Does Iran really want Nuclear Weapons?

Posted in Europe , United States , Iran | 18-May-10 | Author: Jožef Kunic| Source: IFIMES

The International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses events in the Middle East and the Balkans. Ambassador Dr. Jožef Kunic, member of the IFIMES International Institute, President of the Slovenian Association for International Relations (SDMO) and former Slovenia's ambassador to Iran has presented his view of the current situation in Iran with the emphasis on its nuclear programme. His article entitled "DOES IRAN REALLY WANT NUCLEAR WEAPONS?" is here published in its entirety.

Despite the warnings of the international community, Iran does not show any intentions to give up the uranium enrichment programme arguing that it is a civil programme not intended for the weapon development. However, the Western politicians do not believe those statements and perceive Iran's nuclear programme as a threat for the region and the Western world with global implications.

Does Iran really want nuclear weapons? The experts on Iran's political scene know that this is not a state where the events and the decision-making in certain fields would be harmonised between all those who are active in those fields. Traditionally, the groups operating in certain fields are mostly independent from each other, not co-ordinated with other groups and often have completely opposing goals. Perhaps it is true that Iran's regular army does not want nuclear weapons, but that does not mean that the Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran), who are directly responsible to religious leaders, do not want it either. There is a strong likelihood that the religious leadership is determined to get the nuclear weapons. It seems unlikely that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad means seriously and sincerely when he says that it is not Iran's intention to use the nuclear programme for military purposes. Iran's nuclear programme is not organised within any ministry (neither defence ministry nor energy or science ministries). It is an independent, autonomous institution which is only formally dependant on the president of the state in terms of its organisation, although it is clear that religious leaders have a strong influence on it and they are the ones who want the nuclear weapons.

The question is how dangerous would Iran be in military terms if it had nuclear weapons. It is very likely that it would not use nuclear weapons in a military action. Although some are convinced that Iran has chemical and biological weapons, which are also very dangerous, that fact is by far not as worrying as eventual development of nuclear weapons. If Iran used the nuclear weapons it would most probably suffer a retaliatory nuclear attack which would be disastrous for the ruling elite. Some people wonder whether Iran would use nuclear weapons against Israel. The probability of this kind of attack is very small. Israel is much more powerful and presumably also much more efficient than Iran in military terms. However, we should not forget that Iran's regime, like any totalitarian regime, needs an enemy, and Israel is a very appropriate enemy for rhetorical usage in Iran's domestic politics. It is hard to believe that the leading Iran's elite would really want to lose that argument for the "unity", "obedience" and "readiness" of the nation.


Although the military use of nuclear weapons by Iran is not to be expected, the mere fact that Iran has those weapons and that it is able to produce them represents a great danger. Perhaps this danger would be smaller if Iran's nuclear programme had not stirred up so much opposition in the Western world. Nevertheless, if the nuclear programme is successfully concluded, although perhaps mainly for civil purposes, this will be a glorious victory for Iran which will be perceived as the general victory against the West by the extremists, religious fundamentalists and terrorists outside Iran. This would be a great impetus for further anti-western activities and an encouragement to all those who would like to replace the totalitarian pro-western regimes in the Arab world, especially in oil-rich regions. The stability of the global economy would be under threat since it largely depends on oil which would, due to the unstable situation in this part of the world, become a scarce and much more expensive raw material. In that case the probability of global economic instability would be very strong. The general financial downturn has already strongly affected the global economy, and with an additional serious oil crisis it could reach catastrophic dimensions.

The present situation in the region of Iran is very worrying. Stability is far from being established in Afghanistan, the situation in Iraq is anything but normal, Pakistan has become a new source of instability and a shelter for terrorism while Iran has been confronting - successfully so far - the international community. Many - especially the sympathisers of Islamic extremists - believe that the international community is powerless, scared and lost in this part of the world. Iran's successful confrontation is a great encouragement for the extremists as well as all those who are not satisfied with the fact that "postcolonial situation is marked with globalisation as the form of Westernisation of the world" (Milardovic, 2009: 25) and who are affected by Huntington's thesis about dividing our planet in "the West and the rest". Iran is in a diplomatic war against the West. Iran's "victory" (i.e. the unpunished continuation of the uranium enrichment programme) would encourage the extremists as well as the Islamic fundamentalist movements in Europe and elsewhere in the world. This situation would obviously aggravate the security situation in many countries, although they would not be threatened directly by Iran but through the encouragement of the extremists and the fundamentalists who are ready to use radical means for their purposes. "Iran has an inglorious list of attempts to destabilise its neighbouring countries" (Page, 2010: 10)

