Iran’s grand strategy begins and ends with regime survival. Because of the turbulent circumstances surrounding the Islamic Republic’s creation—it being the product of a revolution antagonistic both to adjacent powers and the Western world—this existential view of international relations is particularly pronounced. Yet what the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran seeks to preserve is less Iran the country than the “Islamic Republic.” Susceptible to internal pressures and external humiliation, the survival of the Islamic Republic now demands two things: the end of Iran’s currently devastating economic quagmire and the ability to defend itself from potentially crippling attacks by regional and global rivals. These two central priorities are essential to understanding the strategy driving the ongoing nuclear crisis, but what is more, they show that—for the time being—Iran does not desire a nuclear weapon, but seeks leverage for its wider regional program.
Since 2018, Iran has faced comprehensive American sanctions and has, as a result, redoubled the pace of its nuclear research. The pressing question is whether Tehran has concluded that the defensive guarantees of nuclear armament outweigh the consequences that a final sprint to the bomb would inevitably incur. While a nuclear deterrent seems like a logical guarantee against Iran’s existential concerns, Iran’s asymmetric security strategy offers a more flexible instrument of policy, much unlike a nuclear weapon. Over the last decade, Iran’s means of waging asymmetric war—through ballistic missiles, drones, and regional proxies—have been fine-tuned and used against Iran’s adversaries as an aggressive defensive policy. In addition, they have incurred limited consequences and would not, as critics of the nuclear deal (JCPOA) point out, be restricted under the current framework of the deal. Yet beyond this strategic logic, there are other factors that make sanctions relief a more lucrative medium-term goal for the Islamic Republic than nuclear weapons, emanating from the Islamic Republic’s internal politics.
The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions created an existential threat from within for the Islamic Republic. Economic attrition caused a marked spike in domestic unrest as, in just two years, sanctions have leveled Iran’s economy: Iran’s main export revenue-raising industries are strangled; its banks and financial sector locked out of international markets; and the overwhelming bulk of its foreign reserves made inaccessible. Despite modest signs of economic recovery, inflation shows no sign of decreasing significantly and the Iranian rial remains a weak currency, while mass unemployment continues to foment unrest on a daily basis. In the last few years, this has caused a number of protesters and critics inside Iran to question their government’s costly missile program and funding for regional proxies, at a time when ordinary Iranians suffer. While the Islamic Republic is not on its knees, these economic conditions create volatile domestic pressure that could undermine the regime stability if sustained too long.
The last major internal threat to the regime was the 2009 Green Movement, which led to an overhaul and galvanization of Iran’s security apparatus and the expansion of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) powers. Recent bolstering of the security apparatus indicates the regime might feel that current domestic pressure is reaching similar levels. Widespread protests in 2018 and 2019 saw the presence of the IRGC and army at protests increase, while former IRGC commander and presidential candidate Hossein Dehghan openly stated this year that the military was prepared to crackdown on any unrest following the June 18 elections—even going so far as to hint at a coup to maintain regime control.
As Iran drags negotiations out before the elections, it raises the possibility that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may even be delaying the “victory” of a sanctions-alleviating deal for President Hassan Rouhani’s likely hardline successor. With economic conditions deteriorating amidst an ongoing cycle of protests and violent crackdowns, and mushrooming security consolidation, this would give regime loyalists an important boost in this unstable domestic situation. On the contrary, prolonged sanctions exposure would pose grave risks to the regime’s survival, making the end of the sanction regime more important than defenders of the “resistance economy” care to admit.
The second reason that a sprint to a nuclear bomb is unlikely is that a rush to nuclear arms could trigger a cycle of retaliation that would humiliate, if not endanger, the regime altogether. Israel has demonstrated its capacity to target Iran’s nuclear sites on numerous occasions, most recently by way of a huge cyberattack at Natanz. Israel is likely to continue covert strikes on Iranian targets and may yet extend its strikes to conventional sites. Were Iran to sprint to a bomb, it would likely incur a full-blown pre-emptive strike from Israel. Iran would then have to respond in kind, in a manner that either sees the extension of American sanctions or, in the worst case, a conflagration with the United States. So far, Iran has pushed the nuclear envelope slowly and surely, such as through small enrichment quantities and overground facilities. The regime is keenly aware of what a retaliation cycle might look like, and as a result, understands that its interests are better served by not sprinting to a bomb.
