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The Iranian nuclear controversy is also about saving face

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, center, accompanied by the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi, right, and his chief of staff Mohammad Nahavandian, listens to Iran’s national anthem while attending a ceremony marking National Nuclear Technology Day in Tehran on April 9. Rouhani warned that Tehran will not sign on to a final nuclear deal with world powers unless it is predicated on the lifting of economic sanctions imposed on Iran over the controversial nuclear program. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

This post is part of the “Iran and the Nuclear Deal” symposium.

Iran’s nuclear program is often regarded as a classic case of national security interests driving a government’s decision to pursue nuclear weapons. Though security interests play an important role in Iranian nuclear decision-making, other factors also matter for the Iranian leadership, and some of these have normative or moral components.

In his seminal piece on nuclear proliferation, Scott Sagan argued that nuclear weapons (as well as nuclear energy) programs provide states with important status and prestige functions. In my new book, “The Ethics of Nuclear Weapons Dissemination,” I argue that Iran’s drive for national status and prestige is largely anchored in a moral imperative to avoid national humiliation.

Iranians have experienced humiliations linked to the decline of the Persian Empire and more recently to the CIA’s overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 and the suffering of chemical weapons attacks by Iraq in the 1980-88 war. Iran’s nuclear program aims significantly at reversing the national humiliations suffered and restore to Iran a sense of pride and prestige that comes with mastering nuclear physics. Mohammad Asgar-Khani, the father of the Iranian nuclear program, once argued:

… Iran needs to nuclearize itself. … A nuclear Iran must not be seen as a threat to its neighboring countries or to Israel. [A nuclear program] is necessary not only as a substitute for fossil energy but also for Iran’s social cohesion and prestige. … Internally, Iran is in a state of disarray. I would argue that, only by becoming a nuclear weapons state, can Iran consolidate its social coherence.

If this remark accurately captures a big part of the complex motivational stance of Iranian leaders today, then Iranian nuclear pursuits are more about the moral value of a restored sense of national identity than has heretofore been appreciated.

Iranian nuclear pursuits resemble those of France and India. When the French acquired nuclear weapons in 1960, Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France and other officials framed their decision more in terms of national “grandeur” in the context of past or prospective national humiliations than in strict terms of security. For example, one official said that the French nuclear weapons program was about “… the metaphysical survival of France … and that moral, political, and historical annihilation would be seen as worse than only the physical destruction. France must be prepared to risk the latter to save her honor, save her identity.” In this statement, it is the validation of French grandeur and the continuation of that legacy that matters, even if territorial integrity itself is put at risk.

For Indian officials, their 1998 acquisition of nuclear weapons was “tangentially about security.” Instead, their “significance is emotional [and] the target is not China and Pakistan. It is the soul of India.” Clearly, Indian “grandeur” counted as a driver of New Dehli’s nuclear break-out.

As I argue in my book, the French and Indian statements are similar in that they offer a moral imperative to secure national identity and to overcome the national humiliations each had experienced in the past. Moreover, the need to prevent future national humiliation can often lead to an emphasis on the moral principles of justice and fairness within international treaty regimes.

Highlighting these three instances of morally driven nuclear pursuits is not to deny that some states are driven primarily by strategic considerations – such as the 1998 Pakistani nuclear tests. Instead, I’m trying to draw attention to the previously under-appreciated idea that state officials publicly defend their nuclear policies  to address a background conflict of political values – values that cannot easily be divorced from moral values. Iranian leaders recognize their legal nonproliferation commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They also believe that avoiding future national humiliation is a primary matter with moral import. France’s preference for metaphysical survival over mere territorial integrity can help explain why Iran is willing to risk so much by refusing to be obsequious in the face of Western nonproliferation demands.

Thomas E. Doyle II is an assistant professor of political science at Texas State University. His book, “The Ethics of Nuclear Weapons Dissemination: Moral Dilemmas of Aspiration, Avoidance and Prevention,” was published this year.