Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions and the Promise of Security Cooperation in the Middle East

Over the past thirty years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has perceived a mounting regional and global threat to its national security.  Its quest for hegemony, regional instability and unreliability, and the relative weakness of its conventional military force, coupled with perceived threats from Israel and the United States has molded Iran’s security doctrine into one which necessitates nuclear weaponry.

The Islamic Republic’s unique look on the world is shaped by ethnic prestige, Islamic revivalism, a turbulent neighborhood, and the gift of rich natural resources.  Due to these factors, Iran has sought to craft a foreign policy doctrine which gives it the capability to confront or respond to military and political threats, either existential or otherwise, that it perceives surround it.  Nuclear weapons, as will be explained in the pages to come, are an ideal solution to Iran’s strategic woes.  However, a nuclear Iran has serious consequences and can be deterred from occurring if the United States and Middle East allies take the theory of security cooperation seriously.

Iran perceives itself as a historic world power.  Looking back over thousands of years of history, Iran believes that “greatness is once more feasible given the combination of massive fossil fuel resources, a young population, a large and well-populated country and a geographical position that puts it at the heart of an immensely significant region.”[1]  Iran stands on the world’s largest petroleum hub.  It is one of the world’s largest crude oil exporters, and its geographical position makes it the gatekeeper of the transfer of goods from Asia to the Middle East.

Its foreign policy has kept these realities in mind and additionally been affected by two significant events; the Iranian hostage crisis beginning in 1979, and the Iranian Revolution of the same year.  Relations with the United States were severed during the hostage crisis, and with the new Islamic Republic came new regional foreign policy goals, that of exporting the Islamic Revolution.  Iran’s current security dilemma is a manifestation of these historical events and unavoidable realities.  “The Iranians have a strong sense of their identity and past and see themselves as the natural heirs of a leadership role in the region,” remarks Abbas Maleki, the former Iranian foreign minister from 1988-1997.

In order to understand Iran’s current actions, we must first establish context.  Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has tended to see more enemies than allies as it surveys the international and regional scene.  This isolated position became all too apparent during the Iraq-Iran war.  When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, there was a mixture of silence and uneasy tolerance over Iraq’s actions.  George Irani righty points out that “most Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, helped Saddam Hussein financially in his war effort against Iran.”[2]  Howerver, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, there was a huge rally to the aid of the Kuwaitis by the same international community that was silent throughout the 1980s.

Since the war, Iran’s relations with its neighbors have improved meagerly.  “Major sources of tension include the ongoing occupation of the islands of Abu Musa and the Great and Little Tunb islands” in which both the UAE and Iran have claimed territorial control over.  In early September 2008, all six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) condemned Iran and called on it to “respect the UAE’s territorial sovereignty.”[3]  Iran has also been critical of its own deputies and neighbors who are allied or subservient to Western influence.  Ayatollah Khomeini, in criticizing those Iranians who favor U.S. ties asked ”why should we be so Western-oriented or Satan-oriented?”[4]

Iran’s reality is that it has had no substantial military allies in the past in which it could call upon for assistance if it faced an imminent threat, and it has no reason to believe it will anytime soon without (unlikely) major shifts in attitudes in both within and outside its borders.  Iran’s defense, therefore, must come from its own military strength which has remained primarily conventional.  An analysis of Iran’s military status and a look at some of the instances where it has been used can give us a better picture of why Iran seeks to expand its military into the realm of unconventional weapons.

Compared to other Middle Eastern nations, Iran has a moderate sized military.  However, it has serious limitations.  Anthony Cordesman and Arleigh Burke at the Center for Strategic and International Studies make some enlightening observations in a February 2007 report.  They conclude that Iran, while having “some 1,600-1,750 main battle tanks, some 720 other armored fighting vehicles, 650 armored personnel carriers, over 300 self-propelled artillery weapons, over 2,000 major towed artillery weapons, and roughly 900 multiple rocket launchers,” much of the equipment is “worn” “obsolete” or “obsolescent.”[5]  Iran’s air force, while having over 260 combat aircraft, “operational availability is about 50-60%.”[6]  Iran’s navy is equally as unimpressive, with its five aging larger surface ships and only three operational Kilo-class submarines.  Two hundred twenty-two thousand of its 545,000 active armed forces receive minimal training and have “marginal military effectiveness.”[7]

During the Iran-Iraq war, Iranian military performance was poor.  Both Iran and Iraq had ineffective anti-air defense systems and air support performance was “hampered by poor maintenance and lack of trained pilots.”[8]  Iranian troops on the ground were often disorganized, notes Major Robert E. Sonnenberg.  “Units could not be mixed because troops would not follow orders if the commander was not one of their own.  That the Iranians were able to defend at all was probably due to nationalism and revolutionary fervor.”[9]

The years following the war with Iraq were no better.  “U.S. analysts estimate that Iraq destroyed or captured 40 to 60 percent of Iran’s military assets in both personnel and equipment, losses which Iran has not yet replaced.”[10]  On top of these heavy losses, starting in 1995, the United States began instituting economic sanctions on Iran for its support for international terrorism, sanctions which have only grown since Iran’s nuclear program was discovered in 2003.  Spiraling inflation and trade restrictions have obligated the Iranians to divert fewer funds to its military budget.  As of 2005, the Iranian defense budget was $6.2 billion, compared to Saudi Arabia’s $25.4 billion (2005 dollars),[11] and Israel’s $51.6 billion (2008 dollars).[12]

Because Iran has no dependable military allies and has an outdated, underfunded, and undertrained conventional military force, Tehran needs another means to provide for its common defense and nuclear weapons seems to be the optimal option.

In order to make such a connection seem logical, consider the history of rouge nations in the development of nuclear weaponry.  In 1993, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty after denying IAEA inspectors access to suspected nuclear sites and the world did nothing.  A year later, Korea plays diplomatic cat-and-mouse and signs an agreement halting all nuclear research in exchange for oil and construction of two nuclear power plants only in 2002 to declared that it had never lived up to the treaty and had been funding a nuclear weapons program covertly for years.  The world responded with resounding condemnations and economic sanctions, but did not militarily strike the Korean nation.

When the six-party talks failed in September 2005 the international community played nothing but lip service to the idea and the priority of nuclear nonproliferation, but still no military action.  The following year, North Korea test fired its first nuclear weapon underground.  Did it cause a call for military mobilization?  No.  More sanctions, more condemnation, but nothing more.

A similar timeline could be painted for multiple other nations.  Pakistan openly declared it would develop nuclear weapons in 1974 and was able to do so for 24 years with varying degrees of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.  After Iraq had used chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war and on its own people in 1988, the world’s response was mild and non-violent until a whole decade later only after Saddam had violated a cease fire agreement and 17 UN resolutions calling for his cooperation.

A precedent has been set and the bar, as Iran sees it, is extremely low.  If you desire nuclear weapons, have the technological means to develop them, and can survive diplomatic and economic isolation, then you have a green light.  But the nuclear equation is more than just desire, technological ability, and economic resilience.  In order to have any hope of credibility, Tehran had to be sure there was a case to be made that Iran must have a nuclear deterrent capability out of necessity not simply hegemonic desire (although hegemony is an important factor and will be discussed later).

Iran fervently argues that it remains a threatened nation by two significant forces which have only gotten larger throughout the past decade; that of the growing military presence of the United States and Israel, the latter being the preverbal thorn in the side of the broader Middle East, including Iran’s.  Iran has a solid argument in this respect.  Below is a map of some major U.S. military bases that clearly indicates that Iran is indeed surrounded by an American military presence.  Making matters worse are the ever-growing tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic.  basesParadoxically, the reason behind the United States’ concern regarding Iran is the very thing Iran is seeking to deter the United States.  If relations eased between the two nations, U.S. military bases would not seem so threatening.  However, U.S. military presence seems to be a non-negotiable commitment.

American interests in the Middle East are many and of high importance.  The Strait of Hormuz sees some 15 million barrels of oil – more than 18% of daily worldwide consumption – travel through it each day.[13]  Any kind of blockage of the strait would have serious consequences for the world economy.  Moreover, Middle East stability has always been a strategic goal for the United States and its allies.  Pakistan in particular has been a constant focus due to its nuclear stance and its strenuous relationship with India which also has nuclear weapons.  The United States has also used its military presence to respond quickly and efficiently to natural disasters in the region.  In October of 2005, U.S. aircraft carrying supplies were the first on the scene in Pakistan to provide assistance to the effected cities of Muzaffarabad and Mansehra.  The U.S. flew a total of 5,912 relief operations, treated 35,000 injured Pakistanis, and transported 1,000 tons of relief supplies.[14]

Furthermore, the United States has invested heavily in the security of the state of Israel in the hopes that its robust democracy will act as an example for emulation throughout the Middle East.  Support for Israel, Iran cites, is one of the primary reasons for Iran’s refusal to work with the United States.  Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, in response to U.S. President Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, said “Whatever the U.S. president says about forgetting the past and starting a new phase of relations with Iran the first condition should be a policy change toward Israel.”[15]  The tone was much more harsh in 2006 when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said “the American regime must expect a hard slap and a destructive punch by the Islamic nations for its support of Zionist criminals.”[16]

Arguably Iran’s largest perceived threat is the state of Israel.  Iran has built onto broader Muslim frustration with Israel to bolster its political position regionally.  Israel has taken an equally as aggressive approach to Iran due to its financial and military support for Hezbollah, the Shiite political group based in Lebanon with a military wing widely labeled as a terrorist organization.  Armed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has been taking place for many years now.  In 1992, Hezbollah detonated a bomb in the Israeli embassy in Argentina killing 29 people, and bombed a Jewish community center in 1994 killing ninety-five.  Since Israel withdrew its forces from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah has not ceased its assault on Israeli targets.  In the summer of 2006 after an abduction of an Israeli soldier, the situation escalated into full-scale war lasting 35 days and ending in cease-fire.[17]

For all Iran’s tough talk over Israel’s bleak future, Israel vastly outspends Iran militarily and receives significant military assistance from the United States.  It is also believed that Israel has a clandestine nuclear weapons program which it has successfully developed into a usable weapon.  Iran thus has six nuclear powers that surround it: Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Israel, and the United States.  Granted that Pakistan, India, China, and Russia are not on Iran’s list of troubling countries, Iran’s perceived strategic threats remain primarily the United States and Israel, both of which have a clear military buildup which worries Tehran.

This provides the legitimacy that Tehran needs in order to defend a nuclear weapons program, a program many of its neighbors have developed and gained international significance – which Iran believes it lacks – soon thereafter.  “[T]here is a general belief [within Iran] in the value of advanced technology, and a perception of nuclear power as a symbol of modernity,” argues Paul Rogers of the Oxford Research Group.[18]  Iran knows that if it seeks regional hegemony, it must first prove itself a worthy nation to do so.  Advanced technology and weaponry could easily place Iran as the regional hegemon.

Hegemony is an important facet of Iran’s regional grand strategy.  Considered a country in the Middle East, Persian Gulf, Central Asia, and the Caspian region, Iranian foreign policy has thus operated under the assumption Iran can be a part of all four.  Since the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran’s urgent need for reconstruction and development called on it to increase investment and expand trade with its neighbors.  To reduce concerns of military threats from Southern Asia, Iran joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an intergovernmental mutual-security organization.  Iran also invests extensively in Shi’a Lebanon, cooperates economically with Syria, China, and Russia, and has little difficulty finding trade partners for unsanctioned activities such as certain civilian infrastructure projects.

There have been multiple proposed solutions to Iran’s military and political resurgence ranging from nuclear military confrontation to appeasement and pacifism.  However, I suggest a long-term approach that could eliminate the propensity for conflict, and increase the likelihood of an Iranian shift from a rouge state to a cooperative partner in the Middle East.

After World War II, Europe saw itself for what it had become: a continent whose wars had twice in a century’s time spilled over into the world.  World War I, supposedly the war to end all wars, left the continent bloodied and in shock of the human capacity for mass destruction.  But it soon enough seemed necessary to once again wage war in order to make the world safe for democracy after Nazi Germany invaded Poland.  Since then, Europe has trotted down the path of economic and political integration in order to incubate an environment where military conflict could never be a viable option, and has done so with great success.

The same approach could be used for the Middle East, albeit much more difficult.  Currently, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), made up of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.  The GCC is the closest institution the Middle East has to a fledgling European Union.  The GCC’s stated objectives include integrating each member-state in various fields such as finance, trade, customs, tourism, legislation, administration, “as well as fostering scientific and technical progress in industry, mining, agriculture, water and animal resources, establishing scientific research centers, setting up joint ventures, and encouraging cooperation of the private sector.”[19]

While the GCC does begin to establish a non-violent environment as the European Union did, it is still missing a vital component: real security cooperation.  Transforming the GCC into a security cooperation agreement would create the first Middle Eastern military bloc which Iran must become a part of.  The GCC’s wide recognition from the West already gives the GCC a non-threatening position.  Involving Iran in the GCC, perhaps only militarily and not economically, would effectively create a situation in which violent responses to political problems would no longer be viable.

