Iran Analysis Quarterly

Volume 2 No.2 – Fall (September-November) 2004

A Publication of the Iranian Studies Group at MIT


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the Iranian Studies Group.



Mohammad Nasseri-Asl is currently an MA candidate in International Law and Politics at Georgetown University. He obtained his BA in political science with a concentration in international affairs from the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. He intends to finish his JD in 2008. His primary research interests include Iranian security interests towards the Caspian region and the Middle East.





Mohammad Nasseri-Asl

MA Candidate, Georgetown University




In order for one to better understand the logic behind Iran or any other state’s aspiration for obtaining armament of non-conventional origin, it would be advantageous to first construct a paradigm that summarizes the international political system. Therefore, the intent of this section is to concoct a theoretical context for interpreting the Iranian rationale concerning their desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction, specifically nuclear capability.

Upon the termination of the Thirty Years War, over three hundred years ago, a new system of state governance emerged in Europe, which led to the contemporary disposition of our present international political arrangement. Upon the completion of the 1648 Westphalian treaties, a nascent form of economic, political, and social communication and association came to fruition in Europe.  As a result, original legal standards were established with the objective of managing international affairs. Consequently, articles of belief that formally sanctioned the concept of nation-states having the ultimate right to manage their internal and foreign affairs void of external influence came into existence. In essence, the state became the highest authority and was commissioned by the new laws of international relations to undertake any means appropriate to safeguard its boundaries and interests from external threat.     

One need not be a political pundit to fathom the fact that the realm of international relations can best be characterized as anarchic in nature. Gross violations of human rights, mass genocides, and other breaches of international legal norms are committed by states, which are seldom held accountable. Rwanda, Kosovo- until American forces intervened, the Holocaust, and the genocide of Armenians by the Turks are few examples of the world standing by idle while innocent civilians were brutally murdered.  The United Nations and other international organizations that are entrusted with the responsibility of preserving the international code of conduct among nation-states often do not have enough political and military clout to impose meaningful policies to inhibit such injustices. Thus, it should come as no surprise that in the current international political environment, which lacks a central agency that can objectively and persuasively settle hostilities, states seek the most devastating arsenals in order to protect their national interests and security. According to Charles Kegley and Eugene Wittkopf, “Preoccupation with preparations for defense becomes understandable, for the fear persists that one adversary might use force against another to realize its goals or to vent its frustrations, and the threat of separatists revolts and civil rebellions to severe minority populations from existing sovereign states has become a major trend.”[1]

Therefore, it is imperative that one takes into consideration the balance of power, which compels state actors to seek every possible means to ensure the homogeneity of a region’s power structure for the reason to inhibit threats and conflict. To illustrate, the former Soviet Union’s hastened response of establishing a Soviet WMD project in the face of American nuclear proliferation, and Pakistan’s refusal to inhibit the testing of nuclear weaponry upon India’s successful trial are prime examples of the significance of preserving the balance of power in strategic politics.

Additionally, many international relations strategists acknowledge the practicality of the above proclamation, which argues that the homogeneousness of the nuclear capabilities of the United States and the Soviet Union contributed to the establishment of a balance of power, as a consequence, deterrence.  Devin Hagerty of the University of Maryland Baltimore County goes so far as to state that nuclear capability of both India and Pakistan can be credited for restraining the eruption of another Indian-Pakistani War[2]. Others have advanced this theory by arguing that nuclear armament has the capacity to attract reverence from the international community, therefore, stymieing systematic and devastating sanctions from the United States and the international community. For instance, George Perkovich of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote, “Moreover, the U.S. no longer sanctions and threatens Pakistan, though Pakistan arguably is no less a [sponsor of terrorism] than Iran. Pakistan continues to be a base of groups conducting what are now considered terrorist acts against Indian interests in Kashmir or India proper, not to mention Al Qaeda that operate in Pakistan. Some in Iran feel simply that if a country like Pakistan has the bomb and earns deference from it, a greater nation like Iran must too.”[3]


Given the anarchic realm of international relations, it should come as no surprise that a state like Iran has the desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction. However, the case with Iran along with other rogue states is that obtaining nuclear technology is valued highly for not only national security reasons, but primarily for regime security or preservation. A regime in Tehran that respects the democratic aspirations of its people, who yearn for greater openness and respect for human rights has no need to fear domestic umbrage, the United States, or Israel. In fact, Tehran has no need for nuclear technology given that Iran harbors ten percent of the world’s oil reserves.  Rather than work in cooperation with the United States and her allies to create a peaceful and economically thriving Middle East, the cleric’s have unfortunately decided to follow the path of miss opportunity and self-destruction by utilizing the North Korean paradigm.  


