The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred to as the Iran Nuclear Deal, was an agreement reached in 2015 by the UN Security Council and EU with Iran. The JCPOA involved lifting economic sanctions and the weapons embargo in return for strict limitations on Iran’s attempts to create and acquire nuclear weapons, by limiting the amount of enriched uranium Iran was allowed to stockpile.
However, former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement in 2018. This resulted in renewed sanctions against Iran and cutting Iran’s banks off from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), leading to the essential collapse of the deal and the re-establishment of Iran’s nuclear development program.
The JCPOA had been spearheaded by the United States until 2018, which is why U.S. withdrawal from the deal and reinstatement of economic sanctions on Iran led to the deal’s collapse. The president of Iran, Ebrahim Raisi, has said that Iran is willing to revive the JCPOA and currently has no plans to create a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) program. Alternatively, Israel’s defense minister, Benny Gantz, has said that nuclear facilities both in Iran and Syria allegedly have the capacity to produce enough material to create several nuclear warheads in a matter of weeks.
With U.S. president Joe Biden’s recent efforts to revive the agreement, and the unsuccessful nuclear deal talks at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna in early September, it is crucial to understand the underlying motives for Iran’s desperation to maintain a nuclear program and the consequences this would have for the Middle East.
The talks to revive the deal will be impactful whether they succeed or not, but especially if Iran is able to acquire a nuclear weapon. This will alter the balance of power among nations in the Middle East. Specifically, Iran’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel will shift, therefore resulting in a ripple effect among these nations’ global and regional allies.
The Middle Eastern Cold War describes the proxy warfare beginning in the early 1980s between Saudi Arabia and Iran in an attempt to establish regional spheres of influence and is perpetuated now by the two nations providing military assistance to opposing parties in both the Syrian and Yemeni civil wars. Iran supports the official Syrian Armed forces, whereas Saudi Arabia has supported various Syrian rebel groups. In Yemen, Iran supports the Houthi rebel movement, whereas Saudi Arabia supports the antagonistic former Yemeni government.
Iran’s political leaders frequently reference their acceptance of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and express their hopes of a nuclear-free Middle East because of one nation that has not signed the NPT, is thought to possess nuclear weapons, and receives significant U.S. support: Israel.
Iran has also engaged in multiple proxy conflicts with Israel. The most prominent example is the 2006 Lebanon War fought between Israel and Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia political party and militant group funded by Iran.
Israel-Iran relations have been strained for decades. Israel’s history of serving as a surrogate for U.S. interests has further exacerbated the tense relationship between Iran and Israel, with Israel being designated “The Little Satan” by Ayatollah Khomeini.
The greatest competitors to U.S. hegemony are China and Russia. Iran’s top buyer of oil is China. With the increase in global oil prices, this relationship is becoming even more important to the Iranian economy. In addition, President Raisi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year, solidifying their relations.
One key tenant of the American approach to Iran is to maintain influence. Because of the anti-American sentiment — displayed by the deeming of the United States as “The Great Satan” by Ayatollah Khomeini — that has permeated Iran’s foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, one fear is that American national interests would be threatened if Iran became powerful enough in the Middle East to force the United States out of the region.
If Iran were able to push the United States out of the Middle East, American leaders fear Iran acting as a proxy for China and Russia in the region, threatening American national security and U.S. global power that depends on allies in the Middle East.
One key argument to be made in favor of Iran possessing a nuclear weapon is the Nuclear Peace Hypothesis. This theory concludes that nuclear weapons can create stability in relations between nations instead of threatening it, and the absence of equality in nuclear weapons between states is what produces instability. In such cases, nuclear non-proliferation is unnecessary, because the consequences of a state actually using a nuclear weapon are so great that it is almost entirely unthinkable. In this sense, nuclear weapons police themselves.
One example of this is India and Pakistan, two nations that are geopolitical rivals and possess nuclear weapons. The development of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program in the late 1990s to compete with India has led to a stagnation and stability in their contentious relationship because both nations understand the consequences of a conflict between two nuclear powers.
Based on the India-Pakistan relationship, it could be predicted that, if Iran were allowed to possess nuclear weapons, this would enable them to feel confident enough in their own security that they would engage in less lower-level conflict. This could bring to a close Iran’s history of involvement in proxy conflicts in nations such as Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, while the consequences of ever using a nuclear weapon in an offensive way would stop Iran from even considering the possibility.
However, it could also be argued that Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Still, the nation that is most able and interested in nuclear development in the region is Saudi Arabia – and the United States would never allow Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons. Because the United States maintains a strong economic relationship with Saudi Arabia and is their largest trading partner, Saudi Arabia could not withstand the Western economic sanctions Iran currently endures and consequently would not escalate a Middle Eastern arms race.
As a result, Iran establishing a WMD program would most likely lead to a stalemate in the Middle Eastern Cold War, ending the proxy conflicts and instability that have plagued the region due to the aforementioned power struggles.
Because of both Saudi Arabia’s and Israel’s conflictual relations with Iran and mutual interests in maintaining Western partnership, these two nations have grown closer over the past few years. Israel’s relationships with the smaller Gulf countries, such as Bahrain and the UAE, have also improved, showcased by their establishment of diplomatic relations in September 2020 to counter Iran.
These alliances show that a state of dual hegemony — where the two powers in a region can stabilize their spheres of influence and thus coexist with each other — could occur between Israel and Iran if Iran gains greater geo-political influence by acquiring nuclear weapons. An Iran that possesses nuclear weapons could, therefore, usher in an era of unprecedented stability in the Middle East.
Additionally, the U.S. government has cited Iran’s political instability and association with terrorist groups such as the Houthi movement and Hezbollah as a key reason for enforcing Iran non-profileration. However, Hezbollah is becoming increasingly independent from Iran. Furthermore, there is little evidence showing that non-governmental organizations would have easy access to Iran’s hypothetical nuclear weapons, even if the Islamic Republic collapsed.
It could also be argued that any nuclear escalation between Israel and Iran — whether intentional or not — would lead to devastating conflict in the Middle East. However, Iran understands Israel’s economic superiority. Any nuclear weapon Iran could create would be used solely for defense purposes because any alternate applications would bring Western wrath upon the nation. Offensive use of nuclear weapons is not Iran’s goal, as Iran’s leaders desire mainly to undermine American hegemony in the Middle East and do not have the extreme territorial ambitions that would justify using a nuclear weapon.
It is important to note that, when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in Iran in 1979, he shut down Iran’s nuclear program, citing religious reasoning. The program was only restarted in 1980 after Saddam Hussein, the then-president of Iraq, invaded the country.
Since then, the United States has invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, two nations that border Iran, and American foreign policy rhetoric on Iran has consistently involved using any and all available force to quell Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This has resulted in further straining U.S.-Iran relations and threatening Iran’s national security.
In addition, Western intervention in the region, particularly during the 20th century, coupled with crippling economic sanctions on the part of the United States and the EU over the last few decades, have dealt a blow to national pride in Iran. Iranian leaders view nuclear weapons as a way to remain competitive and secure their sovereignty in a region that is becoming increasingly destabilized by power struggles, undermined by asymmetric alliances and cannot seem to free itself from Western interference.
Iran has been pursuing nuclear power for over four decades, and both Iranian leaders and third-party officials acknowledge Iran’s capability to produce nuclear weapons in the near future.
It is unlikely that a deal satisfactory to both sides will be reached anytime soon. As a result, in the upcoming months and years, Iran non-proliferation may become a thing of the past as a new, dual-pronged power dynamic emerges in the Middle East and the region moves further away from the influence of American hegemony.