Iran Versus the World: Iran’s Nuclear Power Ambitions

Introduction

Iran’s nuclear program was thrown into the world’s spotlight following the 2002 revelations that the country had undeclared nuclear activities in progress. Since then, the international community has engaged in a series of measures aimed at forcing Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions or at least slow them down. These efforts are based on the suspicion that many Western and Middle Eastern countries have concerning Iran’s nuclear program. The Arab Spring of 2011 which has led to the overthrow of a number of governments and escalated political turmoil in the Middle East has further sharpened concerns about Iran and its nuclear ambitions. In addition to sanctions already imposed on Iran, there have been talks of possible military strikes at Iranian nuclear facilities in order to cripple the program.

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This raises the question of how much of a threat Iran’s nuclear project is both to the region and the rest of the world. This paper will argue that Iran’s nuclear project is a threat to regional peace and the international community should therefore take steps to stop it. The paper will suggest that while Iran is a recognized sovereignty, it does not have the right to develop nuclear capacity since this would jeopardize regional stability which is of greater importance than Iran’s right to determine the course of its nuclear program.

Iran’s Relationship with her Gulf-State Neighbors

Modern day Iran was born following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 which overthrew the Shah and led to the establishment of Iran as an Islamic Republic. The geographical location of Iran gives it great significance since it is located in the “Middle East and central Eurasia”. As a considerably rich and the most populated country in the Gulf region, Iran has noteworthy influence in the region. Iran has always sought to play a more dominant role in regional affairs but its influence was tapered by the presence of Iraq. Religion further complicates the relationship between Iran and its Gulf neighbors. While the Gulf States are predominantly Islamic, they are divided as a result of the Sunni-Shia rivalry. Iran has the largest Shia population and therefore advances Shia interests in a region that is dominated by Sunni Muslims.

Shanahan (2009) reveals that following the success of the Iranian revolution in 1979, some radical elements in Iran encouraged other Shia Islamist groups to overthrow their Sunni governments in Arab Gulf states which estranged Iran from the other countries. The Iran-Iraq war led to significant damages to Iran’s economy and it pointed to the need by the country to establish good relations with its neighbors. Iran therefore enhanced its relations with its Gulf neighbors following the end of the Iran-Iraq war and it took on more conciliatory policy as it sought to strengthen regional ties.

The elimination of Iraq as a power in the region following the US led coalition forces in 2003 greatly boosted Iran’s regional power. Iran has since then tried to extend its influence in the region and position itself as an Islamic leader. This has heightened discord with other states most notably of which is Saudi Arabia which holds the position of Islamic leader. Shahram (2010) notes that there also historical border disputes between Iran and Gulf countries which erupt every now and then causing dispute between Iran and the affected Gulf country.

However, not all relationships between Gulf States and Iran are confrontation and there are significant trade and investment relationships. Iran enjoys good trade relations with a number of smaller states in the Gulf region (Shanahan, 2009). Most notably, Iran has good trade relations with Dubai and there are many Iranians working in the emirates.

Iran’s Nuclear Power Program

Iran has had a nuclear program in place since the 1957 when it signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with the US that provided for technical assistance and several pounds of enriched uranium. This cooperation was channeled towards joint research on peaceful uses of nuclear energy. An important point to note is that in the early stages in Iran’s nuclear development, Tehran actively involved the US and other Western countries. Bahgat (2006) notes that before the 1979 revolution, western governments and companies worked closely with the Iranian monarchy to build an ambitious nuclear program. The monarchy was keen on developing an indigenous nuclear technology and to fulfill this goal, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran was established in 1974 with Iranian nuclear engineers being sent abroad to obtain training. By 1974, Iran had entered into a contract with German to build a power reactor at Bushehr and in 1977; it worked with France to build two reactors at Darkhovin (Bahgat, 2006).

