What does IR theory say about nuclear proliferation policies regarding Iran?

Image source (szczepan.lemanczyk)

Written by James Lo

This is the third part of a three part series on using nuclear proliferation theories to analyse current nuclear proliferation foreign policies. In part one, I provided a succinct summary of various theories. In part two, I argued that Etel Solingen’s nuclear proliferation theory, outlined in Nuclear Logics, applies best to North Korea and how a nuclear foreign policy may look if developed according to that theory. This final post applies Etel Solingen’s theory onto the case study of Iran. Ultimately, a country should look to shift Iran’s stance to an “outward-looking framework” through reviving the JCPOA and ensure the outward-looking President Rouhani retains support in Iran.

Which theory is the most convincing? (obtaining)

Solingen’s domestic theory provides the best explanation as to why states attain nuclear weapons in relation to Iran. Hyman’s individual leadership theory may be problematic because it places too much emphasis on an individual. In the case of Iran, the decision to proliferate cannot be fully understood without looking at the struggle between the traditional conservatives / principlists and the centrists / reformists. Solingen provides a great criticism of realism and the different trajectories that it provides. Comparing the cases of North Korea and Iran, despite both facing external threats in US and Israel respectively, they chose different proliferation policies. Since Kim Il-Sung, North Korea had a relatively continuous proliferation policy, while Iran had a stop-start nuclear proliferation programme, with the programme starting in 1974, halting in 1979 and restarting in 1984-1985. Realism is therefore problematic as the logic of self-help leads to wide ranging options.

Solingen’s domestic theory provides the best explanation in the case of Iran. Under the leadership of President Khamenei and (later) President Ahmadinejad, the nuclear programme was a powerful tool for the Iranian military-industrial complex to signify economic, political, military and technological self-reliance. Solingen’s domestic theory provides the best explanation as to why states attain nuclear weapons as both countries’ inward-looking leaders decided to proliferate in order to secure political survival through the empowering of the military-industrial complex and the maintaining of a closed country.

Solingen’s domestic theory also provides the most convincing explanation as to why states renounce nuclear weapons. International institutions do not provide a strong explanation due to their obligation for membership and weak enforcement mechanisms. Iran broke the NPT guidelines and began to proliferate while they were members of the NPT. Moreover, the sanctioning mechanisms within international institutions are faulty.

Solingen’s domestic theory therefore provides a great framework that can potentially be applied to Iran. The general trend in Middle East is that inward-looking countries seek to proliferate while outward-looking countries seek to abstain from nuclear weapons. The cases of Libya and Egypt suggest that outward-looking countries in the Middle East seem to renounce nuclear weapons. Iran fits the framework of inward-looking states – as such, Solingen’s outward looking model and the experiences of other countries in the regions can serve to signal a potential future path for Iran.

Future policy recommendations for Iran

Current President Rouhani is an outward-looking leader who won the 2013 presidential election on his promise to solve the nuclear issue and bring economic prosperity to Iran. This led to the signing of the JCPOA in 2015, where Iran agreed to a nuclear monitoring framework in exchange for lifting of sanctions in banking and financial sectors. US President Trump, however, withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 and reinstated sanctions in May 2019. Reinstating sanctions has given more influence to the inward-looking factions. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Council (IRGC) plays an increasing role in Iranian politics, disqualifying 7,000 out of 14,000 qualified candidates, including 90 current legislators in President Khomeni’s coalition, potentially leading to a homogenous political system dominated by hard-liners. Moreover, IRGC funding in the 2019 budget (1st proposal since US’ “maximum pressure” campaign in May 2019) increased by more than 60%. As such, the inward-looking factions within the Iranian political system have regained significant influence since Trump’s decision to reinstate sanctions.

Policy recommendations

The best way to deter Iran from proliferating is to shift Iran’s framework back to an outward-looking model. UK should therefore seek to revive the JCPOA as it strengthens the outward-looking factions within Iran. The lifting of sanctions in JCPOA was instrumental in increasing international engagement, with Iran’s 2017 exports to European countries doubling compared to 2016 & Iran signing a $4.8b agreement with French energy giant Total to invest in an off-shore natural gas field. This shows that the JCPOA was an effective tool in shifting Iran to an outward-looking framework. In the short term, UK should work with the EU to promote dialogue with Iran and ensure that they abide with the rules of the JCPOA. UK should work to strengthen the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), which was launched in January 2019 to enable European firms to trade with Iran without falling foul of US sanctions. This mechanism is crucial as it provides outward-looking factions within Iran, such as the centrists and reformists under President Rouhani, with continued opportunity for economic growth and withstand further encroachment from the IRGC and principlists. Moreover, UK should continue to liaise with major European powers such as France and Germany, as well as other members of the JCPOA such as China and Russia, to engage with both Iran and US in hopes to achieve a revival of the JCPOA.

This set of policy recommendations is in stark difference to the policies set out by Trump’s administration. Under President Trump, US withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 and reinstated sanctions in May 2019. UK should pursue a different policy than the US policies as the US policies towards Iran only serves to strengthen the inward-looking factions (such as the IRGC), leading to the return to a military-industrial complex and pursuing of the nuclear programme as we see today. This US stance against Iran may be dependent on what the results of the US elections in November are. Joe Biden has acknowledged that the recent US maximum pressure policies may be problematic and a shift back to diplomacy and engaging with allies should be the way forward. It will be interesting to see at the end of the year what the nuclear proliferation policies are in the region.


This essay argues that Solingen’s domestic theory as the best explanation as to why states develop and renounce nuclear weapons. Using this theoretical basis, UK should seek to shift Iran from an inward-looking to an outward-looking framework. In terms of policy, UK should seek to revive the JCPOA and ensure the outward-looking President Rouhani retains support in Iran.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: