Iran is a middle-eastern regional power that has a turbulent history of international relations. Its nuclear program is one of the highly-debated issues of contemporary international politics. Iran started its nuclear agenda during 1950s while Shah Reza Pahlavi was ruling the country. Because of the strong diplomatic ties between the United States (US) and Iran, Pahlavi administration managed to get help from The US for its nuclear studies and import a small research reactor from there in 1967. (NTI, 2017)
When Khomeini came to power after the Revolution, Iran’s nuclear activities halted significantly until 1984 as a result of his unwillingness to pursue nuclear technology.(NTI, 2017) After 1984, the regime changed its mind and decided to continue the program where it left. It signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Pakistan in 1987 and China in 1990, however, no significant step was taken until the end of the Iran-Iraq war. (NTI, 2017) During 1990s, with the help of Russian partnership, it improved its nuclear fuel cycle capability, which is mandatory to develop its own fissile material required for the bomb. (NTI, 2017)
Iran seeks to have highly-enriched uranium (HEU) for a set of complicated reasons. Dougles Strausand, a professor at The US Marine Corps Staff College, states that it is the nationalist and revolutionary thoughts that inspire Iranian politicians and bureaucrats to develop a nuclear program. (“Institute of World Politics,” 2017) Although some of the scholars overemphasize the supply side literature -resources, engineering capacity, relevant technology etc.-, others maintain that demand side arguments –security concerns, domestic politics, individual leaders, prestige, institutions- are more important for proliferation efforts. (Sagan, 2011) Neo-realism takes a closer stance to security concerns when it comes to the root causes of nuclear proliferation. (Sagan, 1996) According to realist views, the war with Iraq was a good lesson for Iran in a way that it came to an understanding that it needs to have a robust ballistic missile technology for an effective deterrence capability.(Elleman, n.d.)The Iraqi Army was causing great damage and creating fear with its ballistic missiles and WMD, and Iranian Government was unable to retaliate effectively during the several first years of the war. (Elleman, n.d.)In addition, security concerns of Iran reached to a high level when the Bush Administration declared Iran a member of the axis of evil, along with Syria and North Korea in early 2000s. As a result of these issues, Iran established secret nuclear facilities, launched its clandestine nuclear program and misled the UN Security Council and IAEA by not revealing them during 2000s.
In response to its establishing secret nuclear sites, The UN Security Council decided to impose sanctions against Iran in 2010. The burden on its economy was so huge that it brought Iran to negotiation table in 2015. In April 2015, The US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew claimed that Iran’s economy shrank almost 20% because of the imposed sanctions and Iran lost $160 billion oil revenue. (Laub, 2015)Moreover, its assets worth of $100 billion in foreign accounts were frozen. (Laub, 2015)As a result of the sanctions and diplomatic efforts, The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed between P5, Germany and Iran. Although a strong criticism exists against JCPOA because of its imperfections, many see the agreement as a successful one in terms of preventing Iran from continuing plutonium production and uranium enrichment for a certain amount of time.
The opposition against JCPOA strongly alleges that the agreement is flawed and it needs to be fixed. The main argument is that it does not restrict Iran’s uranium enrichment and plutonium production permanently because of its sunset provisions.(Einhorn, 2015) The loopholes of JCPOA are sources of great concern for the Arab countries of the Gulf region and Israel. (Satloff, 2017) Plus, because of the lack of coverage in the agreement, the ballistic missile program of Iran continues in a robust way. The opposition of the deal loudly claims that Iran uses the funds that it acquired through JCPOA for terrorism financing. (Satloff, 2017)Unfortunately, these allegations seem to be true. It is revealed recently that Iran has been building secret military bases in Syria close to Israel-Syrian border. (Harel, 2018) At the same time, The Iranian Government uses Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to build paramilitary forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen as parts of its mosaic defense strategy. (Elleman, n.d.) The US CENTCOM Commander General Votel recently tells that The US is worried about Iran’s support for the terrorist organizations in the Middle East. According to him, the US will establish strong relationship with the Iraqi Military and Syrian Democratic Forces to prevent Iran from conducting more destabilizing activities. (Kheel, 2018)
The US President Trump has concerns with the current agreement and warns that JCPOA should be revised, otherwise, his government will dismantle the agreement. (Goldenberg & Rosenberg, 2018) A certain long-term solution for this issue is to design an additional protocol that extends some of the sunset provisions in the JCPOA and provide Iran with more incentives, such as further sanctions relief or cooperation on a civil nuclear energy program. (Vaez, 2017) The most practical option at the moment, which is currently being discussed between France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, is to issue a declaration, demonstrating a will to address the sunset clauses and an intention to craft a toolkit for a follow-on arrangement in the near future. (Goldenberg & Rosenberg, 2018)
The dual use nature of nuclear technology, which means its applicability for both civilian and military purposes, generates all the existing discussions about JCPOA. As all the other countries in the world, Iran has the right to use peaceful nuclear energy. It is legal to cooperate with a member country of NPT and build nuclear facilities for civilian purposes. (NPT – Article IV, 1995) Additionally, countries use ballistic missiles as space-launch vehicles for their satellite programs.(Elleman & Fitzpatrick, 2018) But it is also possible that they use their enrichment facilities and missile technology for military purposes. In this sense, Iran’s ballistic missile program should be an important concern in addition to its enrichment activities because a ballistic missile program is an integral part of the three components of a nuclear weapon.(Satloff, 2017)It poses a threat for the regional countries including Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan and Israel.
