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A multifaceted analysis of the recent Iranian nuclear deal

By Liang Nah - posted Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Casual examination of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed by Iran on 14 July, where Tehran agreed to substantial curbs on its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions targeting the Iranian economy and nuclear programme, can easily be seen as a cause and effect relationship involving the easing of economic pressure in return for a visible demonstration of nuclear restraint. However, this display of Iranian nuclear abnegation aimed at convincing the world that it does not seek a nuclear arsenal is not driven by economics alone, but also supported by national security and nuclear non-proliferation norms imperatives.

Iranian nuclear motivations through a multifaceted lens

Beginning with indirect economic and norms-based motivations, Iran's nuclear programme started in the 1960s under the last Iranian King, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. At that time, Tehran's stated objective was the use of nuclear technology as an alternative source of electrical power. This had economic implications as the electricity from civil nuclear reactors could be supplied to export industries, potentially improving trade competitiveness. Additionally, Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), having signed it in 1968 and has not renounced its adherence to the NPT despite its present government having overthrown the previous government which signed the treaty in 1979. This indicates fundamental acknowledgement of nuclear counter proliferation norms.


Subsequently, Western distrust of Iranian nuclear intentions, which were exacerbated by the lack of transparency of Tehran's uranium enrichment attempts (which can serve as a route to nuclear arms production), lead to the first in December 2006, of several UN Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on Iranian government entities connected to the latter's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. This was followed by economic sanctions from the U.S. and European Union (EU), designed to discourage possible Iranian nuclear arms development, which have cost the state $100 billion in lost oil revenue and forgone foreign investment. Hence, regardless of Iranian national pride which resents being dictated to by the West, and insists on being able to enrich Uranium as it pleases, so as long as a nuclear arms programme is not established, Tehran recognised that it's nuclear related intransigence was barring participation in the lucrative world economy, depriving Iranians of much material welfare.

But despite being economically sidelined, Tehran also realises that it not only faces hostility from fellow Muslim nations of Sunni persuasion, but that the U.S. and to a lesser extent, the Western world, do not regard its authoritarian theocratic government favourably, welcoming regime change if such would occur. Accordingly, Tehran fears for Iranian national security, harbouring anxiety over covert and overt attempts to depose the present government. This can be seen in a peace overture made towards Washington after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, where the Mohammad Khatami government in Tehran purportedly contacted Washington to propose a "grand bargain" in which the former offered to cease support for violent non-state actors like Hezbollah, stop its animosity towards Israel and even bargain away its nuclear programme. In return, Washington was to provide security guarantees, end all sanctions and cease the promotion of Iranian regime change. This overture fell on deaf ears.

The JCPOA and Iranian economic, security and norms concerns

With these state/regime security concerns in mind, the most recent successful negotiations between the West and Iran regarding the latter's nuclear programme can be analysed to sift out the economic and implied security benefits which would accrue to Iran. Under the JCPOA signed between Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, along with the European Union, Iran agrees to:

1) Never pursue, develop or acquire nuclear weapons capabilities.

2) Curtail most of its uranium enrichment capacity and limit remaining enrichment quality to that suitable for only nuclear power generation fuel.


3) Drastically limit its uranium stockpile and shelve all uranium enrichment research and development.

4) Modify its nuclear arm proliferation prone nuclear reactor to preclude the production of weapons grade plutonium, while exporting all spent nuclear fuel (which can be reprocessed into arms grade plutonium).

All of this contractually ensures Tehran's nuclear weapons abnegation. In return, Iran will be granted:

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About the Author

Liang Tuang Nah is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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