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In the last few weeks, there has been a flood of articles asking and seeking to answer,  ‘What is Iran thinking?’. It is an important question and I certainly don’t have an answer. But to try and understand Iran’s motives, we need to put its actions in the social and political context of the norms of the current non-proliferation ‘regime’ and the nuclear reality of today’s world. The media discourse on Iran and nukes should bring to the forefront an old but significant question about the relevance (or rather the irrelevance) of nuclear weapons and the failings of the non-prolifeation regime.

This are not new queries. But as much as it sounds like old wine in a new bottle, we can take the current Iran-centred debate (just) a little further and remind ourselves that the danger is in the weapons themselves, not in who holds them. This questions the legitimacy given to nuclear weapons by military leaders as important ‘deterrents’  and counters the widespread belief that, as Richard Price states, ‘ nuclear weapons don’t kill, rogues do’. These dimensions need as much attention as the main agenda to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

There are three main problems with the ongoing debate: i) the focus on the ‘actor’ more than the problem of nuclear weapons themselves; ii) a misunderstanding of rationality within the current debate; and iii) the lack of focus on the framework of the non-proliferation regime and how it might affect state behaviour.

I’ll look at each of these in turn.

First is the actor/weapon debate. The weapons should be the primary concern. Of course one might argue that non-proliferation is always an underlying motive, but I believe it should be the overt and primary motive of the West’s Iran policies. The current debate tends to remove the focus from nuclear weapons themselves as the referent of threat and transfers it to particular potential possessors and users of the threat. This contradicts the very foundation of the non-proliteration argument, with the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) at its core, which regards nukes as non-conventional weapons and thus inherently illegitimate.

Then there is the second point, the question of ‘rationality’, which I argue has been limited to merely explaining what kind of behaviour is, and should be, termed ‘rational’. Few have acknowledged an alternate understanding (Fareed Zakaria being one exception) which argues that Iran is acting rationally, calculating costs and benefits, but not necessarily doing so with the same goals or values as other actors. In order to understand the rationality of nation states and to ultimately deal with the problem of nuclear proliferation, we need to understand rationality beyond a cost-benefit calculation and combine it with a cultural approach that emphasises established and familiar patterns of behaviour. In this sense, we need to understand Iran’s interpretation of the nuclear regime and its norms. Sending the message that Iran should be prevented from developing weapons because it cannot handle them ‘responsibly’ has in many ways pushed Iran to justify and prove why it can do so. The alternative to this approach is the US – India nuclear deal in 2005, which (after 30 years) labelled the latter as a  ‘responsible nuclear power’, now allowing for a much greater degree of transparency.

My third and final point seeks to draw attention to the normative looseness of the non-proliferation structure, which was formed to prevent nuclear proliferation and promote nuclear disarmament. The norms within the non-proliferation stance and the ‘rhetoric of peaceful use’ have been used, interpreted and manipulated by Iran in a similar way as New Delhi did in the past, exploiting loopholes in the nuclear normative structure. The potential threat posed by Iran’s claimed peaceful nuclear programme (going anything over 20% uranium enrichment, defined as the ‘Red Line’ by the Obama administration), should also be understood in the context of the unintended consequences of the norms and rules (of the regime itself) and the ways in which nations both ‘good’ and ‘rogue’, ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ have come to define their own rights and obligations within a nuclear regime. As a NPT-member, Iran has claimed that its nuclear programme is consistent with Article IV (peaceful use) and has denied any military dimension to its nuclear programme. Given this,  Iran has further claimed that it is being discriminated against and as a NPT member it has an ‘inalienable right’ to engage in peaceful use of nuclear technology.

Recently, Iran has sought to open talks and has expressed a willingness to renegotiate, but only if the IAEA agrees to a revised and a new approach to Iran’s programme. In many ways, Iran is doing what India did; the difference being that Iran is viewed as irrational and rogue, whereas India was considered responsible and rational. I’m not suggesting that they should be treated the same. But it is interesting to note that Tehran is making attempts to acquire legitimacy in a similar ways to New Delhi. If one is to think ‘rationally’ in building a nuclear programme, one must first attempt to acquire the technical know-how, then demonstrate it by testing it (or at least creating enough suspicion about testing it) and once the international community ‘recognises’ one’s capability of developing a sufficient deterrent then negotiations can begin. The approach is to ‘sit on the table with a nuke in the backyard’ (or at least possess the capability to develop it).

Thus we should stop playing the same NPT game, knowing that it is flawed. The belief that Iran is moving towards a sufficient capacity of building that nuclear deterrent (identified as anything above 20% and close to reaching 90% enrichment), has to be put in context of reality — all the main players, be it US or Israel, already possess a nuclear deterrent. And ironically, Iran is a NPT signatory (and therefore is seen in violation of it), unlike Israel or India, two of the three nations with nuclear capabilities that have never signed the NPT and continue to remain outside it (Pakistan being the third).

This is not a defence of Iran’s nuclear posture, nor is it about judging Iran’s good or bad intention, but it is about employing the kind of understanding one needs to have in ‘dealing with’ Iran today and any other nation tomorrow. There must be a broader discussion of the rationality behind nuclear weapons, not just on who should have them and how they should be used. Moreover, ‘rationality’ must be understood more broadly. overall, Iran’s actions question the deterrent value of nuclear capabilities — if anything, it makes others that much more desperate to join the club.

Deepshikha Kumari is a DPhil student at Oxford University. 

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