The JCPOA terms limiting Iran’s low-enriched uranium (LEU) stocks and its number of centrifuges will expire between 2025 and 2030. Consequently, Iran will be free to establish a robust nuclear infrastructure. After the deadlines are over, it will have the ability to revive its fissile material stockpile in a short period of time.(Katzman & Kerr, 2017) It is an urgent issue to extend the deadlines of the terms in JCPOA, otherwise the proliferation-related efforts will be inevitable in other middle eastern countries and it may lead to a tacit nuclear arms race, which will have a destabilizing effect for the regional security. (Freilich, 2018)
In a nutshell, Iran is militarily very active beyond its borders. If it gets the bomb, not only will it be more challenging to deal with its foreign policy, but also it may trigger a domino effect in the Middle East and countries including KSA, UAE, and Jordan may pursue a similar path to seek the same technology.
KSA crown prince Ibni Salman warns international community that they will build the bomb if Iran builds it. (Wintour, 2018)His warnings should be taken seriously because the rivalry between Iran and KSA has the risk to lead both countries to an arms race which will generate a negative effect on the credibility of Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Whatever happens with the JCPOA, it is vital to keep in mind that the spread of proliferation-related efforts in the middle east be a great concern because of the dual-use nature of nuclear infrastructure. The priority of the nuclear supplier countries should be to limit and control the access of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and UAE to the critical nuclear technology.
Einhorn, R. (2015, August 12). Debating the Iran nuclear deal: A former American negotiator outlines the battleground issues. Retrieved April 3, 2018, from https://www.brookings.edu/
Elleman, M. (n.d.). Iran’s Missile Priorities after the Nuclear Deal. Retrieved March 22, 2018, from https://webcache.googleusercontent.com
Elleman, M., & Fitzpatrick, M. (2018, February 28). Are Iran’s ballistic missiles designed to be nuclear capable? | IISS. Retrieved March 21, 2018, from https://www.iiss.org/
Freilich, C. (2018, March 1). The Middle East is marching toward Israel’s nuclear nightmare scenario – Opinion – Israel News | Haaretz.com. Retrieved April 5, 2018, from https://www.haaretz.com/
Goldenberg, I., & Elizabeth Rosenberg. (2018, March 13). How to Save the Iran Nuclear Deal | Foreign Affairs. Retrieved March 14, 2018, from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/
Harel, A. (2018, March 28). Israeli satellite images reveal: Iran builds military base near Damascus – Syria. Retrieved March 28, 2018, from https://www.haaretz.com/
Institute of World Politics, 2017. (n.d.). The Institution of World Politics-Iran and The US Response. Retrieved from https://soundcloud.com/theiwp/iran-and-the-us-response-with-dr-douglas-streusand
Katzman, K., & Kerr, P. (2017). Congressional Research Paper-Iran’s Nuclear Agreement(p. 38). Retrieved from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/R43333.pdf
Kheel, R. (2018, February 27). Top general: Countering Iran in Syria not a US military mission | TheHill. Retrieved March 28, 2018, from http://thehill.com/
Laub, Z. (2015, July 15). International Sanctions on Iran | Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/international-sanctions-iran
NTI. (Nuclear Threat Initiative) (2017, July). Retrieved April 10, 2018, from http://www.nti.org/learn/countries/iran/nuclear/
Sagan, S. (1996). Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons? International Security, 21(3), 54–86. https://fsi.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/Why_Do_States_Build_Nuclear_Weapons.pdf
Sagan, S. (2011). The Causes of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. Annual Review of Political Science, 17, 225–241. https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/
Satloff, R. (2017, October 13). Here’s How to Fix the Iran Deal – The Atlantic. Retrieved April 3, 2018, from https://www.theatlantic.com/
Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) – Article IV. (1995). Retrieved March 28, 2018, from https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt/text
Vaez, A. (2017, October 3). The Iranian Nuclear Deal’s Sunset Clauses | Foreign Affairs. Retrieved March 28, 2018, from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/
Wintour, P. (2018, March 15). Saudi crown prince warns it will build nuclear bomb if Tehran does the same | World news | The Guardian. Retrieved April 5, 2018, from https://www.theguardian.com/