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Iran’s Nuclear Program and the Structure of State Competition

By Sterre van Buuren





This year, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported its inspectors had found uranium enriched to 83.7% at Iran’s Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant.[1] That is a much higher level of enrichment than a civilian nuclear energy program needs and approaches the 90% necessary for a nuclear weapon.


The revelation sparked panicked condemnation. Israel alluded to a US-backed preventive strike.[2] Western governments called for Iran to be censured at the IAEA.[3] While Iran quickly moved to increase transparency, this did not reassure observers. One expert called for the US to prepare military action against Tehran.[4]


Such an aggressive response has marked every step of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. Ever since the IAEA reported Iran was keeping nuclear secrets in violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003, relations between Tehran and the international community have been tense. Crippling sanctions were introduced by the UN Security Council in 2005. While an agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, reversed these sanctions in 2015, this fell apart following American withdrawal and re-imposition of unilateral sanctions in 2018. Since then, Iran has not upheld the JCPOA. Ongoing negotiations to replace the deal have so far stalled.


The case of Iran is emblematic of a wrongheaded approach to nuclear weapons. States play against each other, trying to win a game altered profoundly by the greater imperatives of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons constitute an existential threat to all humanity, to all the Earth. The destructiveness of nuclear arms exceeds any scale we have used to measure victory in international affairs. Nuclear apocalypse inherently transcends state boundaries and state’s technological capabilities. No state has the defensive capacity to remotely protect its people. To live with nuclear weapons is to live with the constant threat of annihilation. In this context of shared vulnerability, the only way to ensure security for anyone is to dismantle the competitive, state-based model of international relations altogether. The Iranian case demonstrates why.


Fundamentally, negotiations with Iran have failed because of a lack of trust. It is difficult for any state to trust another's good intentions when it comes to nuclear weapons. The weapons are supremely destructive, raising the stakes of miscalculation to the extreme. In dealing with nuclear risk, states can therefore tend towards paranoia in preparing for the worst. Moreover, because nuclear technology is ‘dual-use’ – being used for both nuclear energy programs and weaponry – it is difficult to gauge the intentions and capacity of states who have it. Put together, these facts may explain why the international community reacts so harshly to Iran's nuclear program. However, by trying to obtain security in this way, states undermine the kind of international coordination that could establish meaningful control over nuclear risk.


Suspicion of Iran has undermined attempts at dialogue and negotiation to resolve the nuclear issue. Tehran is constantly assumed to be hiding something or to be acting in bad faith. Of course, general American stereotypes of Iran play their part in increasing existing nuclear anxiety. Iran is often presented as a “rogue state”, a radical theocracy, and mortal enemy of the ‘free world’. The country was part of President Bush's famous 'axis of evil' and has been increasingly isolated from the international community. But these stereotypes work in combination with an assumption quietly built into global nuclear weapons architecture.[5] The Non-Proliferation Treaty allows only the US, Russia, China, the UK, and France to have nuclear weapons, committing them to a symbolic goal of giving up arsenals in an unspecified future. This is justified by claiming nuclear deterrence provides global stability. All other countries, however, must abstain from nuclear arsenals. It is hard to explain why – do these countries not have a right to stability through deterrence? – without constructing a distinction between good nuclear actors and bad ones. Nuclear weapons states are assumed to be responsible and rational, while any proliferator is necessarily irresponsible. This frame follows directly from the same security competition which impedes trust in general. Nuclear weapons states believe they hold an advantage over the rest of the world, as their arsenals deter certain threats and give the states a degree of international prestige. The fewer international 'competitors' have matching capacities, the more valuable this advantage is. There is, therefore, an advantage to arguing and believing that that no other state should develop a nuclear arsenal, that nuclear weapons should not proliferate. So long as nuclear weapons states want to simultaneously maintain their own arsenals and prevent vulnerability to new nuclear states, they need to legitimate that inequality. Constructing an idea of unworthiness is one way of doing so.

