Why Iran will not give up its bomb, and probably never will
By: Bob Rehorst & Kasper Veltman
Early April was again marked by talks between Iran and other world powers surrounding the potential ‘revival’ of the original nuclear deal. Reuters reported that the talks were considered ‘constructive’ but no breakthroughs were expected.
Last November, The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had once again raised the alarm about stockpiles of enriched uranium in Iran, this time consisting of twelve times the permitted amount. The debate concerning Iranian nuclear proliferation has been reignited through the Vienna talks, but how constructive is this?
From a geopolitical perspective, the possibility that Iran will actually give up its nuclear capability is as good as nil. In this article, we will explore the questions of why Iran wants ‘the bomb’ so much, why it will not give it up, what the current threat is and why a revival of the ‘Iran-Deal’ is highly unlikely.
Nuclear Power Development
What is important to know is that never in recent history have we experienced so many nuclear threats as now, not even during the Cuba Crisis. The threat has seldom been as high as it is today, partly due to Iran. So the question is, what is specifically so dangerous about an Iran with nuclear capabilities? Especially when we take into account that there are several other regional countries with nuclear capabilities. China has "the bomb," India, Pakistan, and most likely Israel too. Apart from China, which has been recognized as one of the five 'nuclear countries', along with France, England, Russia and America, there are other regional countries also in violation of the 1970 'Non-Proliferation Treaty' (NPT). So what so special about Iran?
When examining nuclear geopolitical developments, one should always consider it through the motivations of stakeholders. China, for example, was already a nuclear power-to-be, and developed a border dispute with India in 1962. India, in turn, logically wanted to develop a nuclear bomb to even the playing field with China. The next domino to tumble in the nuclear power play was Pakistan. As a consequence of regional developments, Pakistan – with the help of stolen information from Dutch uranium centrifuges – developed their nuclear weapons. The Kashmir region is because of this one of the main powder kegs of our time. In case the tensions in Kashmir escalate, three nuclear forces would be in conflict, with one another. The international community however, seems to have little problems with the nuclear capacity that hides within the rivals of Kashmir.
Iran and the region
Iran, the Persian loner in the region surrounded by Arab states, has been in multiple conflicts in recent history. Among others, it quarrelled with Israel and historical nemesis Saudi Arabia, both direct and via proxies. In Israel’s case, while they have never admitted to the possession of nuclear weapons, there is a widespread belief that it is heavily armed. If we are to believe various reports, Saudi-Arabia also has access to nuclear capabilities through the Pakistani connection. Strategically speaking, it is more than logical for Iran aspiring to defend itself against regional rivals. The uncertainty surrounding the intentions from Iran’s rivals has only increased in recent years. However, there are plenty of sanctions against Iran, but not against Israel or Saudi-Arabia. Thus, the US, UN, and other global organisations are demonising Iran significantly more than they do other nations.
The justification for the acquiescence of nuclear weapons in defence of sovereignty and national resources is a valid one, or at least, one that worked out favourably for North Korea and Pakistan. Specifically Pakistan is an excellent example of how the acquisition of nuclear weapons raises a nation’s geopolitical position. History speaks in favour of nuclear ambitions. However, Iran is a case on its own, and there are contributing factors that make Iran justifiably more threatening than previous cases.
Iran has the habit of developing military technology and then supply such technologically advanced arms to non-state actors. These actors are often militias, groups that operate in the grey area between rebels and terrorists, who function as Iran’s proxies in the region. The Iranian habit of projecting power through heavily arming its regional militias like Hezbollah or Yemen’s Houthis, is a documented fact. In 2018, the UN proved that the Houthis in Yemen were armed by Iran with, among others, ballistic missiles. Because of this, the fear for a ‘dirty bomb’, or a tactical nuclear bomb in hands of non-state armed actors, is a present fear among world leaders. Evidence of this are the recent allegations that Israel attacked the Natanz uranium enrichment plant in Iran.
Not only the Houthis, but also Hezbollah in South-Lebanon is in possession of missile technology which, reportedly, has the capability to carry chemical and nuclear warheads. It is not unthinkable that Iran is developing nuclear capabilities which, eventually, will fall into the hands of a group that is subject to far less accountability than this nation-state.
Because of this, President Joe Biden’s offer, in relation to the reconstruction of the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will have to cover ballistic missiles as well. If deterring Iran from developing nuclear weapons was challenging, further disarmament of the Iranian arsenal will seem far-fetched.
The Influence of Saudi-Israeli relations
The reason that a new ‘Iran-Deal’ requires significant revisions is a change in geopolitical dynamics since the original JCPOA between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN security council. Since this deal was struck, Iran has presented itself rather aggressively through its proxies against the regional powers of Israel, Saudi-Arabia and armed groups in Syria. Right now, numerous Gulf states have normalised their ties with Israel, partly because of a significant common denominator: the fear of what Iran will do next.
For quite some time now, the Houthis in Yemen have been able to target airports, desalination plants and ARAMCO locations in Saudi Arabia. Saudi-Arabia, together with Israel and other Gulf States, will likely present a united front in new negotiations with Iran and the UN, and press for the decrease of drones and missiles in Iran and its proxies’ arsenals. Such pressure would further stretch the already unlikely scenario of a revival of the original JCPOA.
In short, a new deal is increasingly unlikely given the need for self-defence from an Iranian perspective, and the over-ambitious demands of the newly united front in the Middle East. At the same time, the threat in the region is growing due to the arming of non-state militant actors with Iranian weapons technology.
Let’s not be Naive
In conclusion, it can be said that the success of the ‘Nuclear Deal’ seems almost impossible. While enthusiasm about such a deal is high for many people, its possibility seems to be further away than ever. The situation is now thusly severe, that from their perspective, often ignored by the West, there is a real threat from Iran’s regional rivals. For Iran, there are currently, to a lesser extent, strategic advantages to a new deal, apart from the reduction of sanctions already imposed. Economic sanctions are unlikely to be enough of a leverage for Iran to relinquish their ostensible chance of maintaining a strong regional position. Surrounded by nuclear powers, having the bomb is the only ticket to survival.
This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group.
For source references, please download the PDF version.
About the Authors:
Bob Rehorst is a Global Security Analyst at Dyami and program manager at the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working group, a Netherlands-based think tank. He holds a Graduate Degree in Conflict Studies and Human Rights, and an Undergraduate Degree in Cultural Anthropology, both from Utrecht University.
Kasper Veltman is a MA graduate in International Relations from Leiden University. During his master’s he followed the specialisation “Global Conflict in the Modern Era”, analysing rebel groups, insurrections and private warfare. Furthermore, he took a keen interest in the Horn of Africa, writing his thesis on Somaliland.