The economic instability which would most probably be directly supported or even caused by Iran's gaining of nuclear weapons, would not be limited only to the USA and the USA would probably not be the first state to suffer instability. The first in the row would probably be Japan and Europe. This would lead to wider instability which would be subsequently strongly felt by the USA. Even Russia and China would not be excluded from this process. It is therefore understandable why both the EU and the USA are so eager to stop Iran's nuclear programme. Obviously Russia and China are eager to do that too, but have too many interests in Iran to be able to express any serious warnings.


The interest of the developed Western states is clear although a different picture is presented to the general public. There should be no global oil crisis since that would have negative implications practically for the whole world. Perhaps only some non-democratic dictatorship regimes would profit from such a crisis as they are anyway in a poor economic situation and would only celebrate the fact that others are doing bad, too. It would strengthen the ideology of the extremists, religious fundamentalists and terrorists as they would have an additional argument that democratic ideas are defeatable or at least vulnerable, which would have serious repercussions on security in democratic states and their allies. The world could face some serious problems. Iran's nuclear programme should therefore be stopped. It was easy to come to this conclusion, but it is more complicated to answer the question as to how to do it. Iran's leadership has presented the nuclear programme to the domestic public as one of the pillars of development, security and sovereignty of the state. Bearing in mind the vast funds invested in the programme despite the poor standard of living of average inhabitants, there is no way the leaders will agree to give it up.

US President Barack Obama has undertaken very seriously to redefine the US attitude towards the world. He reconceptualised the US foreign policy in view of the key geopolitical issues. Firstly, Islam is not the enemy - terrorism is the enemy. Secondly, the US will act as a fair and active mediator between Israel and Palestine. And thirdly, the US will endeavour for serious negotiations with Iran regarding the nuclear programme and other issues. Iran's nuclear question is thus regarded as the third out of nine priority issues. Despite fierce opposition from American and foreign circles, President Obama has insisted that the possibilities for serious negotiations with Iran should be examined first. He has basically downgraded the US military option (Brzezinski, 2010: 16). Although President Obama has been ready for negotiations and has offered compromise solutions, Iran's reactions have not satisfied any of the international community's expectations. It provided no satisfactory or convincing answers and it failed to convince the international community that it has no intention to develop nuclear weapons. As a counterbalance to the nuclear safety conference in Washington Iran organised a conference in Teheran. At the opening speech on 17 April 2010 President Ahmadinejad proposed that the International Atomic Energy Agency should suspend the US which has already used nuclear weapons as well as all those states which have threatened to use it. It is interesting to look at the list of states which were present at the conference in Teheran: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Oman, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Central African Republic, Swaziland, as well as vice ministers of Russia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and a special envoy of China's foreign minister. President of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the representatives of the International Energy Agency and the United Nations were also present at the conference.


The US uncompromisingly insist that Iran should stop the uranium enrichment programme, and their position has been followed by many allies. "We, as world leaders, are responsible for international peace and security. This is in the interest of our peoples and the world community as a whole" said President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy (Van Rompuy, 2010: 1). Iran has stated several times very decisively and loudly that it is under no condition ready to stop uranium enrichment programme. Although by constantly accepting negotiations Iran is seemingly gaining time, the fact is that the compromise can only be achieved if one side makes sweeping concessions - but those concessions would have to be so profound that the political survival of those making them would be endangered. This leaves no space for a compromise solution: Iran either continues uranium enrichment or not. There is no middle way. The USA and others either accept that Iran continues those activities or not. There is no middle way here either. The status quo remains: The US (and the large part of the international community) uncompromisingly insist that Iran stops the nuclear programme (in its territory) while Iran uncompromisingly insists on continuing the nuclear programme. Both sides have gone so far in their political acts and rhetorics that it is impossible for them to return without suffering devastating political damage.

In comparison with Iraq a military intervention in Iran would be much more difficult: the state is much bigger with a more complicated geographical configuration and has three times more inhabitants who are traditionally much more zealous warriors, especially when defending their fatherland. Military strategists would have to examine carefully those facts. Another threat is the blockade of transportation of crude oil through the Strait of Hormuz where all the crude oil not transported through pipelines passes from Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Iran. That would lead the world into a devastating economic crisis with unimagined consequences. Iran's supreme religious leader Khamenei threatened not only to stop supplying Iran's oil, which the world might be able to deal with somehow, but even to block oil supplies from the whole region.

