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Veiled Ambitions: Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Posture

Propaganda poster of Ayatollah Khomeini in Teheran. Image: Adam Jones/Wikimedia

Anchored between the unelected Guardianship Council, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the supreme leader Ali Khamenei, Iran’s foreign policy reflects a complex mix of political, military and ideological interests. The recently-brokered deal between the P5+1 and Tehran is a case in point. While Iran’s elected President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif successfully negotiated the end of sanctions in exchange for limits on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, neither wield significant decision-making power within the Islamic Republic’s theocratic structure. At best, the presidency is the office of choice for international communications because it retains the trappings of a republic—an executive body with (apparently) executive authority. Consequently, Rouhani cannot pursue foreign policy goals without the consent of the Ayatollah, the Council and Guards.

This does not bode well for an agreement that Barack Obama hopes will herald a new era of dialogue and cooperation with Iran. Despite the veneer of credibility that Rouhani and Zarif gave to negotiations with the P5+1, we should be under no illusions that Iran’s bargaining better reflects the specific interests of the aforementioned troika. Worse still, the Islamic Republic might even have achieved its nuclear ambitions – a development which would have allowed Tehran to concentrate on concession-chasing during the talks. If so, then Joint Plan of Comprehensive Action (JCPOA) will ultimately fail in its efforts to bring long-term peace and stability to the wider Middle East.

Enduring Themes

It should also be mentioned that trying to understand Iran’s foreign policy is also made difficult by the behavior of some of the country’s leading political actors.  While Rouhani struck a deal with the P5+1, Iran’s supreme leader has continued to espouse his anti-American rhetoric to the masses. To further complicate matters, the Guardianship Council often swings between platforms of religious conservatism to championing international socialism. And let’s not forget about the influence that the likes of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Chairman of Expediency Discernment Council, still wield inside the country.

Yet, despite this complexity, the core objectives of Iranian foreign policy remain simple and enduring: to defend the regime at all costs and project Iranian power via the export of revolutionary ideals. When it comes to the latter, there can be no denying that Tehran’s track record remains less than impressive. Humbled during the Iran-Iraq war and humiliated by the assassinations of some of its leading scientists (most likely by Israel), the Islamic Republic was aware of its strategic vulnerabilities even before its failed attempts to foment unrest and political change among the Shia communities of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.

However, rather than putting paid to them once and for all, these setbacks have merely pushed Tehran’s ambitions further underground. From the al-Quds Brigades, its support for Hezbollah and Iraq’s Jaysh al-Mahdi and much more besides, Iran remains a master of developing asymmetric warfare capabilities. This indirect ability to project power and wield influence has allowed the Islamic Republic to circumvent aspects of the international sanctions regime and its containment by the United States and the GCC. There’s every reason to believe that Iran has also applied the same approach to protecting its nuclear program.

Out of Sight…

Having learned from Saddam Hussein’s mistakes, Iran has only dabbled in the development of ‘traditional’ nuclear weapons. As a result, the Islamic Republic’s nuclear posture is at most a reflection of its military strategy: clandestine and asymmetric. It is not that the P5+1 failed to achieve the stated goal of limiting Iran’s nuclear weapons program – they did. However, what they failed to singularly understand is that the Islamic Republic has always been more interested in developing ‘clandestine’ nuclear forces. These would be the type of weapons that are better-suited for ‘nuclear terrorism’, such as radiological dispersion devices (RDD, a.k.a. “dirty bombs”). In 2008, Iran even managed a domestic enrichment cycle and, as a result, is now fully capable of fielding RDDs on ballistic missiles that are not covered by the JPCOA. This provides Tehran with an effective deterrent against potential regime change and a tool for regional power projection.

Consequently, it’s become increasingly clear that the P5+1 missed a trick or two by focusing upon the more ‘obvious’ aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. This includes the failure to hold the Islamic Republic’s past nuclear activities to account, a demand that would undoubtedly have covered its RDD capabilities. Instead, Iran is now ideally placed to receive a significant injection of cash and resources from external actors without being fully held to account over its nuclear ambitions.

As things currently stand, many European businesses are priming themselves to enter the Iranian marketplace and kick-start the country’s reintegration into the global economy. Yet this will not result in full-blown economic liberalization. Iran’s economy will continue to be governed by illiberal practices, people and institutions. Overseas investment is likely to find its way into the country’s foreign policy agenda. That will mean more resources available for propping up the al-Assad regime, provoking sectarian violence in Iraq and on the Arabian Peninsula, and generally pushing a brazen anti-status quo agenda.

Uncertain times ahead

Only time will tell if Barack Obama manages to sell the Iran nuclear deal to Congress, the American public, and Washington’s nervous regional allies. However, a superficially rehabilitated Iran – sans regime change – remains dangerous, to say the least. In the absence of an effective balance of power for restraint, the Islamic Republic can use cash injections and the blanket of legitimacy generated by the nuclear deal to further undermine regional security and advance its hegemonic status. Tehran has worked hard to separate its nuclear program from other aspects of its foreign policy – and has succeeded in doing so. Consequently, the Iran deal has done more damage than good. Not only has it compromised trust between the United States, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states, it’s also weakened the already tenuous regional balance of power, and laid the foundations for further sectarian unrest on the Arabian Peninsula.


Mitchell A. Belfer is the founder and Head of the Department of International Relations and European Studies at Metropolitan University Prague, Czech Republic, and Editor in Chief of the Central European Journal of International and Security Studies (CEJISS).

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