The North Koreans current domestic and international position is symmetrical to the theocratic state. First, both states are practically surrounded by American forces. Second, the two country’s economic apparatuses have deteriorated to an inferior degree. Third, Iranians and the North Koreans have been virtually isolated from the international community, while some may differ with reference to Iran. Fourth, both nations were juxtaposed on President Bush’s axis of evil speech to Congress after the horrifying attacks of September 11th.  Furthermore, there is no ambiguity concerning the communist state’s utilization of global blackmail. In order to compensate for their inherently futile policies, the communist state utilized nuclear blackmail to acquire concessions from the United States and the international community. To illustrate, between 1993 and 1994, The North Koreans were able to obtain principle support from the United States in establishing a light-water-moderate reactor, and the temporary halt of the Team Spirit military exercises by the American and South Korean forces along the DMZ.  The North Koreans even claim that military potential is a guarantor of political sovereignty and a viable economy. 


The American posture towards Pyongyang in the form of an incentive oriented manner regarding the issue of procuring nuclear technology has made Tehran envious of North Korean-U.S. relations. To provide further examples, in order to peacefully confront the Koreans regarding their development of weapons of mass destruction, the Clinton administration proposed economic incentives if the Koreans terminated their WMD program. For instance, Clinton promised in a communiqué to Kim Jong Il that he (Clinton) promised to use the capacity of his faculty to provide Pyongyang monetary assistance, which Washington furnished the DPRK with over six-hundred million dollars between 1995 and the last year of his administration.[4] The Clinton administrations’ plan was based on coaxing Pyongyang to stray from future bellicose policies by employing incentives such as economic aid and special political considerations. As a result, the Clinton administrations’ basic policy towards North Korea was to barter essential and sensitive substances for security promises. However, it must be noted that Jimmy Carter had essentially hijacked U.S. policy upon his trip to Pyongyang in 1993-1994, by promising the communist leader that Washington would not seek or implement United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea if further talks were to be held.[5]


The above-mentioned offers were never issued to Tehran, even though the Bushehr project had commenced during Clinton’s tenure and the Iranians were and continue to be signatories of the NPT. The clerical regime strongly believes that the reasoning behind the different policies is solely attributed to the fact that the Korean nuclear program is in a more sophisticated stage than their projects. Consequently, Tehran is attempting to make use of the Korean strategy. As mentioned previously, Tehran is facing economic upheaval. Unemployment is rampant and the class strata can now be defined as either wealthy or destitute, while the middle class is becoming increasingly extinct. Not to overlook are Iran’s high inflation, lack of ability to extensively increase oil production, a torpid per capita investment and gross domestic product, significant foreign debt, and a horrible manufacturing division. The numbers show that Iran from 1993 to 1997 had an average growth rate of 1.5 percent, less than the three percent yearly increase in population[6].  


Additionally, seventy percent of the Iranian population are under the age of thirty-two. The youth are growing restless of the stagnant socio-economic status of Iran. Many nascent college graduates cannot find a reputable and stable occupation.  As a result, Persian youths across Iran periodically vent their frustrations via mass demonstrations.  Case in point would be last June’s weeklong mass protest rallies, which commenced due to governmental education initiatives. The demonstrations spread throughout the country similar to mass protests staged in July of 1999. In addition, draconian public statutes that run contrary to the principle tenets of Islam have socially limited the youth and the general public, who yearn for greater tolerance and openness.  Many Iranians have grown weary of social reforms that Mohammad Khatami’s election campaign promised, but never transpired due to the power struggle between the moderates and the conservatives. In general, the majority of Iranians blame the conservative faction for stymieing moderate proposals that are consistent with public sentiment. As a result, the clerics view a nuclear Iranian state as capable of quelling domestic hostilities as well as international pressures for the foreseeable future. 


