Why Iran is rational in trying to obtain nuclear weapons

May 16, 2013 8:07 pm

Rational means exercising reason and sound judgment. In international relations theory the rational actor model is that when making a decision the rational decision maker takes into account the foreign policy goals of the nation and determines which one takes priority over others. Then the decision maker weighs up the cost and benefits of this action, and then makes the optimal choice depending on cost, effectiveness and a variety of other influences, to what will benefit their country the best.

A more Western view of the rational model would be that there is a delegation of authoritative foreign policy makers made up of a small elite elected group, rather than a single person. The rational actor model fits into the answer of Iran’s search for a nuclear capability is a rational response to the threat from US and Israel as the long term benefits of nuclear weapons as history has shown far outweigh the short term potential costs from sanctions and military action from Israel and the United States.

The reasons for Iran seeking nuclear weapons are much the same as that of any nuclear power in the current world. That of deterrence, security, symbolism and power. Having a nuclear programme has brought Iran prestige in the Islamic world as well as global political credibility; it allows them to have the same stature as the big players in world affairs on the U.N. Security Council.

The most rational decision that the Iranian leaders could make is to have the technology to produce nuclear weapons but not in actual fact produce any. This would arguably give them the most international prestige and significance and lessens the risks of an attack. If they follow this path remains to be seen. However this course of action still leaves Iran open to attack as they will not have the deterrent of nuclear weapons to stop an Israeli or United States attack. It gives Iran an international voice but no force to back up their policies until they have nuclear weapons where they would be listened to out of fear.

Iranian President

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

The fundamental underlying question here is that is there a rational argument for Iran to not have nuclear weapons? A statement in September 2012 by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shows that there is little logic in the argument to stop Iran.

“Let’s even imagine that we have an atomic weapon, a nuclear weapon. What would we do with it? What intelligent person would fight 5,000 American bombs with one bomb?”

This shows how Iran becoming a nuclear power in no way means that they are threatening United States dominance, their ability to influence world affairs or even threaten the United States directly. No rational person would believe that once Iran obtains nuclear weapons they would attack the United States or Israel who both have large stockpiles of nuclear weapons. The United States labelled Iran in their “axis of evil,” they invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. The pretence of invading Iraq was because they believed that they had nuclear weapons. This shows that Iran has a perfectly legitimate fear of invasion or the use of force against them by the United States.

With the comparable military capabilities of the two nations overwhelmingly in favour of the United States whose military spending makes up 45.7% of the whole world’s military expenditure. Therefore nuclear deterrence is arguably the only cost-effective way of stopping America and Israel from attacking Iran.

Iran does not have the military might to influence global affairs. That is why a lot of their foreign policy has been conducted through organisations such as Hezbollah and Hamas. This so called “axis of resistance” used to promote Iranian interests around the Middle East, to combat that of Israel’s and the United States. Iran funds Hezbollah in a war of attrition against Israel, it is estimated at $700 million a year. Iran undertakes this foreign policy style as it is cheaper than extensively expanding their military and it avoids a fully fledged war with Israel.

The acquisition of nuclear weapons may mean that Iran will have a less controversial foreign policy as they will have the symbolic power of nuclear weapons and greater recognition on the international stage and not resort to the use of terrorist groups. Their regional concerns will be listened to and they may not resort to funding terrorist organisations as Israel will be forced to treat Iran on an equal level if and when they achieve nuclear capability. Thus Iran is rational in acquiring nuclear capability to produce weapons as it could lead to a more stable Middle East and maybe even a more stable relationship with Israel as the possession of these nuclear weapons could pacify their foreign policy due to the risk of escalation.

With the new nuclear states of India, Pakistan and North Korea there is no rational argument to say to Iran that they cannot have any when these countries do. In many ways Iran is a much more stable country than Pakistan. Pakistan has a vehement rivalry with another nuclear power and neighbour in India. This has resulted in them spreading the weapons across their country. This in turn has put the security of the weapons at greater risk as it makes them much more vulnerable to attacks or being stolen by terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda who operate in the tribal regions of Pakistan.

This poses a greater threat to the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons than Iran does. There is no solid argument to say why Iran should not gain nuclear capability when these countries have nuclear weapons along with others like China, Russia, France, Great Britain and the United States. There is no logical reason why nuclear powers in the West and Israel can say Iran is too dangerous to have nuclear weapons, when they themselves have the same but much more powerful nuclear weapons. The United States is still the only nation to ever use these weapons back in 1945. To people in Iran and the Middle East it looks like the West is deciding for everyone who is good and bad and to people in this region the United States must appear to be the most dangerous country in the world with their nuclear and conventional forces and willingness to invade and seemingly police the world.

