Balance of deterrence, or a catastrophe?

After several years of IAEA inspections, accusations of a clandestine production of nuclear arms, UN security council sanctions and even threats of preemptive strikes, Iran continues its nuclear program. The question remains whether the possibility of Iran joining the Middle East nuclear arms family would destabilize the region. Or would it stabilize the balance of deterrence and with that only empower Iran’s position without causing a security threat to Israel and the US interests in the region? This review essay focuses on these questions and provides a critical analysis on these issues.

Iran’s nuclear program

After the Islamic revolution Iran receives help from other nuclear weapons states such as Russia, China and India to reconstruct its nuclear facilities.[i] In August 2002 an Iranian opposition group called the National Council of Resistance of Iran discloses a secret nuclear facility in Natanz. This results in a request of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to Iran to inspect its facilities, since Iran is a signatory of the Non-proliferation Treaty. The IAEA report showed that Iran had been pursuing a uranium enrichment program for 18 years and a laser enrichment program for 12 years.[ii]

The disclosure of Iran’s clandestine nuclear developments, and the character of the nuclear activities caused a general sense of distrust with other NPT signatories and states who feared the outcome of Iran becoming a nuclear arms actor in the region.[iii] Especially after the 9/11 attacks in New York and the famous “Axis of Evil” speech of president George W. Bush during his State of the Union Address, Iran was being accused of producing nuclear weapons.[iv]

Additionally, Iran’s support of Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic jihad gives the “war on terror” foremen more reason to fear the result of Iran acquiring nuclear arms. The thought of these actors having access to nuclear weapons is a scenario that poses an existential threat to Israel and US interests in the Middle East region.[v]

While diplomacy with Iran shifts from a “assisting” to a more hostile and even threatening tone, Iran’s decision makers use the same rhetoric and threaten their opponents in return. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi even declares that Iran will retaliate with force against Israel or any nation that attempts a pre-emptive strike on its nuclear program. [vi] On 18 September 2004 the IAEA unanimously adopts a resolution calling on Iran to suspend all activities related to uranium enrichment. Two years later however Iran’s president Mahmood Ahmadinejad announces that Iran has enriched uranium to reactor-grade using 164 centrifuges. [vii]

Speculations about Iran’s nuclear program and whether it aims at acquiring nuclear weapons are answered in 2007 when the U.S. Intelligence Community released a National Intelligence Estimate concluding that Iran “halted its nuclear weapons program” in 2003, but “is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.”[viii] A year later the UN Security Council adopts Resolution 1803 – the third sanction resolution on Iran which extends financial sanctions to additional banks, extends travel bans to additional persons and bars exports to Iran of nuclear- and missile-related dual-use items.[ix]

A series of “robust threats” marks the period of 2005 to 2009. An example is the Iranian president’s speech during the “World without Zionism conference” saying that “Israel should be wiped out of the world map”.[x] President Ahmadinejad repeatedly denies the holocaust, which both alarms the US and Israeli government. As a reaction, US Vice President Joseph Biden states in an interview with ABC News in July 2009 that the United States would not stop an Israeli attack on Iran.[xi] At which Mohammad Ali Jafari, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards commander-in-chief, answers that if Israel attacked Iran, Iran would strike Israel’s nuclear facilities with their missiles[xii].

Nuclear proliferation

However Iran constantly stresses the aim of its nuclear program to be for peaceful purposes only, many states fear Iran is acquiring nuclear arms. According to Ambassador Javad Zarif ..“the predominant view among Iranian decision-makers is that development, acquisition or possession of nuclear weapons would only undermine Iranian security. Viable security for Iran can be attained only through inclusion and regional and global engagement.”[xiii]

In contrast to what Ambassador Zarif states on Iran’s nuclear policy, it is likely that from a defensive rationalist perspective, Iran would have to obtain nuclear arms when considering its security position in the Middle East region. Like any other country Iran feels the need to secure itself in a hostile region and could very easily continue its “policy of concealment” in order to obtain nuclear weapons in the future.

In an article written by Zanvyl Krieger and Ariel Ilan Roth[xiv] they elaborate on Kenneth Waltz’s theory of defensive realism. They state the following:

“… according to Waltz, one of the main engines for war is uncertainty regarding outcomes and because the immense destruction that can come as a result of a nuclear exchange can be fully anticipated, it is never rational to engage in a war where the possibility of a nuclear exchange exists. Consequently, as Waltz forcefully argues, “the probability of major war among states having nuclear weapons approaches zero.”