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Iran’s budding nuclear program stopped following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 which led to Ayatollah Khomeini taking over control of the republic. Western governments stopped supporting the country’s nuclear program with previous agreements being frozen. The US in particular withdrew both material and technical aid to the program and other international companies which had been commissioned to build nuclear facilities in the country stopped working (Kaye & Lorber, 2012). Following the refusal of many western powers to cooperate with Iran on its nuclear program, the country turned to the Soviet Union and China. Russia assisted Iran in the completion of its first reactor at Bushehr and also contributed to the accumulation of nuclear expertise by Iranian scientists. In spite of many years of international pressure on Iran to stop her nuclear program, the country has been slowly progressing towards achieving nuclear power.

Up to 2002, Iran continued to advance its nuclear program outside of the world’s scrutiny. International concern about Iran’s nuclear program sprung in 2002 following the revelation what Iran had two previously unknown and undeclared nuclear facilities; a uranium-enrichment plan at Natanz and a heavy-water plant at Arak (Bahgat, 2006).

Benefits of Nuclear Power Source to Iran

As it has already been noted, Iran has invested substantial human and financial resources in its nuclear program over the decades. While Iran has significant oil reserves, the supply is expected to decline in the near future which makes alternative energy supply important for the country. There is no doubt that once implemented, Iran’s peaceful nuclear program will boost its civil energy capabilities. As of 2009, Iran consumed over 203 billion kWh and of this amount, 141kWh was produced from gas and oil. An alternative form of electricity will therefore result in significant savings on Iranian oil and gas. The World Nuclear Association (2012) states that the Bushehr reactor, which is expected to be operational by October 2012, will produce 7TWh per year therefore saving the country up to 11 million barrels of oil. This surplus oil will become part of Iran’s oil export and therefore gain the country financially.

International Treaty Limiting Nuclear Power Use

A major international treaty on nuclear power use is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was put in place in 1968. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty attempts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons globally by stopping the development of nuclear weapons and obligating signatories who possess nuclear weapons to eliminate them. Iran is a signatory of the NPT which it ratified in 1970 under the Shah. As a party to the NPT, Iran is expected not to attempt to develop nuclear capabilities but instead only pursue peaceful nuclear ambitions.

Another accord is the Additional Protocol which is a program started in 1993. The additional protocol is aimed at strengthening the ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to detect clandestine nuclear activities by members of the NPT. Following the discovery of the two secret nuclear facilities in 2002, Iran was required to sign Additional Protocol, which allows for more invasive inspection by the IAEA to prove that Tehran is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

Why America is Concerned about Nuclear Power in Iran

America’s concern about Iran’s nuclear program is that if Iran was nuclear-armed, it would pose a significant threat to US interests in the Middle East and beyond. The Gulf region plays a very important part in the stability of the global economy since 40% of the world’s oil trade travels through this region (Alsis, Allison, & Cordesman, 2011). The Shah monarchy which ruled Iran after Britain was pro-Western and it had close ties with the US. This changed when the Shah was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution which was held anti-American sentiments. As a result, the US has embarked on action to prevent Iran from expanding its regional influence since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 (Wilner, 2012). These actions have been in the form of unilateral and multilateral sanctions. As a result of this actions, Iran has had limited influence in the region with the US continuing to exert significant influence in the region. A nuclear-armed Iran would be able to deter this influence and reduce the United States political and military monopoly in the region.

If Iran succeeds in developing a nuclear device, the US will incur a heavy price to contain Tehran. This deterrence would include the deployment of US naval and ground units in the Middle East to enable immediate reaction to Iranian aggression (Wilner, 2012). Significant resources would also be required to develop intelligence assets to monitor Iran’s military activities and make sure that its nuclear technology is not being transferred to terrorist groups.

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As it is, Iran is seen as aggressive and it engages in a number of proxy wars in the Middle East. Analysts suggest that nuclear capability will embolden Iran and it will increase its support for terrorism even further since Tehran will safely assume that is cannot suffer any retaliation due to its nuclear power. Kroenig (2012) best articulates this scenario by stating that a nuclear capable Iran will have a nuclear shield that will allow it to “support subversion, nonnuclear terrorism, [and] insurgencies because its adversaries would be hard pressed to retaliate given the risk of escalation to a nuclear exchange” (p.25).

