. actions. President Bush's "axis of evil" speech, linking Iran to Iraq and North Korea, came as a prelude to an invasion and occupa- tion of Iraq. A policymaker in Tehran (or Pyongyang) seeing his country linked to Iraq in that fashion might well assume that his country will also be on the U.S. hit list at some point.
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Deterring the United States. Many Iranian leaders have long believed that the United States is determined to destroy the Islamic Republic. Iran's leadership is hostile toward the United States, and if anything the anti-U.S. camp has gotten stronger in recent years. Although the combative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad receives most the attention due to his incendiary rhetoric, other senior Iranians, most importantly Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei but also a host of emerging leaders, also see the United States as a hostile and hegemonic power and believe Iran should join, if not lead, the camp opposed to Washington. Over 25 years of U.S. efforts to isolate and weaken Iran, along with American rhetoric (and weak programs) to promote "regime change" have created considerable paranoia in Iran about U.S. objectives. The presence of U.S. troops along the Persian Gulf littoral has been the focus of Iran's military since the end of the Iran-Iraq war. The U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Husayn's regime and subsequent occupation of Iraq, and the presence of smaller numbers of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and at times Pakistan has also created a sense of threat in Iran, which is reinforced by rhetoric about the "axis of evil" and preventive war. Tehran's conventional forces are no match for those of the United States, and in general Iran has displayed a healthy respect for American military power. Not surprisingly, Iran's leaders see a nuclear weapon as the ultimate guarantee of the regime's security.
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Experts agree that, originally, Tehran wanted nuclear weapons for prestige and to obtain political deference within the region. Now, its strategic ambitions are shaped by the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and Iran seems motivated to acquire nuclear weapons primarily to deter a conventional American military intervention. After being stigmatised as part of the ’axis of evil’ and seeing their fellow axis-member Iraq invaded and occupied, Iran’s rulers may well have concluded that their country would be next. Government officials of another ‘axis of evil’ nation that has pursued a nuclear programme, North Korea, told a US congressional delegation in June 2003 that their country was building nuclear weapons to avoid the same fate as Saddam Hussein.
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What seems clear, however, is that Iran is committed to retaining its nuclear program. Tehran has invested significant resources into this effort over a period spanning nearly two decades and has repeatedly declared its determination to retain its existing nuclear infrastructure. It would be difficult for the Islamic Republic to retreat from these public pronouncements.
A strong case can be made that Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear option is firmly rooted in realpolitik, and that key decision-makers consider Iran’s nuclear program as a key component of the country’s national security strategy. In light of Iran’s economic circumstances and its conventional military weakness, it is the only affordable route to regional power status. Moreover, Iran is unlikely to surrender what it perceives to be its trump card at a time of heightened perceived threat from the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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In addition to the problems in US-Iranian relations, the United States must recognize that by invading Iraq under false pretenses and facilitating the establishment of a Shiite regime there, it has increased the influence of Iran in the region, thereby raising the price of any potential settlement of the nuclear issue and undermining US military and moral authority. Moreover, by arguing that even though the regime of Saddam Hussein did not pose an imminent threat, an invasion was vital before he developed nuclear weapons, the US strengthened the case for those in Iran pushing for the development of these weapons. Indeed, it was after Saddam invaded Iran that the regime reenergized its nuclear program.
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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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In large measure, Iran's leaders seek nuclear weapons to deter a U.S. attack. The regime's refrain about Iran's "inalienable right" to nuclear technology in the name of scientific progress is hollow, given the regime's contempt for every other right of the Iranian people and its pseudo-religious assault on social progress. At the same time, there is also an element of prestige associated with joining the nuclear club and a desire to become the dominant power in the Persian Gulf. These factors will to some extent persist in a democratic Iran, but a democratic Iran would not feel threatened by the United States or Israel and could well be an ally. Moreover, a democratic Iran will be a more rational and responsible country, drawn much more to development through economic and social integration with the West than to regional dominance through weapons.