To Be or Not to Be: Great Power Dilemmas and the Iranian Nuclear Programme

Date01 April 2022
Published date01 April 2022
Subject MatterReview Essay
Review Essay
To Be or Not to Be:
Great Power Dilemmas
and the Iranian Nuclear
Syed Jaleel Hussain1
Mark Fitzpatrick, Michael Elleman and Paulina Izewicz. 2019. Uncertain Future: The
JCPOA and Iran’s Nuclear and Missile Programmes. Routledge. 168 pp. ISBN:
Dennis C. Jett. 2018. The Iran Nuclear Deal: Bombs, Bureaucrats, and Billionaires.
Palgrave Macmillan. 481 pp. ISBN: 9783319598222.
Moritz. Pieper. 2018. Hegemony and Resistance around the Iranian Nuclear
Programme. Routledge. 190 pp. ISBN: 9780367173807.
Farhad Rezaei. 2017. Iran’s Nuclear Program: A Study in Proliferation and Rollback.
Palgrave Macmillan. 272 pp. ISBN: 9783319441191.
Trita Parsi. 2017. Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy. Yale
University Press. 472 pp. ISBN: 9780300218169.
This article looks at the competing dilemmas faced by the great powers and
the reasons for their eventual cooperation concerning Iran’s nuclear programme.
The great powers were divided between those who wanted a total roll back and
those who supported meaningful and verifiable limits. Using the levels of analysis
framework, the article looks at individual actors, structural factors and the
domestic interconnections that sustained the Iranian nuclear crisis and propelled
its eventual resolution in the form of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
9(1) 150–165, 2022
© The Author(s) 2022
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970221076753
1 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, Jamia Millia Islamia,
Noam Chomsky Complex, New Delhi, Delhi 110025, India.
Hussain 151
Iran’s nuclear programme, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, ballistic missiles,
On 27 November 2020, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, one of the architects of Iran’s
nuclear programme was assassinated in the outskirts of Tehran. This was the latest
of a series of assassinations of five major Iranian nuclear scientists between 2007
and 2012. Iran has repeatedly accused Israel, a charge that Israeli government
has neither confirmed nor denied. Though Israel has repeatedly threatened
Iranian nuclear installations with airstrikes, it has so far resorted only to covert
sabotage operations through intelligence gathering, cyber-attacks and scientists’
assassination using an extensive spy network in the region.1
Beyond the nuclear scientists themselves, Western policymakers have often
placed great emphasis on the role that key political leaders play in steering the
foreign and defence policy of Iran. This is the reason behind the celebration of the
election of reformist Mohammad Khatami as President of the Islamic Republic in
1997 and moderate Hassan Rouhani in 2013. In contrast, the eight confrontational
years under the hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the epitome of how
individual predispositions and ideology affects the overall state policy. This is
also true for decision-making in Washington. After a highly aggressive policy
posture against Iran by President Bush, the tenure of President Barack Obama was
marked by a singular focus on diplomacy and tacit acceptance of Iran as a regional
power. Obama’s approach proved to be game changer after more than three
decades of hostility and mistrust, leading to the signing of historic Joint
Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015. Yet Obama’s successor,
Donald Trump, not only added colossal pressure on Iran, but also reversed all
these significant gains.
The USA and Iran’s domestic politics have also played a crucial role in
determining the trajectory of the bilateral relationship and the nature of the
engagement with each other. In fact, the enormous pressure on President Obama
by the US Congress until the signing of the agreement and the US withdrawal in
May 2018 was primarily aimed at domestic political consumption. Similarly, the
Rouhani government was under severe pressure from conservative hardliners in
the parliament and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)
from making any concessions to the great powers.
Notwithstanding the impact of individuals and domestic politics on USA–Iran
relations, the shifting geopolitical situation played a tremendous role in USA–Iran
negotiations after decades of intense hostility. The rise of China with the potential
to undermine Washington’s dominant global position and a corresponding decline
in American power has begun to show tangible impact at the international level.
The USA felt an immense need to disengage from costly campaigns in West Asia
and focus on confronting growing Chinese power in its own backyard. This set the
stage for US negotiations with Iran.

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