Understanding Iran's Nuclear Goals

Iran has a concept of national security quite different from our own.

The West may be implementing an interim nuclear deal with Iran. But it still doesn’t get what makes Iran tick. Why does Iran want a nuclear program? What does it seek as it negotiates? If the United States and its allies can’t answer those questions, it will be extremely difficult to work out a comprehensive, final deal.

What lurks beneath the surface of the Iran nuclear dispute stems from the two sides’ different concepts of national security. Israel and the Arab sheikhdoms have portrayed a realist, zero-sum attitude towards security issues related to the nuclear program—physical security is the central goal. Yet Iran’s narrative of security hinges on a nonrealist concept of national security, namely ontological security. Here, nuclear capacity provides an important symbol of Iran’s modernity and identity. And that is why keeping the enrichment program active was a critical goal for Iran in Geneva. Iran's leaders view the country's ability to make nuclear fuel as a source of national pride. Concepts like pride and independence, rather than mere physical safety, are Iran’s real nuclear motives. That is why Iran continues a nuclear program that has not provided any deterrence, but rather has endangered Iran’s physical security.

Indeed, one can argue that nuclear weaponization would likely intensify Iran’s security anxieties rather than assuage them. The nuclear program is already Iran’s main source of insecurity. As Trita Parsi, the president of National Iranian American Council (NIAC), has argued, “The Iranians are well aware that a decision to weaponize would likely weaken rather than advance Iran’s strategic position. As long as the Middle East is kept as free as possible from nuclear weapons, Iran will enjoy a conventional superiority vis-à-vis its neighbors because of its size and resources. However, if Iran weaponizes, it will risk sparking a nuclear arms race that may lead small states such as Bahrain and Kuwait to opt for a nuclear capability as well. In such a Middle East, Iran would lose its conventional superiority and find itself at strategic parity with states less than one twentieth its size.”

So why has Iran sacrificed so much to pursue its nuclear program if it won’t make Iran physically safer? As Mohiaddin Mesbahi, the director of Middle East Studies at Florida International University, told me, “one cannot understand the origin, dynamics, and trajectory of the nuclear program without getting knowledge of indelible ties between Iran’s ontological security and non-material issues, i.e., honor, dignity, and awe.” These concepts challenge the centrality of physical concepts of security, namely survival. This means that while much ink has been spilled on the Iranian nuclear program, mainstream scholars have wrongly explained Iran’s focal intentions on the maintenance and expansion of its nuclear program through the lens of survival. This narrative has led other powers to pursue strategies that include political, military and economic threats. These strategies haven’t fully succeeded because they don’t engage with Iran’s most central concerns. Iran’s insecurity is more rooted in situations whereby Iran is uncomfortable with who it is.

From this perspective, emphasizing the nuclear program is a rational pursuit in the drive for ontological security. Here, ontological security is “a sense of continuity and order in events”, and insecurity occurs when states “are uncomfortable with who they are”; consequently, “ontological security, as opposed to security as survival, is security as being.” For Iran, ontological security affirms its identity; Iran isn’t merely concerned with preserving its physical existence, but also with how it sees itself and is seen by others.

And beneath Iran’s nuclear program are concepts of dignity, honor, and identity. “To us, mastering the atomic fuel cycle and generating nuclear power is as much about diversifying our energy resources as it is about who Iranians are as a nation, our demand for dignity and respect and our consequent place in the world,” Rouhani said in his article published in the Washington Post. “Without comprehending the role of identity, many issues we all face will remain unresolved.”

Pledging to engage in a constructive interaction with the world, Rouhani and his team has so far rejected the realist narrative of international politics. They also rejected, in Rouhani’s words, “hard power and the use of brute force” as solutions for international crises. Rather, the world is “no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously.” This statement shows that the Iranian negotiators count on a constructivist narrative of security issues. “A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights. It means engaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives. In other words, win-win outcomes are not just favorable but also achievable. A zero-sum, Cold War mentality leads to everyone’s loss.” He added “Security is pursued at the expense of the insecurity of others, with disastrous consequences.”