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October 30, 2011

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inspects the Natanz nuclear plant in central Iran
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inspects the Natanz nuclear plant in central Iran

About the authors

Bowden B.C Mbanje

Lecturer: Bindura University of Science Education; Zimbabwe
Faculty: Education
Department: Social Sciences-Peace & Governance
Area of Specialization: International Relations, Political Science, Diplomacy, International law, Governance in Africa
Qualifications: Masters of Science Degree in International Relations: University of Zimbabwe
Bachelor of Science Honours Degree in Political Science: University of Zimbabwe

Darlington N. Mahuku

Lecturer: Bindura University of Science Education; Zimbabwe
Faculty of Education
Department: Social Sciences-Peace & Governance
Area of Specialization: International Relations, International Political Economy, Diplomacy, Politics, Governance in Africa


In this article the argument is that the existence of mistrust among states and selective nuclear development has made nuclear non-proliferation a problem in the international system. The United States (US) devotes a lot of time on Iran basing on the suspicion that if it is allowed to continue with its nuclear program it will end up producing nuclear weapons  leading to instability in the Middle East region. At the same time the Americans are quiet about Israel, India and Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. The dilemma for the Americans is how they can curb proliferation when they are the major culprits themselves.  

Key words

Non-Proliferation Treaty(NPT), International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA), nuclear weapons, selective treatment, nuclear weapon states(NWS), non-nuclear weapon states(NNWS)nuclear proliferation.

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The purpose of this paper is to highlight how selective treatment in the international system has brought about more problems than solutions to nuclear development and proliferation in the international system. Using the realist approach it can be pointed out that, the USA is totally opposed to Iran’s nuclear program mainly out of fear of what a nuclear capable Islamist state will do in the Middle East. Hans Morgenthau, a realist scholar has propounded that national interest comes first before collective interest. The aura in which decisions are made is driven by the political self-serving interests of those who possess more power in the international system. The realist approach provides the leverage to analyze critically the arguments propounded by various political science scholars on great power politics and national interest.

Iran a signatory to the NPT is being deprived of scientific and technological progress in its quest for civilian nuclear development while the Americans want to allow full civil nuclear cooperation with India, a non-signatory to the Treaty. The Atomic Energy Act and the Nuclear Non Proliferation Act forbid cooperation with countries that do not put their nuclear industry under international safeguards or that have exploded a nuclear device since 1978. India, Israel and Pakistan fail on both counts, yet they have received tremendous assistance in developing nuclear technology from the nuclear weapon states (NWS).

Cases like that of Iran’s nuclear program have been treated in notably varying ways. While differential treatment of critical cases maybe fully justified it also shows the limitations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and leaves some hard questions unanswered. This article will analyse the issue of selectivity on nuclear development in the international system. The existence of mistrust among states and selective nuclear development has made nuclear non-proliferation a one sided issue where the powerful always want the weak to comply. A comparative analysis of Iran’s nuclear program with that of Israel, India and Pakistan will also be the main focus of this article

America’s Foreign Policy in respect to the Iran’s nuclear program

The basis of Iran’s nuclear program was started during the Cold War, after the signing of bilateral agreements between the United States and Iran in the late 1950s. With the establishment of Iran’s Atomic Agency and the NPT in operation, plans were made between the US and Shah Mohammad Pahlavi to construct up to 23 nuclear power stations across Iran by the year 2000.1 After the 1979 Iranian Revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power, Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of its plans to restart a nuclear programme using local nuclear fuel. In 1983, the IAEA planned to provide assistance to Iran under its Technical Assistance Programme to produce enriched uranium.2 However, the IAEA was forced to terminate the programme under United States pressure.

In the 1970s when Henry Kissinger was the US Secretary of State he held that the introduction of nuclear power would both provide the growing needs of Iran’s economy and also free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals. Half a decade later in the twenty-first century, the American government now claims that there is no economic gain for a state that is rich in oil and gas such as Iran to costly build nuclear fuel cycle facilities3. The United States therefore accuses Iran of pursuing a secret weapons program since it has no need for nuclear energy due to its huge oil resources. In the 1970s, Iran under the Shah’s government could be trusted to pursue a nuclear program under the NPT’s peaceful applications provisions. The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which is more radical than that of Shah Reza Pahlavi, is no longer trusted to pursue the same peaceful nuclear program as agreed in the 1970s. Iran has insisted that it would use the enriched uranium only to fuel nuclear power stations, something it is permitted to do as a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, the United States strongly believes Iran’s uranium enrichment program is ultimately aimed at producing fissile material for nuclear weapons. It suspects the Islamist Republic of using an emerging civilian nuclear energy program to disguise atomic weapons work. The American government is at the forefront calling for international pressure for harsh measures against Iran since it has refused to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

The IAEA has been investigating Iran since 2003 to the present 2011 (and will do so even after). The United Nations (UN) supervisory body says it is still not in a position to judge the true nature of the country’s nuclear program4. IAEA inspectors have not discovered any concrete proof that Iran’s nuclear program is of a military nature, yet the Americans are pushing for harsh sanctions against it. The former director of the IAEA, Mohammad EI Baradei always stressed that negotiation between Iran and the UN Security Council remained the best option to settle the Iranian crisis, but the United States warned the international community that it was seeking harsh action including the use of force against Iran. So far the IAEA has not found any evidence contrary to Iran’s peaceful nuclear program. Iran has every right under Article IV of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium. United States accusations against Iran are somewhat biased, unilateral and misleading since in November 2003 and also in 2011, the IAEA declared that there was no evidence that Iran was attempting to build an atomic bomb. The United States then claimed that the IAEA report was impossible to believe. It can therefore be argued that, the critical issue from the US’ perspective is the threat posed to their vital national interests by Islamist groups such as al-Qa’ida and the radical Hezbollah, if they gain access to nuclear weapons. Iran’s relations with the United States are presently strained due to America’s revulsion of the Islamist Republic.