Iran’s Security Concerns

When the United States invaded Afghanistan in response to the tragic events of September 11th, the mullahs in Tehran understood that the strategic origin of the Near East would dramatically change in the forthcoming months and years.  As a result, the security concerns of the Iranians should be viewed in terms of their geo-political location. To the west there is Israel and American troops in Iraq. To the east, Pakistan and the Taliban Afghanistan, now American backed Afghanistan. To the north, NATO member Turkey and her increasingly cooperative association with the Israelis. The following is a synopsis of Tehran’s regional concerns with regard to the above-mentioned states.

1) Iraq


After the invasion of Iraq by American troops, the United States replaced Saddam Hussein as the most formidable threat to Iranian security. America’s rapid invasion and victory in Iraq aroused anxiety among clerics in Tehran. Notwithstanding the fact that the Iranians were relieved to see Saddam Hussein gone, the clerics do not want however to witness the Americans having an unproblematic time in Iraq. Reason being, the more difficult experience the Americans have in Iraq, the less likely there would be a military advancement to Iran. Accordingly, there have been reports that Tehran deployed covert operation units to Shiite dominated Iraq with the purpose of fostering a united Shiite front that could slow American progress and eventually establish a theocratic state similar to Iran. If the reports can be substantiated, the United States would have even greater leverage to craft considerable demands on Iran. Furthermore, Iranians fear of the new regime in Baghdad becoming as belligerent towards Tehran as was its predecessor. An Iraqi regime that is guaranteed financial, moral, and military support from the United States could truncate Iran’s influence in the region and tilt the balance of power towards the Iraqi side.

2) Israel


Israelis are despised by the theocratic regime for several reasons. First, the clerics and their cronies view the Palestinian struggle as a fundamental iniquity committed against a group of destitute people. Second, Israeli’s strategic alliance with the United States (“ The Great Satan”) is a source of perpetual loathing. Third, Israelis public debate regarding preemptive action against Iranian nuclear facilities has provoked anxiety and contempt in Tehran. The fourth reason should be viewed in terms of a historical perspective. Basically, Tehran will have a difficult time succumbing to the wishes of the Israelis due to one essential issue. The theocratic revolution of 1979 was partly based on contempt for the imperial ambitions of the United States and to a certain degree Israel, which the Shah supported. Therefore, to make peace and establish formal relations with Jerusalem would fundamentally challenge the hallmark of the revolution. Moreover, the mullahs view revolutionary zeal against the United States and Israel as the underlying dynamic that safeguards their rule, even though surveys show the majority of Iranians revere the United States and want to become part of the international community. However, Tehran does not want direct military engagement with Israel, which was highlighted in a speech by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomenei who said, “Palestine is not Iran’s Jihad.” Therefore, unless Israel takes preemptive action against Iranian nuclear facilities, Tehran would settle for supporting terrorists groups such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad in a proxy war.

3) Pakistan


Iranian-Pakistani relations could be characterized as constructive until 1979. Since the commencement of the theocratic regime, bilateral relations have been strained to an extent. The major source of resentment can be attributed to the civil war in neighboring Afghanistan. The civil war in Afghanistan was merely a proxy war between the Iranian supported Northern Alliance and the Pakistani assisted Sunni extremists Taliban, which started upon the abdication of the Soviet sponsored government in the early 1990’s.  There is no doubt that Afghanistan is central to Iranian strategic thinking primarily for her location. Afghanistan is not only contiguous to both countries, it also is the entry to Central Asia, a region blessed or some may argue cursed by vast reserves of oil and gas. The proxy war and Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear armament has caused Iran to regard Pakistan as a growing threat to her strategic interests. In addition, Pakistan’s growing collaboration with United States after 9/11, has become a source of concern for Iranians, especially in the wake of American threats against Tehran.  However, it is also imperative to recognize that Iran views stability in South East Asia in her strategic interests. Iran’s desire to provide natural gas to India cannot be achieved without better relations with Pakistan. As long as Pakistan and India are not on friendly terms, New Delhi would in no fashion grant a contract to Iran for a construction of a natural gas line to India via Pakistan. Therefore, Tehran is utilizing all diplomatic crafts in order to promote perpetual cooperation between the two former British colonies.

