Iranian Nuclear Program: A Constructivist Perspective

by Lewis Dorman

The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository could be filled with the amount of ink that has been spilled in writing about the Islamic Republic of Iran’s highly controversial program to master the nuclear fuel cycle and develop atomic energy. According to the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, every nation maintains the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, so why is this subject considered so controversial? The answer revolves around the word “peaceful,” and whether or not Iran’s atomic ambitions are those of a civilian or martial aspect, or both. From a geopolitical perspective, given Iran’s location in the Middle East and her animosity toward Israel and the United States of America, the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons is indeed contentious and represents an existential dilemma in international relations, which will be examined from a constructivist perspective in this article.

Ironically, Iran’s nuclear program was launched in the 1950s with the help of the U.S. and President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative. Until the Iranian Revolution, Iran, with the cooperation of France and Germany, steadily worked to construct nuclear reactors with the idea that atomic energy would provide Iran electricity and free up more Iranian gas and oil for lucrative export. After the revolution, Iran’s nuclear program was shelved until the resolution of the Iran-Iraq War. Upon conclusion of this war, Iran reached an agreement with Russia, and her state corporation Rosatom’s subsidiary Atomstroyexport to develop a VVER- 1,000/446 pressurized water reactor in Bushehr, with an installed capacity of 1,000 MWe and maximum capacity of 2,000 MWe. The Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant was launched in November 2011, and was brought to full capacity in August 2012. Despite Iran’s declared peaceful intentions in her pursuit of an independent nuclear program, many other Western countries, their allies, and institutions, especially the U.S., Israel and the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.), have questioned these pacific aspirations, mainly due to Iran’s continuation of pursuing high level uranium enrichment, which could lead to the possibility of constructing an atomic weapon. A cat and mouse game between Iran and her doubters continues to this day, and has led to embargoes and sanctions being placed upon Iran. The looming question remains: Will Iran and her antagonists reach a compromise before or after the country becomes capable of enriching uranium to the point where she can create a nuclear weapon (if that is even Iran’s goal)?

Iran has constructed two roles for herself: one of the oppressed (Iran’s self-conception) – a nation that simply wants to achieve nuclear power peacefully…and the other of the instigator (the perspective of the West) – a nation that challenges Western political control and will not relent to its pressures. 

There are three main suppositions of constructivism: human nature is positive (in opposition to realism); international relations are a social creation; and international relations are merely a game of social practice and interaction. To the constructivist, hypotheses such as anarchy in the international sphere or class struggle, are merely constructions conceived by political scientists, and that the behaviors of states only follow these patterns. Thus, the actions of states are constructed by their dogmatic perspectives, not by actual international relations, and it is ideal to construct contemporary international relations theory, which is more adaptive and flexible to illuminate the Iranian nuclear problem.

Constructivism states that there is no overarching law that dictates a state’s actions, but rather that these actions are natural extensions of the roles they have constructed for themselves and each other by past actions within their mutual history. Iran has constructed two roles for herself: one of the oppressed (Iran’s self-conception) – a nation that simply wants to achieve nuclear power peacefully (which so many other nations have already achieved); and the other of the instigator (the perspective of the West) – a nation that challenges Western political control and will not relent to its pressures. A nation’s capability to generate electricity from nuclear power is prestigious, as it can improve a developing nation’s economy, such as Iran’s. On the other hand, Iran flouts international law by continuing to enrich uranium to potentially nuclear weapons-grade levels, as well as skirting the I.A.E.A.’s inspections of her atomic industry. Iran considers her uranium enrichment program as well as her IR-40 heavy water reactor in Arak to be the peaceful use of her right to develop civilian atomic energy. If those actions are not looked upon favorably by the West, then they further legitimize one goal of Iranian politics: to engage in combat with those who Iran believes are hostile towards her.

For the Western nations and their allies (the European Union, Israel, the U.S, etc.) two roles have been generated: one of the patron (the West’s self- conception) – someone who seeks to help Iran accomplish her peaceful goals according to international law, and the other of the hanging judge (Iran’s perspective) – someone who seeks to harshly punish Iran for her behavior, which is in violation of international law. While China and Russia attempt to act as patrons most of the time, occasionally they must agree with the hanging judges in order to appease the West.

Most of the popular political and media in the U.S. presents a monochromatic portrayal of international relations to their target audience, which consequently discourages a broader understanding of international relations by the public at large. Other regions in the world produce similarly biased news, but towards their desired ends. Constructivism welcomes all viewpoints and takes into account their inherent subjectivity, and furthermore, states that the aggregation of these diverse viewpoints is the best representation of the truth. As an antidote to the simplistic exploitation of the news, constructivism can encourage the average news-reading citizen as well as the policy maker to take a more active role in conceptualizing international relations, especially concerning Iran’s nuclear power development program. Constructivism is non-dogmatic, and is able to depict reality in a more multifaceted and nuanced approach, with minimized distortion, since all representations by their nature distort reality. Due to the inherent subjectivity of political issues in not only the modern world, but historically as well, it is useful to examine the Iranian nuclear dilemma more by the structures created through societal interaction, than by using determinism or materialism.

Solving the riddle of Iranian nuclear development is worthwhile because there are so many important positions at stake on this issue, economically and politically, as well as religiously and socially. Can this problem be decided with a result that is acceptable to all of the major actors involved in this international drama of intrigue? In an ideal world yes, but most likely no; sooner or later one of the actors will have to flinch in this glorified game of chicken, turn the steering wheel away from mutually determined suicide, and accept negotiations from a position of weakness, although, sometimes there is indeed power in weakness. Weak nations can avoid the trappings of the powerful, that seek to enforce their global or regional hegemony, and instead can concentrate on developing internally, strengthening their economies, education, and standards of living. A fair solution to this dilemma can be reached only if a fundamental change in philosophy takes place on both sides. Such a change on the policy making level requires a more understanding and collaborative discourse on the civilian level, because for a politician to hold anything other than a hard-line stance in this era of media-driven polarizing rhetoric is political suicide.

Lewis Dorman is an MA candidate in the ENERPO program at European University at St. Petersburg.

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