If the military action planners managed to prevent Iran's blockade of Hormuz, the major crisis would be avoided, but the prices of crude oil would still increase. In that case the economies of Europe, Japan and China would suffer most, while the price increase would not directly affect the United States, which have plenty of capital in world oil companies (and American dollar is the means of payment for oil), nor the crude oil exporting states. It should be kept in mind that it would be very difficult to prevent the blockade and that it would be very risky to forecast a successful operation.

Another possibility would be for Iran to attack the oil platforms in the Caspian sea which are located not far from Iran's northern border. That would be another negative effect of Iran's retaliatory military measures.

Another problem would be the situation in Iran after the eventual attack. It may soon turn into chaos as internal conflicts arise, which was the case in Iraq. While ethnic conflicts would be less probable, there is a greater possibility for the ideological conflicts between the advocators of the present regime and their opponents. Iran would become chaotic but without any broader international influence. Nevertheless, the chaotic situation could affect the region (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan) and the terrorism, which would definitely jeopardise international security.

There is another factor that should be stressed: namely the international reputation of those taking part in the eventual military action, especially of the USA, would be compromised due to innocent victims and questionable legitimacy of such action. This would have long-term negative consequences for them, but that is the subject of another article.


So how should the international community proceed? The first option is not to react to Iran's provocations and consequently to the strengthening of Islamistic ideology in the Middle East and beyond. Iran has obviously estimated that the Western democracies lack unity and determination to take any serious measures. But the fact is, that the modern democratic world is no longer ready to remain calm in face of Iran's unacceptable behaviour. The second option is military intervention. As stated above, this option is connected with too many risks.

On the basis of all the events related to Iran in the last year it may be concluded that the international community, especially the US, have decided for the third option, i.e. the strategy which was already applied mutatis mutandis during the Cold War.

Iran held presidential election on 12 June 2009 and the whole world was awaiting impatiently to see who would be the winner. However, some important events followed. Although the Iranians knew it was irrelevant who the winner would be, they expressed dissatisfaction with the present politics and its leader Ahmadinejad. The first demonstrations took place the day after election and they escalated until they were brutally suppressed. There were a few killed and many injured, but it is difficult to provide exact figures since the official and unofficial sources offer very different information. Nevertheless, it is clear that the Revolutionary Guards and especially its Basij militia executed violent repression and brutal beating, reminding of the former Shah's secret police (SAVAK) and the methods used by his ruling elite.

However, dissatisfaction with election results was not the main cause for mass protests. The people were distressed due to very difficult economic situation in Iran. According to some information Iran generated USD 200 billion from the sales of crude oil during the first three years of Ahmadinejad's government. That represents about a quarter of all Iran's oil revenues during the last thirty years. Unfortunately, none of it has contributed to better quality of life of Iranians. Those immense revenues from the period when prices of crude oil were very high were allocated mostly to armament, nuclear technology, missile technology as well as classical weapons. Official inflation is reported to be 30%, while unofficial sources claim it has reached at least 50%. The demonstrations were a clear protest against the current economic situation and against the ruling elite which uses dictatorship methods to prevent the people to ask for their share of welfare. However, the demonstrations represented more than just dissatisfaction with the economic situation. The protestors expressed a clear desire for freedom, especially the freedom of speech, political freedom and respect of fundamental human rights. The uprising was an expression of protest against the regime which is hiding behind the curtain of Islam although its methods of ruling have nothing in common with Islam. The Iranians who are a nation of long tradition do not protest against the religion. They protest against those who are vulgarly and brutally exploiting the religion for their own interests.

The events following the election of President Ahmadinejad have clearly shown that the dissatisfaction of the major part of Iranian people was already so high that it may well happen that eventually the theocratic dictatorship regime would be overthrown by its own people. It seems that the international community has chosen the strategy of allowing the increase of dissatisfaction among Iranians, since this is a good way to overthrow the regime and stop the development of nuclear programme. Unfortunately there seems to be no strategy that is less inappropriate than this one at the moment. Nevertheless, it is of vital importance for the international community to continue its activities in order to resolve the Iran issue. In the short run such strategy makes life difficult for Iranian people, but in the longer run it actually helps them fight for better life and for transition to a society with a higher level of fundamental freedoms and respect of human rights.

