2 April 2010
In recent years the US has been pressuring against the so-called rogue or threatening states in defying them to develop nuclear programs, a step considered ominous to US security and that of the international system. Recent scuffles with Iran in that sense has particularly been at the forefront of analysis. The US response to Iranian nuclear program has usually been contained within a word of warning as "don’t do it or else" .
However, this is not to say that the US is only picking up on Iran. The current policy of "haves" is to prevent the "new comers" from acquiring nuclear weapons through a mixture of persuasion and/or coercion. Yet, there has been little effort to understand and appreciate the reasons for why Iran, or any country, would persistently pursue a nuclear policy. Had it been answered this question would have brought about two constructive outcomes; one of which is to illustrate the new American administration how strategic engagement with Iran could be pursued on the subject of nuclear program; secondly what should be done to amend the failing non-proliferation policy. More importantly it would have helped alleviate fears about what Iran might do with nuclear weapons which is fed by the concern that; Tehran has no clear reason to be pursuing nuclear weapons; the strategic rationale for Iran’s nuclear program is by no means obvious.
To begin with, some states tend to develop nuclear ambitions due to prestige that comes with the possession of nuclear weapons. This is especially so when states could easily interpret recent events in world politics as such that; if a state is elevated to becoming a member into the club of "haves" , its standing both regionally and internationally improves accordingly. It would be more tempting to "go nuclear" when the new status that comes with nuclear weapons seem to benefit a state such as being provided with economic and political incentives. North Korea not only gained international attention by developing nuclear military capability but also utilised the possession of nuclear weapons a way out of escaping from strategic loneliness. It also successfully negotiated the cessation of further nuclear development and compliance to the Nuclear Proliferation Agreement in return for increased economic assistance and aid.
Since the revolution, the Islamic regime has been driven to political isolation as the war with Iraq proved when Western powers as well as the overwhelming majority of Arabic countries supported Baghdad. Due to Tehran’s ambitions of exporting the revolution that attitude may have been warranted but the regime and people of Iran saw their standing within the international community diminished in time. For the descendants of a self-perceived historical nation being relegated from international favour must have been a harsh experience to take in. Acquisition of a great-weapon so much so only the strongest and most advanced international actors could obtain, therefore, could have provided the crucial confidence-building for the newly acclaimed nation.
In addition to improving one’s international standing, nuclear weapons’ intrinsic strategic and political value could be a fairly useful instrument in boosting internal authorities. For those which experience problems over legitimacy, embarking on a nuclear program could provide a fitting distraction and a rational excuse for their failings over internal political issues. Similar to Iran, populations in several of the nuclear zealous countries feel an overweening sense of self-importance which translates into their officials believing that their country should be the most powerful and richest state in the region and cannot understand why they are not. If the
officials are unable to respond to that by successful planning in investment and development, they realise that their legitimacy in government would be in question. In that respect nuclear programs appear to be providing the Iranian regime with a useful instrument in deferring internal troubles. Realising that it’s attempts are bound to be opposed by the outside world, particularly the United States, the regime is insisting on its program so that it can turn to its people, primarily the radical groups, and easily claim that; "they are doing all they can but international interfering is denying them the right not only to possess nuclear weapons but also development and prosperity".
A country without nuclear weapons or allies within the "haves" club would try to develop its own weapons in order to counter its enemies who already have them. When China acquired nuclear weapons India and then Pakistan followed in suit. Giving that Israel is known to already gone nuclear is further fuelling Iran’s drive for acquisition of the same weapon.
States also tend to "go nuclear" if and when they sense a looming threat from a nuclear state and their nuclear ally may not choose to retaliate. When Britain decided to become a nuclear power it had doubts that the United States could be counted on to retaliate in response to an attack by the Soviet Union on Europe. As soon as the Soviet Union became capable of making credible nuclear strikes at American cities, West Europeans worried that American nuclear umbrella no longer provided a definitive insurance. In view of that, despite the improving relations with Moscow, Iran does not fall into the category of having a dedicated nuclear ally which would protect it from an attack from another nuclear state such as Israel. Fears of facing present or future adversaries with a more conventionally superior strength may also convince states to go nuclear. The enormity of conventional military imbalance between the Arabs and Israel was reason enough for the latter to go nuclear. Following the Gulf War the feeling in Iran would be as such that; giving the American conventional superiority (as a global force) and Israeli might (as a regional force) the only choice to counter a potentially superior conventional attack or the use of threat for demanding concession from Tehran is being in a position to be able to make credible and serious nuclear threats.
Nuclear weapons can be a cheaper alternative to building up and maintaining an economically ruinous conventional military strength. In other words, nuclear capability promises security and independence at an affordable price. Since, the devastating eight-year war with Iraq, Iran has been striving to revitalize it military by purchasing high-tech offensive and defensive weapons such as anti-ship missiles, diesel-electric attack submarines, fighter aircrafts, battle tanks and patrol boats. It is estimated that Tehran has been spending around $ 4 billion annually since the beginning of 1990s . Giving the sanctions constraining the economy and the low level in oil prices until recently, Iran’s nuclear program appears as a credible and time rewarding alternative to its conventional build up.
In conclusion, all of these may prove to be helpful to Obama who prior to his election success announced intentions for a dialogue with Iran without preconditions. Understanding the underlying reasons of Iranian nuclear program which as described above are not so different from the rest of the earlier cases is already reminiscent of his goal of "grand bargain" (defined as both sides putting their demands and incentives on the table). In doing so Obama would really differ from the previous administration in following a "new strategy".