4) Turkey


Since 1979, Iranian-Turkish relations can best be typified as polarized. Neither country shares a foreign policy agenda; for instance, Turkey supports the United States and engagement with the international community, while Iran is an adversary of the U.S. and reclusive in the realm of global politics. Their respective foreign policy postures seem to be the point of contention between Tehran and Ankara. An illustration would be Turkey’s military pact with Israel, which has caused trepidation in Tehran.  Ankara’s approval of allowing twelve percent of Israel’s air force to be stationed on Turkish land is seen as a direct threat not only from Israel but also Turkey.  The other source of enmity can be attributed to the issue of Central Asia and the Caspian region. Both states have vital interests in the region, principally with the exportation of Caspian energy.  The two were at times on the brink of war over disputed oil fields in the Caspian. To exemplify, in August of 2001, Iran and Azerbaijan entered into a bitter disagreement concerning an oil field in the Caspian Sea. As Iran deployed gunboats to frighten the Azeris into leaving the area, Turkey responded by sending a unit of armed aircraft to Azerbaijan to make obvious her shared aims with the Azeris and to caution the Iranians not to formulate a hegemonic policy in the Caspian Sea. Even though Iranian-Turkish relations are at best fragile and could turn into armed conflict if the circumstances are apposite; be that as it may, Turkey and Iran have attempted to foster a framework in which both countries could better develop their relations by jointly laboring to solve issues of mutual concern, such as the inhibition of drug smuggling and the development of a gas pipeline from Iran to Turkey.


The conservative block while a minority, are in control of the major institutions of government in Tehran. The intelligence, defense, communications, and judicial ministries are bodies that are ruled by staunch conservatives. As with North Korea and other totalitarian states, the primary objective is to sustain power and position for as long as possible. Given the amalgamation of a rapidly deteriorating economy, with domestic umbrage against social and economic policies, also the threat posed by Iran’s neighboring states, and what a nuclear program has done for North Korea, the clerics want to utilize the threat of WMDs to safeguard their position at home and increase their bargaining power abroad. 


The Ominous Indications of Iran’s Forthcoming Nuclear Weapons Program

Before examining the warning symbols of Iran’s emerging nuclear weapons program, several points must be stated in relation to the veracity of the claims leveled on Iran by the international community. Although numerous international officials suspect that Iran is seeking to construct a nuclear weapons program, presently the International Atomic Energy Agency has not substantiated their claims. Regardless, the United States and the international community are becoming increasingly apprehensive regarding Iran’s nuclear program with recent findings by the IAEA. As a result, the IAEA granted Tehran until October 31 of 2003 to provide a report that demonstrates their civilian nuclear intent.

The international community must delicately confront the Iranians primarily for the reason that Iran under NPT statutes has the mandate to acquire nuclear technology, including the production of uranium enrichment factories. However, the nuclear capability is only legitimate if its purpose is solely for civilian and non-confrontational use. Given that, many scholars and policy makers are asking why a country with the globe’s six- largest oil reserves would be in great need of nuclear technology?

International observers have based their apprehension regarding Iran’s up and coming nuclear weapons program on six factors. First, Tehran has and continues to seek a cost consuming method in which they would have the capability to excavate and enrich uranium. Second, Tehran has been investigating the utility of lasers to process uranium, another cost consuming effort, which a civilian nuclear plant does not require. Third, Tehran whether knowingly or not neglected to report to the IAEA that it acquired 1.8 metric tons of organic uranium from China in 1991. The uranium was then stored in a facility that was hidden from IAEA officials. Fourth, Tehran brought to light in last February a covert heavy water production establishment in Arak, not to distant from Nantanz. It is commonly known that heavy water can be utilized to manufacture plutonium, an essential ingredient for nuclear technology. Fifth, samples of enhanced uranium were discovered at a centrifuge facility named the Kalaye Electric Company. Sixth, the international community became cognizant of a nascent gas centrifuge uranium production facility in Nantanz last February.  When coalesced, all of the following factors contribute to the international community’s apprehension of Iran’s nuclear intentions.[7] 

