The Buzz

Nuclear Negotiations: Iran's Quest for Status

Policy makers tasked with cutting a deal with Iran over its nuclear program by the November deadline may find a set of useful lessons from the French nuclear-weapons program. Scott Sagan points out that France was largely motivated to pursue the bomb to restore the grandeur it lost during the Second World War. For de Gaulle and his predecessors, the bomb was an important symbol of French independence; after France lost Algeria, it demonstrated that France was still a great power. A similar dynamic may be at play with Iran over its demands concerning the right to engage in the enrichment of uranium.

When it comes to proliferation, many scholars and policy makers have largely ignored the possibility that status, rather than insecurity, is a primary motivation driving the behavior of states seeking to cross the nuclear Rubicon. Status refers to “an attribute of an individual or social role relating to rank.” States that are content with their standing in world politics are unlikely to pose problems for the prevailing international order. The states that pose a challenge are the ones that are dissatisfied over their rank in the international hierarchy. While these states may excel along one or more observable dimensions, from military prowess to economic strength to possessing a geographic sphere of influence, conflict is likely to ensue when the leading international powers refuse to recognize dissatisfied states’ claims to prestige. Conflict can come in the form of crises as well as war. Such conflicts are believed to resolve contests over status. The status dilemma resolves itself with either the leading powers granting a state’s status claims or the contestant backing down.

Many of Iran’s claims to enrichment appear to be driven by concerns over its status. In 2003, Iran agreed to a deal with the EU+3 whereby it would suspend the enrichment of uranium and sign the Additional Protocol to the NPT, allowing for more intrusive inspections. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pointed to this agreement in the 2005 presidential elections as a humiliation for Iran. This issue is credited with having helped propel the then mayor of Tehran to the presidency. Throughout his tenure in office, Ahmadinejad continually reiterated Iran’s claims to having the right to enrich uranium under the NPT. Despite Ahmadinejad's current status as a political pariah, this is one part of his legacy that has managed to survive. Even though he was responsible for negotiating a deal with the EU+3 that involved the suspension of enrichment, President Hassan Rouhani, has reiterated some of the same claims to enrichment that his predecessor made. This suggests that concerns over status are alive and well within the Iranian body politic.

Western negotiators appear sensitive to Iran’s concerns over saving face. The United States has recently floated proposals that would recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium while limiting its technical capacity to do so. Simultaneously, the Obama administration has also signaled that it may propose allowing Iran to keep 4,500 centrifuges in exchange for cuts in Iran’s fissile material stockpile. While Iranian negotiators have hinted that Tehran may be willing to reduce the number of centrifuges from the currently reported 9,400 to 7,000, other hurdles remain. Iran has insisted that multilateral UN sanctions be removed at the front end of a nuclear deal, rather than being removed piecemeal while the Islamic Republic demonstrates it is in compliance with any deal with the P5+1.

While the possibility of reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran by the end of November remains in doubt, there are a few options for satisfying Tehran’s demands for status and prestige while preventing breakout. The United States and other members of the P5+1 should tie prestige to states’ non-nuclear status. One issue that is of importance to Iran is the Persian Gulf naming dispute. Several Arab states along with some branches of the U.S. military refer to the body of water as the Arabian Sea, while international organizations, such as the UN, use the term Persian Gulf. The United States and the P5+1 could tie official recognition of the body of water as the Persian Gulf to Iran’s non-nuclear status. A second way is to lower the prestige of nuclear weapons. One way to do this is to allow for the limited expansion of the UN Security Council but make denuclearization a condition for permanent membership. Seyyed Hossein Mousavian and his colleagues at Princeton proposed a third idea that has failed to gain traction, but may be worth revisiting. This involved reducing the number of Iran’s older centrifuges in exchange for a smaller number of newer, more sophisticated centrifuges along with the construction of a multilateral enrichment facility.