Has Iran given up its nuclear option?
Mayank Anand Purohit, Research Intern, VIF

The year 2016 has seen Iran re-integrate with the world, both politically and economically. This is enabled by the implementation of JCPOA (Joint comprehensive plan of action or the Nuclear Deal) in January. The nuclear sanctions over Iran were withdrawn and it has seen a series of bilateral visits, both by its President abroad and by other leaders to Iran. However one aspect that stands in contrast to this environment of bonhomie and seems to go against the trend is Iran’s ballistic missile program.

After the conclusion of the nuclear deal last year, Iran has twice conducted ballistic missile tests. The first of these tests were conducted in October 2015 when Iran tested its new Emad surface to surface missile with an estimated range of 1700km.1 Second set of tests, and first ones after the implementation of nuclear deal, were conducted on March 8-9, 2016.2 On this instance Iran tested, in addition to Emad missile, two variants of Qadr missile with Qadr-H having an estimated range of 1700km and Qadr-F, a range of 2000km.

Both tests led to criticism of Iran and threat of further sanctions. But except for USA imposing sanctions over Iranian entities and individuals linked to its ballistic programme over October 2015 tests, these threats were not carried out. Further on May 1, Iranian parliament ratified a bill to enhance the capabilities of Iran’s missiles and boost their production.3

This sequence of events brings out the importance of the ballistic missile program for Iran. However the constantly increasing range of Iran’s missiles and centrality of ballistic missiles for a credible nuclear deterrence leads to the question whether, with the nuclear deal, Iran has foreclosed all its nuclear options or does the deal represents just a temporary limbo on Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

This article attempts to answer this question by taking a brief look at the history of nuclear dispute with Iran, possible motivations for Iran to go nuclear with reference to relevant provisions of the nuclear deal.

Background to the nuclear dispute with Iran

The present dispute related to Iranian nuclear program and the consequent multilateral negotiations originated in 2003 but the nuclear program of Iran itself dates back to rule of Shah and was started in 1950s. Under its Atoms for Peace program, USA supplied Iran with a research reactor and highly enriched uranium (HEU) to run it.4 During this phase Iran was well integrated into global nuclear commerce and it signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1968 on the day it opened for signatures.

First concerns over the possible military dimensions of Iran nuclear program emerged in 1974 when US intelligence assessed that Shah might have nuclear weapon ambitions especially in light of India’s successful nuclear test.5 However nuclear co-operation was completely stopped with Iran only after the Islamic revolution that toppled Shah and established a theocratic Islamic republic.

While Iran was able to restart its stalled civilian nuclear program in limited manner during 1980s and 90s but it faced continued US efforts to block nuclear related deals between Iran and Argentina, China and Russia. This is one possible reason motivating Iran to conduct its enrichment activities in secret.

During 2002-03 reports surfaced revealing secret nuclear activities and facilities at Natanz and at Arak. Subsequent IAEA investigations confirmed that Iran concealed information in contravention to its obligations under NPT.6 In October, 2003 Iran signed an agreement with France, Germany and UK (EU3) suspending its nuclear enrichment activities and also signed an additional protocol with IAEA agreeing to enhanced inspection by IAEA. Negotiations with EU3 prevented the issue from going to United Nations Security Council.

However this diplomatic process broke down during 2005-06 which coincided with the election of the hard-line government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. IAEA formally declared Iran to be non-compliant with its safeguards obligations in September 2005 and referred the matter to UNSC in February 2006 paving the way for international sanctions. Iran responded by terminating implementation of additional protocol and resumed enrichment activities.

Sanctions regime against Iran

Iran’s refusal to open its nuclear facilities to international monitoring led to it being subjected to economic sanctions by UN, USA and EU since 2006. USA spearheaded this move and had the most expansive sanctions regime.

US sanctions against Iran date back to Islamic revolution and have continued since then. However Iran was able to find other markets and unilateral sanctions by US didn’t hurt its economy much. Thus when the nuclear stand-off started in 2002, US refused to be a part of negotiations with Iran and its efforts were directed towards a multilateral sanctions regime which materialised in form of UNSC sanctions and EU sanctions.

UN sanctions against Iran increased progressively in their severity from the resolution 1696 which asked Iran to suspend its enrichment activities and threatened it with sanctions to resolution 1929 which placed expanded arms embargo on Iran, prohibited it from any ballistic missile tests and placed travel and financial restrictions on individuals and entities related to Iranian nuclear program. European Union barred its member countries from importing oil from Iran, placed trade restrictions and barred Iran from using SWIFT electronic payments system.

USA in addition to all the measures taken by UN and EU also placed secondary sanctions under the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) which put sanctions on foreign entities and countries for conducting specified transactions with Iran.7

These sanctions were designed to isolate Iran from world financial system and to curtail oil exports of Iran in order to raise the cost of Iranian nuclear efforts and to ultimately deter it from building a nuclear weapon.