The strategy has never been publicly presented, but it may be deduced that it consists of the following main elements:

? imposition of sanctions,

? increased armament in the states which are friendly with the democratic states and geographically located near Iran,

? constant threat of military intervention,

? presenting the positive sides of Westernisation of the society.

For some time the US and its European allies have been striving to impose severe sanctions on Iran, and clearly Russia and especially China will have to follow this approach. At the nuclear safety conference in Washington, which was held on 12 and 13 April 2010 with 47 participating states, the USA and its allies were very eager to persuade China to make such a decision. In their final speeches the speakers stressed that China is heading for the right direction, although no clear commitment was made by this Asian superpower. China has expressed readiness to discuss new ideas, especially in the framework of G6 (five members of the Security Council plus Germany), while it remains reserved in terms of making public declarations bearing in mind that Iran is its important oil supplier.

It is clear who will suffer the consequences of sanctions. Regardless what kinds of sanctions are introduced and what they will refer to, it is the ordinary people who will suffer most. Sanctions usually do not prevent the supply of strategically sensitive goods, but they may cause their prices to increase dramatically. In any case they will result in economic weakening of Iran and affect the living standard of average Iranians. The final effect will be the culmination of dissatisfaction among the people and increased probability of general uprisings aimed at changing the regime - and discontinuation of the nuclear programme. China is probably hoping that in case of the above uprisings (or even a revolution) it will remain in friendly relations with eventual winners since it has made no public statements regarding sanctions during the period before the change of the regime.

Increased armament has been noticed in the states which are friendly with the democratic states and geographically located near Iran. As the counterbalance to Iran's growing arsenal of conventional weapons, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia made over USD 25 billion worth purchases of weapons from the US during the last two years (Warrick, 2010). Iran wants to be the dominant state in the region and therefore strives to maintain the balance in armament, which again results in its economic weakening and affects the living standard of its people.

Iran has been indirectly threatened many times that military intervention would be used if it can not be discouraged from finishing its nuclear programme by other means. "Washington cannot afford to compound its credibility problem by hesitating or vacillating. An indecisive U.S. response would undermine the efforts both to deter Iran and to reassure U.S. friends and allies in the region" (Lindsay, Takeyh, 2010: 46). However, any such threat expressed "between the lines" will only encourage Iran's leadership to increase its armament at the cost of its people.

The winner of the Cold War was (neo)liberalism, an ideology which has been characterised by monism since 1989 (Milardovic, 2009: 15). This ideology, which has been established in the states where the living standard in both material sense and the sense of liberties is much higher than in Iran, has become an ideal or desired goal for most Iranian people. Despite the complete ban on access to satellite broadcasting, media censorship and intensive indoctrination by the regime, they could not prevent the spreading of that ideal among the people. Most Iranians are aware that the religious dictatorship regime is the barrier in reaching that ideal and many of them would like to get rid of it.

Unfortunately, the above strategy seems to be the only way to achieve the desired goal. Any external intervention would only result in strengthening the regime and providing additional arguments for its further existence. Under such circumstances it would be sensible to continue the activities summarised under the above four points and even intensify them and persuade as many countries as possible to follow this approach. Political uprising could result in overthrowing the regime and stopping the nuclear programme. Although this scenario might not work it seems to be the only one that can lead to a good ending.

Nevertheless, despite the immense interest of the democratic world to turn Iran into a modern democratic and free country, it should be stressed that no intervention in Iran's internal affairs can lead to desired results. Iranians have to choose their own way forward and fight for it. So far any direct intervention in their affairs has proven to be extremely detrimental in the long run. And that is the historical lesson we should not forget.


Milardovic, Andelko (2009): Zapadni balkon: Zagreb, PANLIBER.
Page, Andrew (2010): Afganistan and the Region - a UK Perspective:
Brzezinski, Zbigniew (2010): From Hope to Audacy: Foreign Affairs 89 (1): 16-30.
Van Rompuy, Herman (2010): Statement on Behalf of the EU at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington:
Warrick, Joby (2010): U.S. steps uo arms sales to Persian Gulf allies: The Washington Post, 31 January 2010.
Lindsay, James in Takeyh, Ray (2010): After Iran Gets the Bomb: Foreign Affairs 89 (2): 33 - 49.

Ljubljana, 18 May 2010

International Institute for Middle-East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) - Ljubljana

Bakhtyar Aljaf
Zijad Becirovic, M.Sc.