While Iran has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Tehran’s ambitions to acquire nuclear technology are not new. In fact, the deposed Shah of Iran aggressively sought nuclear capability as early as 1967. In reality, the United States facilitated Iran with her first nuclear reactor, which was transported to Amirabad Nuclear Research Center in 1967. Therefore, Iranians have sought nuclear technology before the 1979 revolution and will most likely pursue nuclear capability until one comes to completion. It would be callow to think otherwise.


Although policy suggestions are not the intent of this project, it is imperative that we briefly recognize that to simply continue on course with the status quo of containment would be detrimental to American security interests. America’s approach of attempting to isolate Iran economically and militarily until a domestic explosion brings to fruition a regime change is romantic thinking. As we witnessed in Iraq, years of containment could not foster a political revolution. A totalitarian state like Iran will utilize all resources to quell domestic uprisings.  Be that as it may, economic sanctions on Iran in the form of such legislation as the Iran-Libya Act have been a major obstacle in the cleric’s pursuit to deliver better economic conditions for Iranians. Unfortunately, sanctions have done little to impede a nuclear Iran. Increasingly it is becoming salient that the debate of whether to obtain or to abstain from acquiring nuclear technology is no longer ongoing and in favor of those who support a nuclear Iran among the foreign policy making apparatus of Tehran. 

Therefore, appeasing the clerics in the same fashion as we have with the Koreans would not render positive results, and will in fact establish a dangerous precedent. Other nations such as Brazil, or worse other rogue states would view nuclear proliferation as their means for obtaining recognition in the form of economic incentives from the international community. Given that the international community is reluctant to make considerable demands on Iran, it is therefore up to the United States to impede the realization of the world’s first nuclear theocratic state.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official opinion of the Iranian Studies Group.





         I.      Charles W. Kegley, Jr. and Eugene R. Wittkopf, The Global Agenda: Issues and Perspectives, (McGrawHill: New York, 2001) 3.

       II.      Devin Hagerty, The Consequences of Nuclear Proliferation: Lessons from South Asia.  MIT Press: Boston, 1998) 10.

     III.      George Perkovich, “Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Challenge,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 28, 2003.

     IV.      Nicholas Eberstadt, Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy, (Encounter Books: San Francisco, 2000) 160.

       V.      Drennan M, William The United States and Coercive Diplomacy. Ed. Robert Art and Patrick M. Cronin. Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2003.

     VI.      Eliyahu Kanovsky, Iran’s Economic Morass: Mismanagement and Decline Under the Islamic Republic, (Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Washington, DC, 1997) ix.

   VII.      All of the figures in this section were based upon a report published by the Council on Foreign Relations, Iran: Nuclear Weapons, October 29, 2003.


Copyright © 2004 Iranian Studies Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

[1] Charles W. Kegley, Jr. and Eugene R. Wittkopf, The Global Agenda: Issues and Perspectives, (McGrawHill: New York, 2001) 3.

[2]  Devin Hagerty, The Consequences of Nuclear Proliferation: Lessons from South Asia.  MIT Press: Boston, 1998) 10.

[3] George Perkovich, “Dealing With Iran’s Nuclear Challenge,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 28, 2003.

[4] Nicholas Eberstadt, Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy, (Encounter Books: San Francisco, 2000) 160. 

[5] Drennan M, William The United States and Coercive Diplomacy. Ed. Robert Art and Patrick M. Cronin. Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2003.

[6] Eliyahu Kanovsky, Iran’s Economic Morass: Mismanagement and Decline Under the Islamic Republic, (Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Washington, DC, 1997) ix.

[7] All of the figures in this section were based upon a report published by the Council on Foreign Relations, Iran: Nuclear Weapons, October 29, 2003.