At the heart of international efforts to contain—or, as some may more ambitiously wish, to roll back—Iran’s nuclear ambitions, there are profound shortcomings in the world’s understanding of Tehran’s motivations and strategy. Many experts have written about the Iranian nuclear challenge, and countless practitioners have for two decades aimed to shape its course. Yet only modest systematic efforts have been made so far to reconstruct the core tenets of Tehran’s outlook so as to develop a viable nonproliferation and counterproliferation strategy to moderate its nuclear aims.
Granted, this is not an easy task given Iran’s opaqueness and deceit about its intentions and strategy. This undertaking is further complicated by the institutional fragmentation, political interests, and wishful thinking of those attempting to understand Tehran’s views. Nevertheless, Iranian statements, actions, and revealed preferences can point to the main enduring features of the country’s nuclear strategy.
Iran’s consistent ambition has been to become a nuclear-weapons state one day—an ambition that was evident during the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and was reinvigorated by the Islamic Republic after the bloody and traumatic Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Until it achieves this nuclear status, however, Iran is hedging its bets: advancing its capabilities wherever possible, making tactical concessions when necessary, and acquiring the indigenous wherewithal to cross the nuclear threshold if needed. Two factors combine to fuel or solidify Iran’s nuclear ambitions, while two other factors have thus far tamed this impulse.
What Fuels Iran’s Ambitions
The first driver of Iran’s nuclear ambitions is a combination of paranoia and grandiose self-regard. In terms of paranoia, Iranian elites share a deep sense of historical victimhood grounded in both the heritage of Shia Islam (dating from the seventh century) and Iran’s Persian character, as the country has experienced repeated foreign adventurism and aggression that have taken advantage of its weakness. Naturally, the Islamic Republic harbors such feelings even more acutely than the government before it, seeing even well-meaning foreign initiatives to break the diplomatic deadlock and reintegrate Iran’s economy with the rest of the world as sugarcoated poison designed to undermine the Islamic regime, as the country’s supreme leader has repeatedly made clear. Not lost on the Iranian leadership have been the sobering lessons of what tragically has happened to the likes of Libya and Iraq, and their leaders Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein, once they gave up their nuclear ambitions.
But equally, Iran views itself as a proud descendant and modern embodiment of a great civilization with broad, expansive interests, a civilization spanning from Central Asia through the Persian Gulf all the way to the Mediterranean Sea. These interests are not merely territorial but also ethnic, religious, and functional, and they pertain not only to fellow Shia Muslims but also to other facets of Iranian identity as a Muslim-majority country, a proponent of diplomatic nonalignment, and a major oil producer and significant member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. In the eyes of many Iranian leaders since World War II, Iran not only deserves its place in the sun but also can only secure or further consolidate its rightful standing by possessing nuclear weapons or, at a minimum (for now), by holding in active reserve an advanced capacity to develop them at will.
The nuclear issue plays to this Iranian delusion of grandeur in another important respect. It has made it repeatedly possible for Iranian leaders to force the world’s major powers to take their country seriously and sit down and negotiate the nuclear issue time and again, thus empowering Iran to extract inducements in return for token nuclear concessions. In other words, not merely Iran’s nuclear actions but also protracted nuclear diplomacy reinforce Tehran’s sense of self-importance. Securing an open-ended nuclear deal that would squander this precious instrument is therefore not in the cards for Iran.
The second factor driving Iran’s decisionmaking is a widely shared assessment among Iranian elites that, if Tehran crosses the nuclear threshold, the international community will eventually learn to accept it. Iranian leaders believe that even if foreign protestations, sanctions, and even covert action will precede their efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, acquiescence is bound to follow once the deed is done, just as has been the case with India, Pakistan, and more recently North Korea.
Both these tenets of Iranian leaders’ worldviews have combined in recent decades to produce clear and consistent (if tactically flexible) strategic efforts to advance Iran toward the nuclear threshold under the guise of a peaceful nuclear program and a thick layer of opaqueness and deceit.
What Moderates the Pursuit of Iran’s Ambitions
One major factor tempering Iran’s push toward nuclearization is a deeply embedded concept with Muslim roots that was greatly expanded as a Shia cultural tenet, namely strategic patience/endurance (sabr). Just like Shia Muslims in Iran have waited centuries for the Twelfth Imam to reappear while taking small steps to bring this about, Iran’s nuclear program has demonstrated only a modest sense of urgency, instead engaging in occasional saber-rattling and brinkmanship but ultimately embracing a profound degree of risk aversion. Tehran’s nuclear pursuits have been seen by the Iranian leadership as a marathon rather than a sprint.