IAEA and Iran officials meet bilaterally at the IAEA General Conference in September 2022

This is part of why American presidents view a nuclear Iran as nightmarish. George W. Bush stated “[w]e know the death and suffering that Iran's sponsorship of terrorists has brought, and we can imagine how much worse it would be if Iran were allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.”[6] A nuclear-armed Iran is imagined as irresponsible, sophisticated and evil. By buying into this narrative, experts and policymakers inhabit a reality where trusting Iran is either folly or treason. But Iran is not per se less rational than the Soviet Union or even the United States. In the context of a 'stabilising' nuclear relationship between legitimate weapons states, the US developed an arsenal that was irrationally larger than any policy goal could justify, frequently mishandled weapons causing dozens of near-disasters, and concentrated the power of Armageddon the hands of one-man presidencies. Even if better policy choices were made, control over nuclear weapons would never have been 100% foolproof - accidents or unauthorised use remain possible. The idea that only non-official nuclear weapons would pose a danger draws from a preconception constructed to allow major powers to maintain their omnicidal arsenals by representing horizontal proliferation as the real threat.


The very idea of proliferation also draws from the assumptions inspired by a competitive state system feeds the mistrust eating away at the Iran deal. The non-proliferation paradigm assumes that nuclear weapons, left unchecked, will spread inevitably throughout the world. In a competitive state system, states are assumed to maximize their security advantages over other states. Since nuclear weapons have enormous destructive potential, they seem an attractive tool of deterrence and prestige. From this view, it appears natural that any state capable of producing a nuclear weapon will do so. In particular, any state with a nuclear energy program seems suspicious. Iran, with its difficult security environment and advanced civilian nuclear program, would then inevitably acquire a nuclear capacity unless the international community prevents it. This puts the onus on other states to make sure nuclear proliferation is unattractive and unpractical, through IAEA monitoring, strict global norms, and threats of sanctions.


This view ignores that nuclear weapons are political decisions made by governments, not inevitable children of structural anarchy. Not all states want a nuclear weapon. Only 39 have pursued nuclear programs, four have given their arsenals up and several have abandoned advanced programs before developing a weapon.[7] Political preferences relating to alliance, spending priorities, or national identity shape state behavior, as do such simple things as the personal preferences of leaders. We cannot assume unthinkingly that Iran wants the bomb. For those willing to look, there are signs it may not. Ayatollah Khamenei issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons, declaring them to be fundamentally incompatible with Islamic law, and supported a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. Observers dismissed these stances out of hand because they a priori did not believe the statements could be true.[8]Any suggestion of possible nuclear intent, however, was taken as gospel. The assumption that states must want to proliferate drove hardline policy stance. Iran’s capacities were consistently overestimated. As early as 1984, a US Senator claimed Iran could have a bomb within 7 years.[9]IAEA officials complained in 2007 US intelligence was often poor quality and unhelpful, marked by overblown risks rather than cool assessment.[10]


And so every Iranian move is interpreted as a way to advance its nuclear ambitions and any nuclear activity becomes suspect. The Bush administration refused to accept any enrichment – even the perfectly legal, civilian kind – in Iran. Iran, meanwhile, insists on its sovereign right to pursue energy security. This divide stalled negotiations. In 2005, negotiations between the EU3 and Iran broke down as the Europeans reversed a promise to accept some enrichment activity on Iranian soil. That same year, Tehran’s offer to hand ownership of its program to an international consortium was rejected. In 2006, the US refused an IAEA compromise suggestion to severely limit Iran’s enrichment activities. The JCPOA became possible when the Obama administration accepted a low degree of heavily monitored enrichment in Iran. The Trump administration, however, could not trust Iran’s commitment. It was not reassured even by far-reaching limits on enrichment, stockpiles, and infrastructure because the deal allowed for expansion of Iran’s program after 2030.[11] The idea of any Iranian nuclear program at any point in time was intolerable because of the assumptions made about its intentions. The Biden administration’s re-negotiation attempts have suffered from the same fear.