Iranian motivations for nuclear weapons

That Iran has an indigenous nuclear program is not disputed but rather it is the nature of this program that has given rise to dispute. Western powers are convinced that Iran’s nuclear program is aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons but Iran has consistently denied having any such objective and has maintained that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes like energy generation and medical research. Iran has also pointed to its right to a civil nuclear program under Non Proliferation Treaty.

Iranians refer to a fatwa issued by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, denouncing the use of nuclear weapons as un-Islamic, as a proof of their disinterest in developing a bomb. 8 However critics do not take the fatwa as conclusive proof of Iran’s intentions and fatwas, even those by the supreme leader, has been reversed in past when the situation so demanded. 9

Iran has justified its nuclear program on economic grounds and has argued that since it has a rapidly growing population and is a net importer of energy, developing nuclear power makes sense which has stable and low operating costs after initial heavy capital expenditure.

But the manner in which Iran has proceeded with its nuclear program undermines purely economic motivations. In order to keep its nuclear program out of IAEA oversight, Iran accepted economic sanctions which have hurt Iranian economy and cost it billions of dollars in missed oil exports and FDI opportunities. As per US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew sanctions cost Iran over $160 billion in lost oil revenue since 2012 and its economy is 15-20% smaller than it would have been without sanctions.10 If economy was the only consideration then surely Iran would have avoided sanctions and thus only strategic motivations can justify such high costs.

From Iran’s perspective the conditions motivating it to develop nuclear weapons or at least have the capability for it are already there.

Iran is a country with a deep sense of history and it has not forgotten its past when it was a pre-eminent world power in ancient and medieval times. This awareness makes Iran strive for the status of regional power in medium term and a global power in long run. Today, Iran is surrounded by 3 nuclear powers (India, Pakistan and Israel) in vicinity and 2 more (Russia and China) if we take an expanded view of geopolitical area of interest for Iran. In such scenario, to have any chance of claiming the position of regional power, Iran needs nuclear capability. Nuclear weapons undoubtedly raise the international profile of a nation and it is taken seriously by world powers even though it may be economically backward (case in point being Pakistan and North Korea).

Apart from power considerations, possession of nuclear weapons fits well into Iranian defence strategy. Iran-Iraq war and limited naval skirmishes with USA in 1980s made Iran realise that it does not stand a chance against major powers in conventional warfare. Iranian leadership has not forgotten violation of its territory by Iraq which they could resist only at great cost. Since then Iran has relied on acquiring asymmetric capabilities such as fast attack boats and ability to absorb high casualties which the aggressor can’t, to deter any foreign invasion by making it prohibitively costly for invader. A nuclear weapon capability fits in perfectly with this strategy and can act as an ultimate deterrent.

Iran’s missile program also gives an insight into the nature of Iran’s nuclear program. Having the nuclear weapons is only half the deterrence and it is complete only when the possessor of the nuclear weapons has the credible delivery mechanisms which can withstand the aggressor’s first strike. Iran has thus pursued a ballistic missiles program simultaneously with its nuclear program as having long range ballistic missile capability is crucial for Iran to demonstrate the credibility of its nuclear capabilities to potential adversaries as well as allies.

All these factors and Iran’s conduct leads to a conclusion that Iran’s nuclear program is not entirely devoid of a weapons dimension. However, Iran’s achievement has been its success in keeping the world guessing about the nature of its nuclear program. IAEA in its final assessment report released on December 15, 2015 concluded that Iran may have conducted weapons related research till 2003 and to a lesser extent till 2009 but the report has not been able to provide any concrete evidences.11

Nuclear Deal

The nuclear deal represents the confidence of US administration that Iran is still away from mastering all the technologies of developing a nuclear weapon and it has the capability of detecting any Iranian attempt to develop a nuclear bomb. It also provides the western powers with an avenue to engage with Iran and their aim appears to co-opt Iran into world economy which would be a better guarantee against Iran developing a nuclear weapon rather than military strikes, which would have only set Iran back by few years and simultaneously hardened its resolve to get nuclear capability

Nuclear deal was signed between P5+1 group (also called EU3+3 and comprising of China, France, Germany, Russia, UK and USA) and Iran on July 14, 2015. Under the deal, Iran reaffirmed that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons. The deal required Iran to make its nuclear facilities open to monitoring by IAEA and in exchange nuclear related economic sanctions against it were lifted.

Nuclear deal provides time bound restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program12-

For 10 years - Reduce centrifuges by 2/3 and limit facilities enriching uranium; limit research on new centrifuges.

For 15 years - Reduce uranium stockpile by 97%; limit enrichment to 3.67%; and refrain from constructing new facilities; Reconfigure research reactor to cut production of plutonium by 90%; no new reactors.

For 20 years - Allow surveillance of centrifuge production

For 25 years - Allow monitoring of all uranium mines and mills; confine all purchase of nuclear technology to approved channel

Permanently - Allow inspection of declared and suspect undeclared facilities; refrain from any work on nuclear weapons; refrain from reprocessing fuel to extract plutonium.