The third strategic benefit of the nuclear program is that it serves to deflect international, and particularly American attention, to restrain Iran’s regional policies. Iran could wind back its research in exchange for sanctions relief; the Biden administration would doubtless respond by declaring its mission accomplished and to continue tuning out of the Middle East. Sanctions relief would then give Iran the resources to expand its regional footprint, with less American oversight. The Biden administration has floated “more for more” clauses, offering to trade Iranian missile and proxy activities for expanded economic relief. Yet Iran is unlikely to negotiate away its main means of influence and security. More importantly, the technical know-how Iran has acquired in the last three years is irreversible, permanently reducing its nuclear breakout time. If faced with American threats to reimpose sanctions—under this, or a future administration—Iran could reactivate its nuclear program, and ramp it up at a much more menacing pace than it did in 2018. Iran has, therefore, locked in long-term gains from its latest sprint, and will be well-equipped to handle threats to its security strategy from future American administrations. Iran is now positioned to spend the next two years building up its conventional abilities.
The last key element of Iran’s leverage-building nuclear policy is the Islamic Republic’s internal decision-making mechanics. The ongoing nuclear crisis provides constant temptation for onlookers to posit that, each time Iran cranks up its program, the regime’s goal has shifted from leverage-building to acquiring ultimate nuclear deterrence. In comparable moments in modern Iranian history, the supreme leader has opted for ensuring survival over pursuing extreme, risk-inducing ideology. In 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini chose to lose face and drink from what he called the “chalice of poison” by agreeing to a ceasefire with Iraq. The alternative was to continue a war that was running the fledgling regime into the ground. His successor made a similar gesture in signing the JCPOA in 2015, which the incumbent Ayatollah Khamenei described as “heroic flexibility.” Both occasions were rare examples of the activation of the Islamic Republic’s governing concept of “maslahat” (“expediency” or ”pragmatism”), which permits the leader to resort to extreme “un-revolutionary” measures in times of crisis. The comparison with the present is clear.
Too often the significance of maslahat is omitted from analysis of Iranian strategy. This is what permits a ready willingness amongst onlookers to believe that Iran is resolutely bearing down on nuclear weapons with no regard for the inevitable consequences for its security, or that it is being “forced into a corner”—to paraphrase Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi’s February 2021 words—and no longer has any choice but to sprint for a bomb. The strategic prudence and instinct for survival exhibited by its two leaders over the decades undermines such a view. Betting on Khamenei guiding Iran’s nuclear program to its final conclusion would be to bet against both history and the rationale of the situation demonstrated above.
By beginning with Iran’s integral priorities, the three prongs of Iran’s foreign policy—nuclear, missile, and regional—can be pieced together into a coherent grand strategy. Iran’s accelerated nuclear development seeks to exert pressure on the United States to lift sanctions, which would grant the Islamic Republic crucial economic respite. Until a deal is reached, Tehran possesses a window of opportunity to edge closer to the nuclear threshold permanently, acquiring irreversible technical know-how and experience that makes it riskier for present and future American administrations to reimpose sanctions again. Looking forward, Iran could look to exploit this new playing field to stonewall any future efforts by the West to moderate its missile program and regional aggression. In doing so, the regime would form an insurance policy for these security measures which would be exceptionally difficult to circumvent. Iran is leveraging the nuclear bomb—not dashing for it—and the strategy seems to be working.
Marcus Solarz Hendriks is a Research Analyst for the University of Cambridge’s Middle East and North Africa Forum. He is also a researcher and analyst for a policy advisory firm, and has experience working in open-source intelligence collecting and analysis on Iran and the Arab Gulf.