‘Knowing Ones Enemy’ – Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Motives

To come to a solution, one must truly understand the root cause of the problem.  Understanding Iran’s motives can only help resolve the situation.

Iran Nuclear SpeechMany view Iran’s nuclear ambitions as the ambitions of a group of radicals hell-bent on destabilizing the Middle East and terrorizing Western allies in the region. The truth is that the Iranian regime is not irrational – if the Iranian military ever dropped a nuclear bomb it would trigger a suicidal American response. As far as I am aware, there is no nation-state existing in the international state system that purposely puts its security at risk. Therefore the Iranian government is simply pursuing a means of maintaining its own security. I will explore how Iran feels threatened and why it believes nuclear capabilities can offer security. I will not argue that a potential nuclear-armed Iran would not create a threat to regional security; it certainly could destabilize the region.

A History of American influence

Iranian regimes have had a long history of being undermined by the west and by Washington. Great Britain and the Soviet Union invaded Iran in 1941 to prevent Nazi Germany from acquiring the country’s oil fields.  After the war the British army withdrew, but the British government clung to the monopoly over Persian oil reserves it had possessed since the turn of the century. In 1953 Iranian-nationalist backed and populist Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh was overthrown by CIA-organised coup, which reinstated the Shah. It is easy to correlate the events of 1953 and America’s subsequent support for the shah with Iran’s heavily anti-American 1979 revolution. The Iranian regime will always feel threatened by American presence due to its history of American and western influence.

In 2001 the United States of America and its NATO allies launched an invasion of Afghanistan, a nation bordering Iran to its East, overthrowing its Taliban government and replacing it with a Western-friendly democracy. If this invasion did not threaten the Iranians, as Afghanistan was a focused retaliatory war to combat the threat posed by al-Qaeda in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2003 invasion of Iraq certainly did. Iraq of course borders Iran to the West.

The War on Terror changed from al-Qaeda to the “Axis of Evil”

George W. Bush’s January 29th 2002 State of the Union Address fundamentally changed America’s ‘War on Terror.’ The Bush Administration changed course from Afghanistan and labelled three new enemies. “America and Afghanistan are now allies against terror . . . Our second goal is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction. Some of these regimes have been pretty quiet since September the 11th. But we know their true nature.” Bush then labelled North Korea, then Iran, and finally Iraq. “States like these [North Korea, Iran, and Iraq], and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” Almost 15 months later the United States invaded Iraq. Could the message be anymore clear? Either North Korea or Iran was next on the chopping block.

“The Axis of Evil” is labelled

An attack on North Korea never occurred. The United States will never attack North Korea (barring major disruptions to American interests and security such as the use of a nuclear bomb) because North Korea is – or it is plausible that it is – a nuclear armed state.  The International Institute for Strategic Studies states that “the case is strong enough that it would be imprudent to conclude that North Korea does not have nuclear weapons.”

Nuclear capabilities offer security

North Korea offers an example of a means of securing safety to Iran.   Iran can develop nuclear capabilities – or the plausible occurrence of nuclear capabilities. These capabilities would present enough of a threat to prevent attacks.  The United States has never gone to war with a nuclear armed state.  If the last century has taught us nothing else, once a nation has nuclear capabilities it will never be attacked – this is the very reason why the Cold War remained ‘Cold.’  Thus Iran sees nuclear capabilities as a means of securing itself against the American threat.

Iran’s security is also threatened by the presence of a nuclear armed American ally that exists in the region. The fact that Israel could very possibly attack Iran unilaterally without Washington’s consent adds a degree of uncertainty to the situation. This uncertainty can only make Iran feel more insecure, and make its desire for nuclear weapons as a means of protection increase. If the presence of Israel does nothing else, Iran must feel that by possessing nuclear weapons, it can check the nuclear threat Israel poses to Iran in the region.

A critic to this argument may point out that George W Bush is no longer in power – Barack Obama does not threaten Iran in the way America’s former president did. I would argue that Iran looks at the bigger picture. It has felt threatened by America since 1953, and it has no idea what the 2016 election will bring. Mitt Romney’s often hawkish stance during the most recent election campaign cannot have made Iran feel more secure, not to mention the actions of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

I admit North Korea and Iran exist in different regions, and thus their circumstances are different.  North Korea borders and allies China, a major global power.  Iran is surrounded by regional powers .  The North/South Korean conflict is frozen.  Iran was traditionally balanced in its region by Iraq.  From 1980-1988 Iran and Iraq fought a devastating war.  Its situation changed when the United States invaded its neighbors.  Iran now feels threatened by the USA.   However, the fact remains the North Korean state would be in a much less secure situation had it not developed nuclear weapons.  I argue Iran believes nuclear weapons will offer it security, a security North Korea possesses.  I predict that should Iran ever develop nuclear capabilities, it will not be attacked.

A difficult situation

The United States government is thus caught in a difficult situation. It poses a security threat to Iran and causes Iran to desire nuclear weapons, but by trying to develop these weapons Iran is threatened further by Israel.  I do not argue the solution is to have Iran develop nuclear weapons.  Even if Iran desires nuclear weapons in order to maintain its security, its acquisition of these capabilities will only destabilize the Middle East further. The Middle East is currently extremely unstable.  More nuclear weapons are the opposite of what is needed.  It would also be a strike against Nuclear Non-Proliferation. However understanding Iran’s situation can only help in the goal of reaching a peaceful outcome in which Iran does not have nuclear capabilities.

Works Cited

Cooper, Andrew Scott. The Oil Kings. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011.

“North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Programme.” The International Institute for Strategic Studies. Accessed 14 November 2012.
http://www.iiss.org/publications/strategic-dossiers/north-korean-dossier/north- koreas-weapons-programmes-a-net-asses/north-koreas-nuclear-weapons- programme/

“President Delivers State of the Union address.” Whitehouse Website, last modified 29 January 2002.
http://georgewbush- whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/01/2002012911.html

Sanger, David E. The Inheritance. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009

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One comment

  1. Pingback: A New Strategy on Iran | The State of the Century

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