Iranian proliferation motivated by need for security and independence and strategies that work against these motivations will backfire
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Much of this alarmist debate is based on the assumption that ‘the possession of nuclear bombs, absent political intent, diplomacy, motivations, or particular strategies drives world politics’ (Gavin 20092010, 28). Gavin thus highlights the need to bring the politics of nuclear proliferation*i.e. the geopolitical, security and normative motivations for nuclear acquisition*back into debates surrounding the nuclear ambitions of states such as Iran and North Korea. This point was also stressed by Richard K. Betts (1977, 164) over 30 years ago when he argued that, while there were two fundamental motivations for states to acquire nuclear weapons*status and security*they were most potent ‘for those states that are emerging as dominant regional power centers with plausible pretensions to being great powers’. In addition, he persuasively, and prophetically, suggested that ‘pariah’ states*i.e. states that are opposed to, and isolated from, existing regional or international orders*have the ‘clearest incentives’ and the ‘least to lose’ from acquiring nuclear weapons (164165). However, the importance of these insights has tended to be downplayed in some recent treatments of Iran’s nuclear program that emphasise either scientific/ technical aspects of Iran’s program or US policy options (Bowen and Kidd 2004; Dueck and Takeyh 2007).
This article will demonstrate that Iran conforms to this model, as its nuclear program is driven by a potent combination of security, normative and domestic political motivations. In particular, the regime’s commitment to its nuclear program is influenced by Iran’s long-standing sense of vulnerability to both regional and international adversaries, and an enduring sense of national humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, in parallel with a powerful belief in the superiority of Persian civilisation. This latter theme has resulted in the development of a narrative of ‘hyper-independence’ in Iran’s foreign policy that simultaneously rejects political, cultural or economic dependence and emphasises ‘self-reliance’ (Moshirzadeh 2007). The presumed security benefits that a nuclear weapons option provides are seen as ensuring Iranian ‘self-reliance’ and ‘independence’. This suggests that current strategies which focus exclusively on Iran’s security motivations or on a heightened regime of sanctions are fundamentally flawed, as they fail to recognise the mutually reinforcing dynamic between Iran’s security and normative/status-derived nuclear motivations.
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.