Iran’s links with terrorist organizations also makes the US concerned about nuclear power in Iran. At the present, the US has earmarked Iran as “the most active state sponsor of terrorism” (Kroenig, 2012, p.19). Bearing in mind that the US and her interests continue to be the major target for a lot of terrorist acts, a nuclear capable Iran is undesirable for US security. Washington has concerns that a nuclear-armed Iran will facilitate nuclear terrorism with adverse impacts for the Middle East region and possibly the rest of the world.

Arab Gulf States Concerns Regarding Iran’s Nuclear Aspirations

Most of the Gulf States are wary of Iran’s influence and recent its involvement in their affairs. For example, Iran supports a number of non-state actors in Gulf States such as Bahraini, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In Bahrain, the country has great influence over the Shiite group and continues to fund them and this has given rise to sectarian tensions in the country (Alsis et al., 2011). In Saudi Arabia, Iran supports the Houthis rebels who are Shiites and therefore threatens the political well influence of the Saudi government. The Yemen government has accused Iran of waging a proxy way in the country by funding various rebel groups.

Saudi Arabia in particular is very concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. As it currently stands, Saudi Arabia and Iran are geopolitical and ideological rivals and each country seeks to have an upper hand over the other in the region. The Saudi government in particular views itself as the leading nation in the Muslim world and this status would be reversed by a nuclear-armed Iran. Iran’s military capacity is what has led to an increased arms purchase by other Gulf States most notably of which is Saudi Arabia. Alsis et al. (2011) record that between 2005 and 2009; the Gulf States bought arms from the US worth more than $37 billion. This military buildup is in an attempt to balance power in the region and ensure that Iran is not the dominant force.

There is fear that a nuclear capable Iran will resort to nuclear blackmail against its neighbors. Kroenig (2012) suggests that it is likely that Iran will force its Arab neighbors to shut down their US military bases. Iran could also force its weaker Arab neighbors to adopt policies that are beneficial to it due to its nuclear clout. Iran’s nuclear ambitions further worry the Gulf States since Iran has historically viewed herself as the preeminent Gulf power and it is feared that acquisition of a nuclear devise will only increase this status (Shanahan, 2009).

Is Iran actually planning to build a Nuclear weapon?

Since the mid-1980s, Israel, the US, and other Western powers have continually accused Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons capability. Iran has constantly reiterated that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. The country insists that it has no intention of producing weapon grade material by enriching its uranium stockpiles into weapons-grade levels.

As it currently stands, all parties agree that Iran does not possess nuclear weapons capability. However, a lot of evidence points to the fact that Iran is working on a nuclear weapon. Kroenig (2012) reports that according to findings by the IAEA, Iran is testing nuclear triggering devices. In addition to this, the country is redesigning its missiles to enable them to deliver nuclear payloads. This active and growing missile capabilities leads to further suspicion about the aims of the nuclear program since as Bahgat (2006) correctly observes, “the history of the two weapon systems -nuclear and missiles- is similar” (p.311).

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Another indication that Iran intends to create a nuclear weapon is from the fact that if has refused to comply with Security Council resolutions that require it to provide the IAEA with information demonstrating the exclusively peaceful nature of the nuclear program. Iran has refused to confirm allegations from IAEA that it has in the past conducted studies on making a nuclear warhead and how to deliver it by use of long-range missiles. The secrecy of Iranian nuclear activities has also led many observers to conclude that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. In the early 1990s, Iran voluntarily invited the IAEA to inspect its sites and facilities since the country has no illegal nuclear activities. The fact that Iran is not as willing to allow IAEA officials into all sites shows that the country could be engaged in illegal activity.

Some observes claim that the recent events in Libya have shown the vulnerability of countries without weapons of mass destruction to Western attack. Iran is therefore more likely to accelerate the pace of its nuclear program so as to avoid suffering such a fate. This is a likely scenario considering the threats of military action that Iran faces from Israel and the US because of its alleged nuclear program.