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The dispute  between America and Iran can be traced back to 1979 when both countries severed diplomatic relations after Iranian students stormed the US embassy in Teheran and held American diplomatic staff hostage for one year and two months to protest against America’s refusal to hand over the toppled Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The American government could only restore diplomatic relations with Iran if it agrees to end its opposition to the peace process in the Middle East, close financial and other support to organizations involved in terrorist attacks against Israel, and to keep its promise to relinquish development of nuclear weapons5. However, Iran has remained resolute by refusing to recognize the state of Israel. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, called for it to be “wiped off the map” or to be relocated as far away as Alaska. Iran has never ceased to support Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas which it regards as freedom fighters. This led the former American President George W Bush to label Iran a rogue state. The Obama Administration is also more of a carbon copy of the former Republican government in their relations with Iran. The Iranians have refused to give in to American demands of suspending their uranium enrichment program.

From secondary research carried out, it can be noted that the IAEA is actually being used as an instrument to further America’s foreign policy objectives against Iran. The NPT explicitly states that all states have a right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes and America is manipulating the whole situation to trap Iran. The IAEA is being used by the US as a tool for political purposes in violation of the IAEA statutes. America is the only country that has ever used atomic bombs in wartime in Japan and has increasingly threatened non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) with its nuclear weapons. Iran like North Korea might also be seeking to expand its arsenal, as a defensive tool against possible American aggression.

The Bush administration developed plans for preventive strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities and the new American Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton has also not ruled out the possibility of using hard power on Iran if all options are exhausted. John Newhouse argues that deterrence and containment, which used to be the basis of US strategy, have lost relevance instead the United States must identify and destroy the terrorist threat before it reaches the US borders, by using pre-emptive force.6 Former American President Bush stated in a speech at West Point (US) in June 2002 that, “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they image.”7 Pre-emptive defenses in principle can be used to justify the destruction of any state, especially if there is a possibility that that state might in the future be able to challenge the United States. The calls for preventive or pre-emptive strikes on Iran by the United States are mainly based on its fear of the threat of a strong Iran challenging its interests in the Middle East region as well as in the international system.

Fears of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program within the American administration have been necessitated by the following assumptions and beliefs: A key belief or shared image by both the former Bush and the present Obama Administration is that proliferation is too difficult to prevent and that once a nation decides to build the bomb, it cannot be persuaded to stop. With such an assumption the American administration strongly believes that Iran’s nuclear program has hidden intentions including the possible production of nuclear weapons. A second shared image is that Iran is a ‘rogue state’, the last Muslim theocracy, motivated to build nuclear weapons due to hostility to the Western world. Iran’s own behaviour reinforces and consolidates its image as a `rogue state’ considering its 1979 Revolution that led to the over throw of the Shah, the 1979 American hostage taking, its Islamist beliefs and harsh diatribes against the United States labeling it the “Great Satan” and its support for Islamist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Growing evidence that Iran is working on ways to deliver warheads using long range missiles and its firing of three new types of land-to-sea and sea-to-sea missiles during military exercises in the Gulf waters and calls by Iran’s President Ahmadinejad for Israel to be “wiped off the map” or to be relocated as far as Alaska have heightened alarm among the American administration. The American state Department believes the principal threat in the twenty-first century is the use of long-range missiles by ‘rogue states’ for purposes of terror, coercion and aggression.

The American Administration sees an Iranian nuclear bomb as a threat to their interests in the Middle East region. Iran is becoming a very important regional power in the Middle East. It is aligned to Syria, the Hezbollah group in Lebanon, Hamas political movement in Palestine and Shi’a in Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. The strategic relationship between Iran and its allies could work against the US and its ally Israel especially if Iran is to acquire nuclear weapons. This would entail a Balance of Terror between Israel and Iran which would lead to mutual deterrence. Nuclear weapons would make the alliance that would include Iran, Syria; Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas is Palestine and the Shi’a in Iraq and Afghanistan very strong thus jeopardizing US interests and security as well as those of its ally Israel in the whole Middle East region. Lastly, Iran gives financial assistance and other support to Islamist organizations involved in some attacks against Israel. The American Administration sees Iran as the breeding and training ground of Islamists. The United States believes that if Iran is to have nuclear weapons it could decide secretly to provide the bomb to Islamists to use it against them. The Americans therefore consider that the best thing to do is either to confront Iran or to try by any means possible to block its nuclear ambitions.


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In this article the argument is that the existence of mistrust among states and selective nuclear development has made nuclear non-proliferation a problem in the international system." />