In return many US, virtually all EU and most of UN sanctions were lifted or suspended. However only nuclear related sanctions were lifted and others relating to Iran’s support of terrorism and its human rights violations remain. USA did not pledge in JCPOA to remove or reconsider Iran’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Other major provisions of the deal are:

  • Snapback provision: Nuclear Deal (para 36 and 37) contains a mechanism for the “snap back” of UN sanctions if Iran does not satisfactorily resolve a compliance dispute. ?
  • Deal requires the parties to the agreement to refrain from re-imposing the sanctions that are lifted or suspended, as long as Iran is complying. If US sanctions are re-imposed other than on the grounds of Iranian non-compliance then Iran would not be bound by its nuclear commitments. Iran has interpreted this provision to bar the re-imposition of lifted sanctions under “non-nuclear” justifications. This protects Iran’s activities in West Asia like support to Hezbollah.
  • Termination of UN sanctions on arms sale: These sanction won’t terminate on implementation of nuclear deal but after a gap of several years. Ban on conventional arms sale to Iran and on Iran’s export of arms is to be lifted within 5 years. While the ban on development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles to be lifted within 8 years. These provisions are particularly important for Iran for its military modernisation and provides it with a significant incentive to abide by the deal.

USA credits economic sanctions for forcing Iran to open its nuclear program to international monitoring and views it as a weapon to force Iranian compliance to the deal’s provisions. This explains why the USA has only suspended its sanctions and legislative provisions backing them are still in place and nuclear deal itself contains snap back provisions for UN sanctions.

Why did Iran accept the deal?

Economic sanctions did hurt Iran economy to a significant extent and the consequent hardships faced by people played an important role in landslide victory of Hassan Rouhani in 2013 presidential elections in Iran who promised economic recovery and improvement in relations with west in his campaigns. Nuclear deal was imperative for this but to give complete credit to economic sanctions will be an erroneous reading of Iranian motivation for a nuclear program and ability of Iranian regime to absorb hardships. It’s hard to imagine that Iran didn’t foresee the severity of sanctions especially since USA has been resorting to it since 1980s.

The nuclear deal represents long term strategic thinking by Iran and it came to the negotiating table only after it became sure of the nuclear knowhow it acquired and achieved its objective of creating a nuclear deterrence to prevent any violation of its territory by a foreign power. Apart from physical demonstration of weapons and power, deterrence also lies in the perception of one’s enemy. This can be seen in US director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s testimony to congress in March 2013, where he said that “Tehran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons. This makes the central issue its political will to do so.”13

Being on the nuclear threshold serves Iran’s purposes better than a complete break out. It made USA more eager for a deal and thus enabled Iran to bargain from a position of strength. Thus Iran was able to keep the scope of the deal strictly limited to nuclear weapons and kept all its other activities including ballistic missile tests out of it.

On the other hand, physical demonstration of a nuclear weapon would have united its potential rivals in West Asia such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey against it along with USA, Israel and Europe thereby hampering any long term objective of regional leadership. Moreover, Iran’s options for access to foreign capital and technology to revive its economy and arms import for its military modernisation would have been closed.


To believe that Iran has, with the nuclear deal, closed its nuclear option will be a premature conclusion. The conditions motivating Iran to seek a nuclear option will continue exist and Iran is thus likely to keep its option for nuclear weapons in future open.

This is a possibility that India needs to realise and plan for. A nuclear Iran will lead to nuclearization and destabilisation of West Asia. Saudi Arabia has already hinted towards getting their own bomb in case Iran goes nuclear. A stable and peaceful West Asia is imperative for safeguarding India’s security and economic interests. This makes it all the more urgent for India to step up its engagement with Iran and build a strong economic and political relationship. Only a globally integrated Iran, occupying its rightful position in West Asia can resist the need and attraction of the nuclear option.


  1. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-34555008
  2. http://edition.cnn.com/2016/03/09/middleeast/iran-missile-test/
  3. http://www.tehrantimes.com/news/301079/Iran-s-parliament-ratifies-bill-to-increase-missile-power
  4. http://www.nti.org/learn/countries/iran/nuclear/
  5. Refer Page 38 of U.S. special national intelligence estimate, August 1974. PDF available at: http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB240/snie.pdf
  6. "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran," Report by the Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency, 15 November 2004. Link - https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/gov2004-83.pdf
  7. http://www.cfr.org/iran/international-sanctions-iran/p20258
  8. Refer Iran's Statement at IAEA Emergency Meeting on August 10, 2005. Link - http://fas.org/nuke/guide/iran/nuke/mehr080905.html
  9. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2013/11/27/did-irans-supreme-leader-issue-a-fatwa-against-the-development-of-nuclear-weapons/
  10. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/remarks-of-treasury-secretary-jacob-j.-lew
  11. Report available at: https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2631873/IAEA-document.pdf
  12. http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/all-you-need-know-nuclear-deal
  13. Senate select intelligence committee hearing on national security threats to the United States, March 12, 2013. Available at: https://fas.org/irp/congress/2013_hr/threat.pdf

Published Date: 21st June 2016, Image Source: http://iranprimer.usip.org
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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