Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Iran’s motives for acquiring a nuclear weapons capability, provided they aim to do so, are still insufficiently analyzed by mainstream commentators. Overly pessimistic and ill- supported assumptions about Iran’s aggressive intentions have misconstrued the debate, while Tehran’s potentially more pragmatic motives have gone unnoticed.

In November 2007, a United States National Intelligence Estimate asserted with “high confidence” that Iran, contrary to American and Israeli accusations, was not building nuclear weapons.[1] But let us suppose, for argument’s sake, that Iran’s long term goal is to acquire a nuclear capability. Iranian motives for crafting such a device would obviously have significant implications for determining what policies should be pursued by the rest of the international community. Yet, this appears to be the least discussed aspect of the issue, at least by media personalities, politicians and presidential candidates. Many seem to have concluded, perhaps prematurely, that if successful, Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons will constitute an immediate and existential threat to the state of Israel. Derived primarily from hyperbolic statements wrongly alleged to have been made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this has become the starting point from which all further debate as emanated. If Iran intends to launch an unprovoked nuclear strike against Tel Aviv the moment it has the capacity to do so, then much of the hawkish rhetoric about red lines in the sand would be warranted. However, a cursory review of the topic and of regional events suggests that Tehran may harbor much more limited objectives and for somewhat understandable reasons.

Contrary to Benjamin Netanyahu’s contention that Israel is living in the “shadow of annihilation,” it seems highly improbable that Iran’s leadership will undertake efforts to eradicate the “Jewish state”.[2] Crowds chanting “death to Israel and America” can be unsettling; however, behavior is usually a better means for gauging the nature of a country than nationalistic statements. When viewed against other regional players, Iran’s record of hostility is comparably mild. Of the six major international wars fought in the region since 1979, none have been initiated by the Islamic Republic, and the only major conflict they participated in was in response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion. The U.S. and Israel by comparison became involved in two-thirds of the events, and that is excluding smaller engagements like Israel’s incursion into Lebanon in 2006 and the 22-day military assault on Gaza of 2008-09.[3] This is not a moral judgment of the wars or of the states that fought them but simply a statement of the obvious that Tehran’s leaders have not displayed a degree of aggression congruent with their portrayal as the most unpredictable and aggressive regional actor with an implacable desire to incinerate their foes. Iran of course engages in espionage, proxy warfare, covert operations and a variety of other activities intended to influence regional outcomes in their favor, but thus far, initiating large-scale international wars has not been one of them.

In the far from certain event that Tehran does harbor more aggressive intentions concerning nuclear war, the anticipation of regime-crippling reprisals for such a brazen act should adequately caution them. In other words, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction is applicable to the current standoff. While a small nuclear payload could eradicate the geographically small state of Israel, along with its sizeable Arab population, such an audacious disregard for global norms would provoke the unmitigated wrath of the international community. It is difficult to imagine the U.S. and its allies not enthusiastically overthrowing the ayatollahs for such an obscene act. The probability of extreme retribution for a nuclear assault surely figures into the Iranian decision-making calculus, and while they may be provocative at times, they have yet to display suicidal propensities. Indeed, the rationale that stabilized the Cold War and that has prevented other equally contestable regimes from deploying atomic weapons will likely constrain Iran from doing so as well.

Concern has also been expressed over the prospect of a nuclear Iran being a source of supply for transnational terrorists. Accounts exist of encounters between Iranian agents and al Qaeda operatives.[4] The scenario is alarming at first; but the deep-seated animosity between the two actors and al Qaeda’s implacable hostility toward the Shiite community should preclude Iran from accommodating them. Hezbollah, on the other hand, is an Iranian proxy in many respects. However, their foray into elected politics seems to have tempered their penchant for terrorism since its peak in the 1980’s.[5] In any event, even the most notorious state sponsors of terrorism have not risked disbursement of nuclear weapons to such groups. Pakistan, for instance, retains an abysmal record of supporting terrorism but has proved reluctant to distribute WMDs to non-state actors. The reason for this is that Pakistan, like most nuclear states did not develop their arsenal intending to be an arms dealer, but for more pragmatic reasons to be discussed below.

To recapitulate, Tehran’s comparatively low propensity for warfare and the prospect of tit for tat regime destruction renders an offensive nuclear strike less than probable. Distribution to terrorist networks is likewise far from inevitable. So what might compel Tehran to proceed in spite sanctions, global opprobrium, and talk of war? What do the Iranians want, and how could a nuke help them acquire it?

Iran’s leaders, like all heads of state, first and foremost value regime survival, which they cannot take for granted as they are faced with credible threats to their sovereignty from both external and internal forces. Since its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has resided in a hostile neighborhood populated by adversaries and U.S. allies wary of Iranian political ascendancy. The most serious existential threat to Iran originated from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with which it fought one of the bloodiest wars in recent history and remained bitter enemies until Hussein’s demise. Beyond the Middle East, Tehran and the U.S. have existed in a constant state of enmity for over three decades. Tensions reached new heights in 2002 when President George W. Bush infamously labeled the regime as a member of the “axis-of-evil,” and then proceeded to destroy fellow axis member Iraq, positioning American troops on Iran’s western border for the better part of a decade in addition to the ones already in Afghanistan. Being  surrounded by the world’s most powerful military, which had just toppled two regimes and openly considered attacking them next, surely caused Tehran a deal of anxiety. Consider for a moment the predicament the U.S. would have been presented with if, at the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union overthrew the governments of Canada and Mexico, occupied the territories for ten years and openly expressed their desire for regime change in Washington.