Taking Waltz’s theory into account, it would be a very realistic to consider the need of Iran to proliferate. In addition, there are the lessons from the past that would provide incentives for Iran to obtain nuclear arms as well. Iran learned, during the 1980s Iran–Iraq War that for deterrence to operate, the threatening state must be confronted with the certainty of an equivalent response. Thus in order to deter Israel with the certainty of an equivalent response, it would be sound security policy for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, perhaps only for reasons of “arms control”.[xv]

Different views

For the US the thought of Iran obtaining nuclear arms and by doing so strengthening its role in the Middle East has become very alarming. Its most important issues regarding this matter are: the security of Israel, the status of Iraq and the security of Middle East’s oil. Iran obtaining nuclear weapons will be a downright catastrophe for U.S. interests in the Middle East.[xvi]

From an Israeli perspective Iran’s current nuclear development is aimed at balancing other nuclear regional threats, and deterring Israel. However, beyond deterrence, Iran is issuing threats to Israel. Iranian nuclearization creates a major existential threat to Israel. In turn, Israeli efforts against Iranian nuclearization and the implied military threats to destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities have brought upon more Iranian hostility toward Israel. After repeated declarations by Iranian leaders that Israel should disappear from the map Israel emphasized its second strike capability for mutual deterrence stability.[xvii] Iran however does not have a second strike capability. Therefore it would not be likely for Iran to attack either the U.S or Israel, from a rational point of view.[xviii]


Analyzing Iran’s non-conformation with the IAEA sanctions, the United Nations Security Council’s resolutions and EU-3 diplomacy, one would have to conclude that Iran has no intention to limit or alter its nuclear program. The repeated disclosures of several clandestine nuclear programs also show that Iran has no intention to show its cards to the international community. Its policy of secrecy, combined with its support of Hezbollah and threats towards Israel have alarmed the region and states that have interests in the region.[xix]

The possibility of Iran secretly acquiring nuclear weapons is based on rational deliberation, especially from a defensive realist point of view.[xx] Therefore, it would be rational to consider the effects of the outcome of that situation. According to Waltz’s theory, Iran’s proliferation would only bring stability in its relations with other nuclear states. But the dimension of Iran’s support to Hezbollah complicates the matter, since Hezbollah is a non-state actor and does not have a state to consider its security options, in case of deterrence. Thus having a nuclear Iran, with its current regime (that support Hezbollah) would cause an existential threat to Israel and empower Iran in its strategic position in the Middle East region.

Current sanctions are unlikely to prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear program, since Iran has more interest in preserving the status quo.[xxi] Another reason why the sanctions will not cause Iran to stop its nuclear program is the character of the sanctions itself. These will never directly threaten Iran’s core interest: the export of petroleum and gas, since the international community has been unwilling to impose sanctions that will harm energy trade between Iran and other capitals. [xxii]

Therefore one could conclude that the world has to prepare itself for a proliferated Iran and focus on Iran’s support to terrorist groups that could harm the stability between nuclear states. Engaging in equal diplomacy and accepting Iran’s nuclear program could perhaps make space for negotiations to shift towards mutual interests in guarding stability in the Middle East region. A proliferated Hezbollah could just as well cause harm to Iran as much as it could attack Israel or other nations in the region or outside the region.

[i] Sultan, M., 2005. Iran, proliferation magnet. SAIS Review, 25(1) pp. 123-138

[ii] Sultan, M., 2005. Iran, proliferation magnet. SAIS Review, 25(1) pp. 123-138

[iii] Sultan, M., 2005. Iran, proliferation magnet. SAIS Review, 25(1) pp. 123-138

[iv] Chubin, S., 1995. Does Iran want nuclear weapon? Survival, 37(1) pp.86-104

[v] Chubin, S., 1995. Does Iran want nuclear weapon? Survival, 37(1) pp.86-104

[vi] The Associated Press. 2004. Iran repeats warning against attacking nuclear facilities

Available at:

[vii] Sultan, M., 2005. Iran, proliferation magnet. SAIS Review, 25(1) pp. 123-138

[viii] National Intelligence Estimate, National Intelligence Council. 2007. Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities

[ix] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1803, 3 March 2008

Available at:…

[x] Fathi, N. 2005. Text of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech. New York Times

Availbale at:…

[xi] BBC News. 2009. Biden strikes tough note on Iran

Available at:

[xii]Haaretz. 2009. Iran: If Israel attacks us, we’ll hit its nuclear sites

Available at:

[xiii] Zarif, H.E. 2005. An Unnecessary Crisis- Setting the Record Straight about Iran’s Nuclear Program. New York Times

[xiv] Roth, A. 2007. Nuclear Weapons in Neo-Realist Theory. International Studies Review 9 (3) pp. 369-84

[xv] Chubin, S., 1995. Does Iran want nuclear weapon? Survival, 37(1) pp.86-104

[xvi] Moss, K.B. 2009. Defining strategic priorities: Ballistic missile defense, Iran and relation with major powers. Mediterranean Quarterly, 20 (1) pp.31-51

[xvii] Kam, E. 2008. Israel and a nuclear Iran: Implications for arms control, deterrence and defense. Institute of National Security Studies

[xviii] Zaborski, J. 2005. Deterring a nuclear Iran. The Washington Quarterly, 28(3) pp. 153–167.

[xix] Kam, E. 2008. Israel and a nuclear Iran: Implications for arms control, deterrence and defense. Institute of National Security Studies

[xx] Roth, A. 2007. Nuclear Weapons in Neo-Realist Theory. International Studies Review, 9 (3) pp. 369-84

[xxi] Roth, A. 2007. Nuclear Weapons in Neo-Realist Theory. International Studies Review, 9 (3) pp. 369-84

[xxii] Shen, D. 2008. Can sanctions stop proliferation? The Washington Quarterly, 31 (3) pp. 89-100

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