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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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.
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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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WALTZ: Why would Iran want to have nuclear weapons? There are two very simple ways to answer that question. One is by looking at a map. To the east, Iran borders Pakistan and Afghanistan-countries that do not look greatly stable, and countries that might make any neighbor feel uneasy about what is going to happen next. To the west, Iran borders Iraq. And for eight bloody years in the 1980s, Iran fought a war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein.I wonder if Iran really feels more comfortable now that it's not Saddam Hussein but instead the United States who represents the great military force in Iraq. If I were ruling Iran, I certainly wouldn't think this region of the world is safe.Two, if the president of the United States says three countries form an axis of evil-which George Bush said in 2002-and he then proceeds to invade one of them-Iraq-what are Iran and North Korea to think?We talk about dangerous rogue states that are hard to deter. But what state is in fact the biggest rogue state in the world? For countries that think the United States constitutes a threat, how should they react? In effect, there is no way to deter the United States other than by having nuclear weapons. No country can do that conventionally The United States can overwhelm other countries conventionallyIf you were making decisions for Iran, would you say, "We don't want nuclear weapons," or, "Let's do everything we can to get a small number of nuclear weapons and get them just as quickly as we possibly can"? It would be strange if Iran did not strive to get nuclear weapons, and I don't think we have to worry if they do. Because deterrence has worked 100 percent of the time. We can deter small nuclear powersafter all, we have deterred big nuclear powers like the Soviet Union and China. So sleep well.
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Like China in the 1960s, it is likely that the Iranian regime also views the military muscle of the United States with acute trepidation. The United States currently has military forces stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan, a large number of Gulf States, South Asia, and Turkey. Although the oust ing of Saddam Hussein improved Iran’s actual security situation, it also confirmed mounting Iranian fears of strategic encirclement. Officials in Tehran became concerned that not only might Iran be sandwiched between two US client states, but also that regime change in Iraq might encourage similar American ambitions for Iran. The Iranian leadership is also likely to have drawn important lessons from the way the United States dealt with the respective proliferation challenges from North Korea and Iraq. Their view is likely to be that the United States is averse to challenging states militarily once they have a nuclear capability but is more aggres sive and favors regime change in states that have demonstrated nuclear intent. Viewed from this perspective, the notion that nuclear weapons are strategically necessary to ensure regime survival and territorial integrity is understandable.41
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Nuclear weapons play a role in securing Iran's independence and national security. Khamenei, Defense Minister Shamkhani, IRGC Commandant Safavi, and former IRGC head Mohsen Rezaie argue that Israel and the United States are determined to destroy the Islamic revolution and that Iran has no choice but to continue its nuclear program and aggressively defend itself. Expediency Council Head Rafsanjani usually sides with them and has commented that possession of nuclear weapons would substantially enhance the status and bargaining power of Muslim countries, yet he has also hinted in preelection interviews that he is the only candidate who could negotiate with the EU and the United States and stand up to Khamenei on this issue. These hard-liners accuse the negotiators of being incompetent and making significant technical and legal concessions to the Europeans. Rezaie and other hard-liners also claimed that Iranian officials had turned over significant quantities of secret intelligence information to the EU , thereby undermining Iran's "deterrent capability".