The second factor moderating Iran’s push toward nuclearization has been a degree of ambivalence and even disagreement that remains among Iranian leaders. They do not all agree on whether Tehran needs to cross the nuclear threshold to reap the benefits it covets or whether it could achieve much of what it desires by stopping short of the nuclear threshold and avoiding the dear price these gains would cost. Since 2003, Iranian elites have struck a compromise to maintain their aim of getting closer to the nuclear threshold but moving forward cautiously, so the country’s posture has vacillated between the assertive pursuit of its nuclear ambitions and tactical (sold internally as temporary) accommodation when the going gets tough. These compromises have made it possible for Iranian leaders to claim that a religious fatwa precludes Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, (a sentiment that for some of them is a deeply felt religious conviction and for others is no more than a convenient pretense).
Obviously not all of Iran’s behavior in this realm (or for that matter in any other area) is a function of a rational and coherent decisionmaking process. Yet on the strategic level, Tehran’s nuclear behavior has been largely consistent and generally successful at striking a balance between the pull of its nuclear ambitions and the countervailing tug of its occasional streaks of restraint. Iran also has managed to weather the high economic price exacted by international sanctions before 2015 and again after 2018 without giving up its nuclear ambitions. Attesting both to the strength of its nuclear convictions and its cautious ways of pursuing them, Iran has elected to greatly advance its nuclear enrichment in quality, quantity, and level; nonetheless, Iranian leaders also have studiously held back from relaunching the country’s nuclear weaponization effort itself. This clandestine weapons program was originally truncated in 2003 (as originally observed in the November 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate and ultimately confirmed by files from Iran’s nuclear archive) and apparently comprehensively suspended in 2010 (judging from the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) reports of its investigation into the possible military dimension of Iran’s program).
As repeatedly documented by the IAEA, even after concluding the nuclear agreement in 2015, Iran has consistently combined measured collaboration with the IAEA designed to retain a modicum of legitimacy with a healthy dose of evasion, procrastination, and selectively outright cheating to frustrate the agency from comprehensively verifying the peaceful nature of its program or the “correctness and completeness” of its safeguards obligations as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Tehran initially encroached on, and then broadly exceeded, but has never formally abandoned its obligations under the nuclear deal. More recently, Iranian leaders have been procrastinating for months on resuming compliance with the 2015 deal while remaining nominally committed to doing so.
In parallel, Iran has been hardening its nuclear program to withstand likely hostile covert action and possible military strikes. It has been dispersing and expanding deep underground facilities and tightening the security in and around them. The Iranian government also has been building an ever more formidable capacity to deter, and if need be, respond to possible attacks through a combination of long-range precision strike capabilities from its own territory and proxy actors in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and (most importantly) Iraq. Most recently, after the election of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in June 2021, Iran has stepped up a charm offensive directed at its Gulf allies to try to undermine the formation of an anti-Iran coalition while also courting Chinese and Russian diplomatic support to counter U.S. and European pressure.
Iran’s Nuclear Future
The breadth, depth, and (albeit very costly) success of this well-honed Iranian strategy has made it exceedingly difficult to get Iran to change course without keeping this approach from maturing. This holds even more true today, as the world confronts other acute perils, including the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and widespread political instability tied in part to violent extremism. Meanwhile, the United States remains bent on extricating itself from every major foreign entanglement to focus on a daunting domestic agenda whose sole foreign policy exception is a single-minded preoccupation with China. These constraints inevitably have produced far narrower U.S. bandwidth and little U.S. resolve to deal with challenges in the Middle East in general, address issues with Iran in particular, or pursue ambitious nonproliferation goals. No wonder, then, that Iranian leaders seem increasingly confident that the West has no stomach to escalate its attempts to contain Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, something that Israel by itself (even with assistance from Persian Gulf states) is unable to do, while Russia and China appear unwilling to risk their other interests to moderate Iranian nuclear pursuits.
So the world is rapidly approaching an inflection point when Iran’s temptation to get much closer to the finish line appears to be growing—while its caution and risk avoidance seems to be dramatically diminishing. This is all the more true given the ascent of an even more hawkish and ruthless administration in Tehran whose leaders cannot help but cast their eyes on eventually succeeding the country’s more cautious but aging supreme leader. After two decades, a moment of truth is approaching.
Careful attention to the enduring and evolving parameters of Iran’s nuclear pursuit ought to be a starting point for a revitalized counterstrategy to deal with Iran by checking its nuclear ambitions and its highly destabilizing regional forays. This strategy’s odds of success will be significantly higher if Western policymakers led by the United States finally wake up to play hardball with Iran, genuinely impressing on its leadership a sense of urgency to come to terms with their core demands. This would require creative diplomacy and the skillful crafting of a potent and unorthodox mix of positive and negative inducements: compelling diplomatic and economic carrots alongside powerful sticks, with the latter including coercive diplomacy (sanctions), covert action, and military preparations (to be used only as a last resort measure).