"In the case of the key and very beneficial nuclear science... when it was paired with a thirst for more power, it resulted in the creation of the nuclear weapon and turned into a major threat to the world and humanity... Although we have always had the ability to tread this path, we declared it haram (forbidden by religion) according to the verdict of the beloved Islam and therefore there is no reason for us to expend our resources on developing and stockpiling a weapon that is absolutely prohibited (by Islam) to use..."
Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, 09 October 2019
Iran's national objectives and strategies were shaped by its regional political aspirations, threat perceptions, and the need to preserve its Islamic government. Tehran strived to be a leader in the Islamic world and sought to be the dominant power in the Gulf. The latter goal brought it into conflict with the United States. Authorities in Post-Revolutionary Iran looked to diminish Washington's political and military influence in the region. Within the framework of its national goals, Iran continued to give high priority to expanding its NBC weapons and missile programs. Thus, in 1991 Ayatollah Mohajerani (one of then President Rafsanjani's deputies) said, "since the enemy [the United States and Israel primarily] has atomic capabilities, Islamic countries must be armed with the same capacity." However, the nuclear program appeared to be a general hedge, to develop the nuclear option, rather than a crash program.
Iran's national objectives and strategies could be variously broken down into seperate rationales for the development of a nuclear capability.
- The primary rationale for Iran's nuclear weapons program was Iraq, though these fears likely retreated following the overthrough of Saddam Hussein. Iran viewed Baghdad as the primary regional threat, even though Iraq suffered extensive damage during the first Gulf War. Iran remained unconvinced that Iraq's NBC programs would be adequately restrained or eliminated through continued UN sanctions or monitoring. The Iranians believed that they would eventually face yet another challenge from their historical rival. The war with Iraq in the 1980s was the worst war in modern Middle Eastern history, and by the turn of the century Iran had still not recovered from the destruction and trauma of that conflict. The war exposed Iranian military and strategic weakness and vulnerability, for which a nuclear weapons capability could compensate. Iran's emphasis on pursuing independent production capabilities for special weapons and missiles was driven by its experience during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, during which it was unable to respond adequately to Iraqi chemical and missile attacks and suffered the effects of an international arms embargo.
- Secondarily, nuclear weapons could prove useful in deterring the United States, in the context of a profound crisis in the Persian Gulf. Tehran strived to be a leader in the Islamic world and seeks to be the dominant power in the Gulf. Iran feared that the sizable US military presence in the region could lead to an attack against Iran. These fear probably increased during the 2002-2004 period as a ring of new American bases in Iraq and central Asia, for the prosecution of conflicts both in Iraq to Iran's west and Afghanistan to Iran's east, encircled them with an American power projection platform. The escalation of rhetoric by the Bush Administration and accusations of Iranian support for Shi'ite militant groups in Iraq surely did little to calm Iranian anxiety.
- Lastly, an Iranian nuclear weapons capability could constitute a balance to Israel's nuclear posture. Iran was concerned by Israel's strategic projection capabilities and its potential to strike Iran in a variety of ways.
The Iran-Iraq war was perhaps the greatest influence on Iran's decision to pursue special weapons capabilities. Iran's general emphasis on pursuing independent military production capabilities for both conventional weapons and NBC weapons and missiles was driven by its experience during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, during which it was unable to respond adequately to Iraqi chemical and missile attacks and suffered the effects of an international arms embargo. Given difficulties in modernizing its conventional forces, Iran appeared to be be working on special weapons as a deterrent against aggression.
As reported by Islamic Republic News Agency, on 19 October 1988 (two months after the war had ended), Parliamentary speaker (and future president) Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani declared that "...chemical bombs and biological weapons are poor man's atomic bombs and can easily be produced. We should at least consider them for our defense... Although the use of such weapons is inhuman, the war taught us that international laws are only drops of ink on paper."
Tehran probably viewed NBC weapons and the ability to deliver them with missiles as decisive weapons for battlefield use, as deterrents, and as effective means for political intimidation of less powerful neighboring states. Some have argued that Iran's understanding of military victory differs from that of the West, deriving from Islamic precepts of matyrdom and righteousness, and that consequently traditional threats of nuclear retaliation might not deter Iranian use of special weapons.
A resolution passed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors gave Iran an 31 October 2003 deadline to prove it had no secret atomic weapons program. On 19 September 2003 the Substitute Leader of Tehran Friday Prayers and Secretary of the Guardians Council Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati called for Iran's withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Turning to NPT Additional Protocol proposed by the IAEA, he said however that it was up to the Iranian statesmen and mainly the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to make decision on the issue. "The treaty has been denounced by a number of countries. Although Iran has inked the NPT, it is free to withdraw from it anytime."
In a 25 June 2005 speech, Majlis Speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel stressed that ethics, Islamic values and morals should accompany politics so the world would not witness injustice any more. Chemical weapons were products of scientific progress, but such a progress should be accompanied by ethics, he said referring to the Iran-Iraq War in 1980-1988, which left hundreds of thousands of dead, and many more disabled. He underlined the need to vindicate the rights of the chemically-wounded war veterans, saying that the catastrophe that took place in Iran should be announced to all people cross the globe as a criminal document of the big powers, a reference to the countries providing the then Iraqi government with chemical weapons technology during the war years. He reiterated that Western companies provided Iraq with chemical weapons, saying, "Iraq would not attack Iran should the Western companies did not give Iraq the green light?" The Iranian nation would go ahead its nuclear program, would not give it up and would defend the Islamic Republic decisively, he said. These echoed the comments made by Hashemi Rafsanjani in 1988 immediately following the conflict.
Iran had long denied a desire to use NBC weapons and programs to develop them. Ayatollah Khameini had in fact issued a fatwa or religious decree, stating that nuclear weapons were against Islam, a theme not uncommon among religious groups, including the Catholic Church. In early 2006, however, Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi suggested the use of nuclear weapons specifically might be justifiable under Islamic tradition, and that everything "depends on our purpose." It appeared that sentiments such as Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi's were possibly shared by Ayatollah Khameini, though there was no formal retraction of the fatwa. The Supreme Leader's personal representative on the nuclear issue, Hojjatoleslam Zolnur, said that if Iran were to be faced with economic sanctions they would pull out of the NPT.
Taqiyah is another practice condemned by the Sunni as cowardly and irreligious but encouraged by Shia Islam and also practiced by Alawis and Ismailis. A person resorts to taqiyah when he either hides his religion or disavows certain religious practices to escape danger from opponents of his beliefs. Taqiyah can also be practiced when not to do so would bring danger to the honor of the female members of a household or when a man could be made destitute as a result of his beliefs. Because of the persecution frequently experienced by Shia imams, particularly during the period of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, taqiyah has been continually reinforced.
While Iran did not pull out of the NPT following economic sanctions from the United States and others, it had, between 2006 and June 2008 increased the tone of their rhetoric, including many largely vague threats of massive retaliation. The Voice of America reported in August 2006 that an influential cleric in Iran's Assembly of Experts had suggested that Iranian ballistic missiles would target US interests in the region and Israel if it were attacked. In April 2008, however, Deputy Commander-in-Chief Mohammad Reza Ashtiani said that Iran would "wipe out" Israel if attacked.
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