Does Iran have the right to make its own decisions?

Iran is a sovereign state which entitles it to a number of rights as concerns her internal affairs. Iranian leaders are of the opinion that their nuclear program is one of these inherent rights that the country possesses. However, nuclear-weapons are of concern not only to the individual country but to the rest of the world. Unlike conventional weapons, the nuclear weapon has immediate and long-term destructiveness which would make an all-out nuclear war an unacceptable disaster (Shahram, 2010). Iran has historical ties with terrorist outfits such as Hezbollah and other militant groups which make the possibility of it acquiring a nuclear devise troubling.

By applying neorealism theory which proposes that the international communist should act as a constraint on the behavior of individual nations, Iran’s nuclear program should not be allowed. Neorealism affirms that some nations can and should have privileges over others. In this case, a country such as the US which has nuclear-arms is within its rights to deter Iran from developing the same capabilities (Shahram, 2010). Preventing Iran from being nuclear-armed is also important for regional peace. The nuclear arms race which could be ignited in the Middle East if Iran’s nuclear ambitions are realized is undesirable. Such action would destabilize the already unstable Middle East with dire repercussions for countries such as Israel which has been able to maintain a strategic edge in the region due to its supposed nuclear capacity. The IAEA’s efforts to stop Iran’s covert program and ensure the dismantlement of its illegal nuclear projects have proved inadequate due to the political defiance of Tehran. It is therefore the prerogative of the international community to take more stringent measures to ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon.

The neoliberal perspective proposes that institutions (such as the UN) can and should be used to resolve state problems. These institutes define what appropriate behavior is and measures are then undertaken to ensure that the appropriate behavior is observed. By applying this theory, it is evident that the international community through the UN does not support the development of nuclear weapons by Iran. The UN has proposed that Iran cease its uranium enrichment programs and sanctions have been imposed on Iran to ensure that it abides by these directives. Kroenig (2012) asserts that a nuclear-capable Iran will significantly undermine the nonproliferation regime since it will incite other nations to seek their own nuclear capabilities. This is not an unfounded Kaye & Lorber (2012) note that Saudi Arabia has already began to make plans for its own nuclear program in anticipation of Iran becoming nuclear armed.

Conclusion

Iran is yet to achieve nuclear weapons capability but at its current rate of progress, many believe that it will achieve this goal before the end of the decade. From this paper, it is clear that Iran’s nuclear project presents a real threat to the security of the Arab region. Iran already has aggressive tendencies and this can only be expected to increase if the country is nuclear-armed. It has been suggested that nuclear Iran will represent a daunting strategic problem for the US and bring about a myriad of issues for the Gulf States. The paper has argued that if Iran is allowed to achieve its nuclear ambitions, it would lead to a proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East as other nations pursued nuclear weapons of their own. With these considerations, it makes sense for the world community to interfere and stop Iran’s progress towards achieving nuclear power.

References

Alsis, P., Allison, M. & Cordesman, A.H. (2011). US and Iranian Strategic Competition in the Gulf States and Yemen. Washington: Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Bahgat, G. (2006). Nuclear proliferation: the Islamic republic of Iran. Iranian Studies, 39 (3), 307-327.

Kaye, D. & Lorber, E. (2012). Containing Iran: what does it mean? Middle East Policy, 19(1), 51-63.

Kroenig, M. (2012). Time to attack Iran. Foreign Affairs, 91(1), 43-54.

Wilner, S.A. (2012). Apocalypse Soon? Deterring Nuclear Iran and its Terrorist Proxies. Comparative Strategy, 31(1), 18-40.

Shahram, C. (2010). The Iranian Nuclear Riddle after June 12. The Washington Quarterly, 33(1), 163-172.

Shanahan, R. (2009). The Gulf states and Iran: robust competitors or interested bystanders? Perth: Lowy Institute for International Policy.

World Nuclear Association (2012). Nuclear Power in Iran. Web.

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