Culture, Religion and Strategy: The ‘Islamic’ Contours of Iran’s Nuclear Thinking

Published date01 April 2022
Date01 April 2022
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
Culture, Religion and
Strategy: The ‘Islamic’
Contours of Iran’s
Nuclear Thinking
Shafat Yousuf1 and Syed Jaleel Hussain2
This article proposes a fresh explanation of Iran’s nuclear programme by using
the framework of strategic culture. The core argument of this article is that Iran’s
strategic restraint in not overtly weaponising its nuclear programme is primarily
driven by its strategic culture despite the continuously deteriorating regional
security situation and a deeply hostile neighbourhood. This has incentivised a
‘Shia way’ of looking at and practising a strategy that sees nuclear weapons as
fundamentally un-Islamic. Instead of weaponisation, Iran has shown remarkable
flexibility to accept restrictions on its nuclear programme under the Joint
Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Security-based realist explanations
fail to account for such behaviour and can be better explained using a cultural
framework. The strategic culture-based framework also explains the reasons
behind Iran’s policy of nuclear hedging and its acceptability by major sections of
the political elite in Iran.
Iran’s nuclear strategy, nuclear weapons, strategic culture, Shia identity, Persian
On 8 May 2018, the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed between Iran and the
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
9(1) 72–98, 2022
© The Author(s) 2022
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970221076715
1 Centre for West Asian Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, Delhi, India.
2 Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, Delhi,
Corresponding author:
Syed Jaleel Hussain, Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Noam Chomsky
Complex, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, Delhi 110025, India.
Yousuf and Hussain 73
P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France,
Russia, the UK, the USA—plus Germany) together with the European Union.
The US government followed up with its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against
Iran by imposing several harsh unilateral sanctions that substantially weakened
the Iranian economy. This was followed up by military pressure on Iran that
led to a series of escalatory exchanges. The USA designated Iran’s Islamic
Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a ‘terrorist’ organisation in 2019. The
same year, it also increased its military forces in the region as a warning to Iran
while also sending an aircraft carrier strike group and Air Force bombers to the
region (Aljazeera, 2020). The escalation culminated with the US assassination
of Lt. General Qassem Soleimani, head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, and its most
beloved military commander, on 3 January 2020. Iran responded by announcing
that it will no longer abide by any of the limits set out in the 2015 nuclear deal,
whose provisions Iran had already started to defy selectively by citing the lack of
relief from the sanctions. Iran also launched a series of missile attacks on two US
military bases in Iraq’s Ain Al Assad and Erbil on 8 January 2020.
The decade-long negotiation between Iran and the West that culminated in the
signing of the JCPOA in Vienna on 14 July 2015 was a watershed in the history of
the success of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Iran committed to enrich
uranium only up to 3.67%, eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium
and reduce low-enriched uranium by 98%. It also accepted the deeply intrusive
inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In return, Iran
would get complete relief from nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the USA,
European Union, and the UN Security Council. This was remarkable given the
history of mutual antagonism and growing strategic rivalry between Iran and the
USA since the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
There are two dichotomous arguments by both sides regarding the goals of
Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran has consistently maintained that its nuclear
programme is only for peaceful purposes, with its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, bracketing nuclear weapons as fundamentally ‘un-Islamic’ (Khamenei,
2021). The major powers, led by the USA, have rejected these assertions as a
mere ploy to buy time. However, they have been unable to explain Iran’s delay in
weaponising its nuclear programme. If Iran wanted a nuclear weapon, it could
have undergone a crash course in bomb-making, like Israel or North Korea, and
acquired a weapon by at least the first decade of the twenty-first century. There
have been few thorough explanations of this Iranian behaviour.1
This article proposes a novel explanation using the framework of strategic
culture. It argues that Iran’s ruling elite are socialised in a strategic culture based on
two prongs: the Shia prong that is influenced by a unique historical experience of
Shias as a religious group and a Persian prong that borrows from Persian cultural
and civilisational experience. The core argument of this article is that Iran’s strategic
restraint in not weaponising its nuclear infrastructure is primarily due to the peculiar
nature of the Islamic belief system that defines Iran’s strategic culture and regards
nuclear weapons as deeply antithetical to Islam. This is the primary reason for Iran’s
restraint in weaponising its nuclear infrastructure despite the pressing regional
security concerns and a highly hostile neighbourhood that includes the presence of

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