The deterrence principle is mainly directed towards Israel and the United States. The main reason that the United States does not want Iran achieving nuclear capability is because it gives Iran the power to deter the United States threat. The lesson of recent history lends weight to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capability. In the cases of Iraq and Libya two dictators who gave up their goal of gaining nuclear weapons and within the last decade have both been ousted from leadership with the help of the United States. Therefore, the only way to guarantee a nations safety is to acquire nuclear weapons, as it’s the only way to protect oneself from the United States. This has been shown by North Korea’s achievement of becoming a nuclear weapons state.

Before North Korea achieved this status, the United States was threatening them and trying to stop them becoming a nuclear power. Yet once they had succeeded in creating a nuclear weapon there was nothing the United States can do and it secures them from invasion. So in this respect Iran is very rational to pursue nuclear capability, it would even seem foolish not to, especially looking at the Iraq case.
The deterrence and security reasoning behind nations getting nuclear weapons is even more prominent when you look at Iranian history.

Iranian Nuclear Facility

Iranian Nuclear Facility

The classic arguments for nuclear weapons of insecurity, prestige and strength are arguably more valid for nations like Iran who are still developing and have a long history of colonial and semi-colonial rule and dominance. Nuclear weapons would guarantee their long term independence. Iran’s more recent history further highlights how they feel threatened by the West. The Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) which led to over 500,000 Iranian deaths. This helps to understand why Iran distrusts the West and some of its neighbours as in this war Iraq received financial and military aid from the United States, France, Germany, Great Britain, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, Jordan, and several other global and regional powers as well as ignoring Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical and biological weapons.

Therefore, it is no wonder that Iran seeks nuclear capability and has no faith in the United States, EU and UN. Iran knows that international support is very fickle as fifteen years after that war ended the United States invaded Iraq and killed Saddam Hussein. Therefore the pursuit of this nuclear capability is highly rational when you look back at the reasons for it. Nuclear weapons would be their one guarantee of safety.

The logical outcome of Iran gaining nuclear capability is a stand-off between Israel and Iran, much like there was in the Cold War between the United States and the USSR. This is the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). This is where if one attacks the other they know that they will be attacked and both states will suffer the effect of nuclear weapons; therefore they will be much less likely to resort to using these weapons. Israel and the West have a fear that this principle will not apply to Iran as many of them do not see Iran as a rational international actor. Not once has an Iranian leader said that they will attack Israel out of the blue without provocation but that if attacked they would retaliate, and what world leader would not do the same?

So again it would be a rational response to a threat from Israel. It is Israel who are the ones talking and thinking about attacking Iran for no other reason than building nuclear capability, like Israel has. And Iran is not as secretive about it as Israel has been. Israel has a vastly superior military thanks to the United States and is making provocative statements about invading Iran. Therefore the logical rational response to this threat is to continue building their nuclear capability and to be more secretive about their progress as if Israel and the United States knew how far down the line Iran is and where all the sites are located, it would practically guarantee an Israeli and United States attack.

So secrecy is key to maintaining their own security. Until they have developed this nuclear capability to provide their own safety. To take any different step would be irrational on Iran’s part.
Some people would argue that there is no need for nuclear weapons in this current day an age with the Global Zero movement and in wider context the call for general disarmament. These claims have been backed up with the signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996 and the START I, II and III treaties and calls for reduction in nuclear weapons by President Obama. However, if these claims are believable and if Obama and other world leader’s rhetoric can be taken at face value then there is a chance. But in my opinion this will never happen as the nuclear capable countries will not give up the power, symbolism and credibility that the bomb provides them with.

Also a world without nuclear weapons would be a much more dangerous world where America will have near complete military hegemony over the whole world. Thus it is rational for Iran and all the other nuclear power countries to want to keep nuclear weapons as it is still the only control on American military power and ambition.

The threat of Israel and the United States is one that increases the likelihood and reasoning for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons capability. Iran does not know the true intentions that the United States and Israel has towards them. Is the talk of invasion an attempt to scare Iran into stopping their pursuit of nuclear capability or a real threat? Whatever it is meant to be the effect will only spur Iran on in the acquisition of the technology. The one drawback from Iran’s rational search for nuclear capability due to this threat posed by the United States and Israel, is that the search for nuclear capability is one that could very likely result in a pre-emptive attack by the Israel or the United States on Iran.

Therefore in the short term it can be seen as an irrational act, but the long term rationale behind the search for nuclear capability is sound. As once Iran has achieved nuclear status, as we have seen in North Korea, America will not act as they do not want to risk escalation that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. This fits into the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) principle. That these nations who have this nuclear capability through MAD will not attack each other, so it leads to a tense peace. Iran and Israel will not attack each other due to the catastrophic events that could occur and arguably Iran having nuclear weapons could lead to a more stable relationship between the two, as both nations will have to treat each other with cautious respect.