Iran’s predicament, or security dilemma, could understandably lead it to view nuclear weapons as an attractive option in the future. The utility of atomic weapons lies in their capacity to deter aggressors. Nuclear arms are not battlefield weapons and Tehran does not view them as such, but rather as an expedient game changer. Their possession by a target country exponentially increases the possible costs of a strike, and figures prominently into the decision making of the would-be assailant. This has been the case numerous times in recent history. The Soviets developed nuclear weapons to deter the U.S. just as China did to restrain the Americans/Soviets, Pakistan and India to restrain one another, and so on. Similarly, Iran initially pursued a nuclear capability to deter Iraq and may ultimately do so to deter the U.S. since they have superseded Saddam as the most immediate threat. As mentioned above, U.S. troops residing on either side of Iran coupled with open discussion in Washington of besieging Tehran, may well have endowed the government with a sense of urgency concerning their nuclear ambitions.[6] The fact that other “rogue states” possessing atomic weapons have gone unscathed, probably further aroused Iranian interest in a nuclear deterrent. While the U.S. and its allies wasted little time deposing the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qaddafi, they have been reluctant to advance on countries with nuclear weapons. Despite public condemnation, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea went un-attacked after crossing the nuclear threshold in 2006. North Korea is a complicated case, but surely their crude WMD arsenal plays a role in the world’s hesitance. Of the members of the “axis of evil” the nation with the least advanced weapons program was toppled whereas the state with the most advanced survived. The obvious lesson, from Iran’s perspective, is that the introduction of nuclear weapons ups the stakes enough to caution even the strongest of foes.

Beyond regional rivals and the U.S., Iran also faces pressing internal threats. In the summer of 2009, a multitude of demonstrations erupted to dispute the re-election of Ahmadinejad. Unlike some of the regional uprisings that succeeded them, the Iranian dissidents lacked external support and faced a durable and regime loyal security apparatus which ultimately subdued them. Alarmed by their vulnerability to insurrection, which could easily invite foreign intervention, the regime may come to see nuclear weapons as a means of discouraging interference at a time when international assistance is aiding and abetting the downfall of numerous governments.

In summation, Tehran’s nuclear intentions are likely being overstated by many. At minimum, Iran, like all states, wants to survive, and at the moment the revolutionary regime faces genuine existential threats from near and afar. Neither a nuclear strike to destroy Israel nor distribution to terrorists would assist them in neutralizing such threats. What would serve their interests is achieving a credible deterrent capability to dissuade their adversaries from launching a military strike or intervening on behalf of internal opposition. When examined in the context of recent events, this strategy would make a good deal of sense from Tehran’s vantage point. In an era when most Middle Eastern states are vulnerable to either the U.S. or their own populace, obtaining nuclear weapons is an efficient way to insulate oneself, particularly for Iran which has few allies and little chance of prevailing in a conventional showdown with America. Thus, while not necessarily benign, Iran’s intentions are not as nefarious as they are often depicted.

Tehran’s joining of the nuclear club would not be unproblematic. Proliferation always has associated risks, especially in a volatile political climate like the Near East. An Iranian bomb could prompt Saudi Arabia and others to follow suit in order to offset Iran’s strength. The prospect of a further regional arms race and an emboldened Iran are both causes for trepidation, but not  preventive war. I stress “further” arms race as Israel is the only country in the region currently possessing nuclear weapons. In the event that Iran develops a nuclear deterrent and other states respond in kind, it will merely be exacerbating a competition which Israel initiated. The preceding assessment is not meant to sympathize with Iran’s repressive leadership, or to vilify the west as imperialistic. The point is simply to attempt to understand the perceptions and thinking that might be fueling their policy, which is absolutely necessary before any intelligent course of action can be put in place.


[1] Mark Hosenball, “Intelligence Agencies Say No New Nuke in Iran,” The Daily Beast, Sep. 15, 2009.

[2] Tom Cohen, “Netanyahu Warns Time is Running Out on Iran,” CNN, March 5, 2012.

[3] Correlates of War: Inter-state War Data Set v4.0 csv. War Data (accessed October 31, 2012). See also: The World at War.

[4] Bruce Reidel, “Iran and al Qaeda’s Shadowy Relationship Could Firm Up this Spring,” The Daily Beast Feb. 17, 2012

[5] For a good discussion of Hezbollah’s strategic evolution see: Robert Baer, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the Iranian Superpower. (New York: Random House, 2008) 155-180.

[6] Ray Takeyh, Guardians of the Revolution: Iran and the World in the Age of the Ayatollahs. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) 242-250.