Iran perceives a threat to its own security by the United States and Israel.  By incorporating itself into a security cooperation organization, striking Iran becomes an attack on other, larger, more influential countries that already have significant economic leverage.  This would eliminate Iran’s necessity to develop nuclear weapons for deterrent reasons, leaving Tehran with no credible rational for nuclear weapons other than prestige and war-mongering which Iranians would not support.  A study by Michael Herzog at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies corroborates such findings:

Although the Iranian regime has emerged as a very tough international political player on the nuclear issue, its concerted efforts to rally its people behind the nuclear program demonstrate the leaders’ sensitivity to public opinion in this area. As far as this regime is concerned, public support for the nuclear program is a highly important aspect of its strategy to fend off both domestic and external pressures.[20]

If Iran does not maintain its legitimacy, domestic pressure could result in a regime change, which the United States has expressed is a desirable option.  Iran knows this, and has rarely miscalculated in such a fashion to believe that it would continue its program once necessity was no longer feasible.

This is bound to be a difficult process.  The GCC already has mounting tension between it and Iran over territorial claims in the Strait of Hormuz and Saudi Arabia’s expressed concern over Iran’s ascendance to regional power.[21]  However, these obstacles seem traversable, while obstacles of other solutions do not.  If Iran would agree to join the GCC on condition it would allow UN inspectors full access to all nuclear sites, it could ease Saudi Arabia’s worry over Iran.

Security cooperation has worked in the past in Europe, and can work in the Middle East today with creative ideas and increased interest.  The United States and its European allies have the ability to influences these changes to alleviate Iran’s worry of a foreign invader and therefore eliminate the need for a weaponized nuclear program.  The GCC needs to get serious about its own security for this cooperation to be effective.



[1] Paul Rogers, “Iran: Consequences of War,” Oxford Research Group (February 2006) 3. 
[2] George Emile Irani, “Iran’s Regional Security Policy: Opportunities and Challenges,” The Elcano Royal Institute (December 2008), 11-12.
[3] Mariam Al Hakeem, “GCC names Turkey first strategic partner outside the Gulf,” Gulf News, Dubai, UAE (3 September, 2008).
[4] Associated Press, “Khomeini rules out link with U.S. and assails Iranians who seek ties,” New York Times (20 November 1986).
[5] Anthony H. Cordesman and Arleigh A. Burke, “Iran: ‘Hegemon’ or ‘Weakling’?,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (28 February 2007), 7.
[6] Cordesman and Burke, 8.
[7] Cordesman and Burke, 5.
[8] Major Robert E. Sonnenberg, “The Iran-Iraq War: Strategy of Stalemate,” Marine Corps Command and Staff College (1 April 1985).
[9] Ibid.
[10] Shawn L. Twing, “Is Iran’s Military Buildup Purely Defensive or Potentially Destabilizing?,” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs (April 1996).
[11] Ibid.
[12] Barbara Opall-Rome, “U.S. Firm Tasked to Trim Fat from Israeli Budget,” Defense News (18 August 2008).
[13] Eugene Gholz, “Threats to Oil Flows through the Strait of Hormuz: Implications for American Grand Strategy,” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association’s 49th Annual Convention, Bridging Multiple Divides, Hilton San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, USA (26 March 2008).
[14] USAID, Earthquake Relief Update, (May 2006).
[15] Hashem Kalantari, “Analysis – Iran cleric says U.S. must change its Israel policy,” Reuters (5 June 2009).
[16] BBC News, “Ayatollah attacks U.S. over Israel,” BBC News (2 August 2006).
[17] Council on Foreign Relations, Hezbollah, (13 August 2008).
[18] Rogers, 5.
[19] Gulf Cooperation Council, Foundations and Objectives, (June 2009).
[20] Michael Herzog, “Iranian Public Opinion on the Nuclear Program,” The Washington Institute for Near East Studies (June 2006), 14.
[21] Andrew Hammond, “Saudi seen worried over Iran, not U.S., in Mecca deal,” Reuters (10 February 2007).

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