The rhetoric over the last decade from the United States only persuades Iran that they are in danger of being attacked. In 2004 The U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution giving George W. Bush all appropriate means to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Not only do they have this political freedom to take “all necessary measures” the United States has given countless sophisticated weaponry to Israel under Bush such as thirty long-range F-15s which cost $48 million each and 5000 GBU-27 and GBU-28 weapons known as “bunk busters” an five submarines with missiles that could reach Iranian targets.

This United States assistance to Israel and rhetoric, especially under Bush but still in evidence under Obama that Iran is the biggest foreign policy threat to them. As recent United States policy has shown with the previous foreign threats of Iraq who did not have nuclear weapons were invaded and North Korea who obtained nuclear weapons were left alone once they acquired them. Therefore the logical and rational Iranian foreign policy would be to follow North Korea’s lead and try to achieve nuclear weapons capability.

Israel and Iran have a long history together. But it is only in recent decades that they have been pitted against each other for strategic control in the Middle East since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991. With no enemy to unite the two nations and keep them in check, covert and overt cooperation evaporated. Since then there have been numerous proxy fights, with Iran supporting violent anti-Israeli groups and Israel with its ally of the United States trying to isolate Iran. This is still the case today with Israel having sophisticated weaponry and nuclear warheads provided by the United States.

Mushroom CloudTherefore, it is not too hard to envision an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. It is easy to understand why Israel is so against Iran becoming a nuclear power in the Middle East. At the moment Israel is the only nuclear state (and believed to have over a hundred nuclear weapons), which they see as vital to protect themselves from who they perceive to be hostile neighbours. Many Islamic groups have professed their desire to destroy Israel, namely Hamas and Hezbollah who are supported by Iran. Therefore Israel’s defence doctrine is that no enemy should in time muster the capability to threaten Israel’s existence which Iran achieving nuclear capability would do.

This shows how Israel has a militarily hegemony in the Middle East and understandably Iran and other Islamic states feel threatened by the use of Israeli force. So for many people in Iran achieving nuclear capability could create a counter balance to Israel’s military superiority and create a less confrontational Middle East. Israel would be anxious but if they acted rationally then they would undoubtedly pursue a policy of deterrence with Iran.

Israel has not yet signed up to the 1970 Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The reason for not becoming a signatory of the treaty is that the NPT and the requirement to relinquish a nuclear deterrent option were not consistent with vital national security requirements. Israel has still not declared itself a nuclear power. For them it is still a weapon of last resort and the only weapon of deterrence in a very hostile environment. This can be viewed as a rational policy for Israel considering their geopolitical climate. However Iran can then be viewed as undoubtedly rational in response to the threat of Israel and the bomb in producing their own, especially since Israel has not opened up its nuclear facilities to inspection.

The toleration of Israel as a nuclear power without inspection of their facilities yet Iran has undergone more inspection but is still treated with sanctions and talk of force when they have been much more willing to negotiate and allow UN inspectors in than Israel has ever been. Yet Israel is allowed these weapons when many Western nations are wholly against Iran gaining them. It is therefore understandable why Iran feels threatened and treated unfairly by the international community on this issue when Israel has acted in a much more aggressive manner an received little action or attention whereas Iran has been more transparent (not completely but more so than Israel) and been sanctioned with many calling Iran dangerous to the world if they gain nuclear weapons.

If Israel does not sign the NPT they have no legitimate leg to stand on when calling for Iran to abandon their attempts hence Iran is perfectly rational in obtaining nuclear weapons capability with the threat of Israel especially considering that Israel gets special treatment from the West and it has not signed the NPT and are willing to use nuclear weapons if they deem it necessary.

The threat from the United States and Israel is not a separate one. Israel is closely linked with the United States since its formation in 1948 and the United States in turn sees Israel as its counter balance and ally in the Middle East, they share a similar view of Islamic states. This view has only been enhanced after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre and seems to have validated a long time United States and Israeli assertion that they face a common threat of Islamic terrorism.

This is a dangerous viewpoint to hold and a very vague and general one. It is also leading them to conflict with Iran. The United States offers it military protection and guarantees of safety to Israel and other Arab states. The United States is seemingly restraining Israel from attacking Iranian nuclear sites as it could delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear program as the United States prefer a more diplomatic approach under Obama.
These show that there is no logical reason to deny Iran what is a right to have nuclear weapons in response to the threats and political prestige it affords them. If you substituted Iran with virtually any other nation, especially a western one there would be nowhere near such animosity.

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