The only acceptable scenario for the US is one where the world is absolutely certain of everything happening in Iran’s nuclear industry. This demand cannot be met without surrendering Iran’s nuclear sovereignty completely to a powerful global actor. But the mistrust inherent in ideas of anarchy and state competition make that kind of surrender to a world government impossible. Iran cannot be expected to surrender sovereignty while the rest of the world continues to compete. The nuclear powers themselves should understand this, refusing as they do to give the world real oversight or control over their arsenals. They refuse to accept the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, do not meaningfully disarm despite decades of vague commitments to disarmament, and keep their arsenals veiled in extreme secrecy.


We are not safe from nuclear weapons until someone can control them. We cannot know Iran is not a risk without limiting its sovereignty, but we cannot achieve this because the entire international system is based on sovereignty. Moreover, policy based on presumptions of ruthless state competition block the kind of inter-state competition that would at least mitigate fears. In a competitive state system, nuclear weapons cause mistrust. This in turn creates discourses on proliferation and nuclear behavior that further complicate mutual trust and cooperation; Iran is not to be trusted because it is a bad proliferator, and every state wants to proliferate. So long as states exist in sovereign isolation, they are able to make potentially disastrous decisions affecting all humanity. Iran is simply a small-scale example of the ways our state-based nuclear architecture puts us at risk.


[1] International Atomic Energy Agency, “Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in Light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015),” Report by the Director-General (Geneva, February 28, 2023), https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/23/03/gov2023-8.pdf.

[2] “Israel Cabinet Approves $2.8 Billion for Potential Strike on Iran Nuclear Program,” Middle East Monitor (blog), February 26, 2023, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20230226-israel-cabinet-approves-2-8-billion-for-potential-strike-on-iran-nuclear-program/.

[3] Laurence Norman, “U.S., Europe Split on Response to Iran’s Near-Weapons-Grade Nuclear Enrichment,” Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2023, sec. World, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-europe-split-on-response-to-irans-near-weapons-grade-nuclear-enrichment-930a7a08.

[4] Dennis Ross, “Iran Needs to Believe America’s Threat,” The Atlantic, March 5, 2023, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/03/iran-united-states-nuclear-bomb-weapon-israel/673268/.

[5] Clément Therme, Kjølv Egeland, and Hebatalla Taha, “Seizing Nuclear Tehran: Obstacles to Understanding Iranian Nuclear Activities,” The Middle East Journal 76, no. 2 (August 31, 2022): 159–78, https://doi.org/10.3751/76.2.11.

[6] “President Bush Addresses American Legion National Convention,” The White House Archives, August 31, 2006, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2006/08/20060831-1.html.

[7] Benoît Pelopidas, “The Oracles of Proliferation,” The Nonproliferation Review 18, no. 1 (March 1, 2011): 297–314, https://doi.org/10.1080/10736700.2011.549185.

[8] Bobby Ghosh, “Iran Drops the Fig Leaf of Its Nuclear Fatwa,” Bloomberg, February 11, 2021, sec. Opinion, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-02-11/iran-drops-the-fig-leaf-of-its-fatwa-against-nuclear-weapons#xj4y7vzkg; Majid Rafizadeh, “Why Khamenei’s Nuclear Fatwa Is Worthless,” Arab News, February 21, 2021, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1813241.

[9] Nima Shirazi, “The Phantom Menace: Fantasies, Falsehoods, and Fear-Mongering about Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Foreign Policy Journal, 1 January 2011, https://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2011/01/01/the-phantom-menace-fantasies-falsehoods-and-fear-mongering-about-irans-nuclear-program/.

[10] Bob Drogin and Murphy, “Most U.S. Tips Fingering Iran False - Envoys / No Intelligence given U.N. since ’02 Led to Big Discoveries,” SFGATE, February 25, 2007,

[11] Mark Landler, “Trump Abandons Iran Nuclear Deal He Long Scorned,” The New York Times, May 8, 2018, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/world/middleeast/trump-iran-nuclear-deal.html.


Photo Credits:

Dean Calma / IAEA - Bilateral Meeting Iran 0111119212. https://www.flickr.com/photos/iaea_imagebank/52386093786/.

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