The Great Identity Crisis and America’s fear of a nuclear Iran

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The American economy is precariously positioned between recovery and recession, gun control consumes social policy debate and a major withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is set to happen over the coming years. Thus, it is surprising that many are already preparing to define Obama’s second term as president based on a small Middle-Eastern state beginning with ‘i’. Iran. [1] Back in 2008, many would have thought that events in Iraq would determine Obama’s legacy. But it seems that America is done with Iraq – at least for now. The US continues its diplomatic war in the Middle East; this on going battle is quickly becoming a constant in modern international relations and it has just found a new victim.

It would not be the first time that an American president has been remembered for their foreign policy in the Middle East or Asia. Johnson’s legacy is tainted by Vietnam; Carter’s by the Iran Hostages; and the Bushs’ by Saddam Hussein. The hegemonic ideology of the president’s office has made it the self-appointed head of a global police force. Therefore it isn’t surprising that its incumbent, Barack Obama, will have to try and detangle problems in the Middle East and, primarily, the nuclear threat Iran poses. Such is the gravity of the situation that time was dedicated in both Presidential and Vice Presidential debates in 2012 for the subject of Iran. [2]

On a tangent, it was the scholar Alexander Wendt who maintained that “a fundamental principle of constructivist social theory is that people act toward objects, including other actors, on the basis of the meanings that the objects have for them”, and that “identities are inherently relational”. [3] What Wendt is arguing is that we don’t act towards a certain object or actor because that is how we’re meant to objectively act towards them. Instead, we construct an ‘identity’ of what we believe they are and commit actions accordingly.

Relating the philosophy of Wednt back to the US today, the sentiment could not be more exact. Iran is a particularly poignant example of how social factors can influence the opinions of political actors, and lead to almost dogmatic switches in allegiance. Back in the 1950s, before the Iranian revolution, America began to implement the structure and capabilities for Iran to possess nuclear power, under Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ programme. [4] However, in 1979, with the Iranian revolution, America became staunchly opposed to the affairs of Iran, and a middle-eastern ally became a nuisance. This nuisance continues to this day in the eyes of Americans. Iran seems almost insistent on gaining nuclear capabilities, and many believe this will presage nuclear weapons. Obviously, this deeply worries America and there seems to be only one plausible explanation for why America is worried by Iran and not another country with nuclear capabilities, like the UK: identity.

When Iran was ‘revolutionised’ in 1979, it became a Muslim state and went from being ruled by a Shah to an Ayatollah. Social rights were continually restricted and in 2012 political rights began to be reined in as well. [5] This has all culminated in the presence of strong anti-western sentiments, made even worse by the actions of the US in the region, notably Iraq. As identity changes, so do motives. Accordingly, Iran’s changing identity caused changes in the way it was approached by the US. Suddenly, as America saw it, Iran no longer required a nuclear bomb for deterrence or self-defence, but because, it was aggressive, hateful and had unnecessarily provocative anti-American values.

This is not to say that, with nuclear capabilities, Iran would contribute to a better global society. It also seems logical that to sidestep the threat of human annihilation; very few, if any, states should have a weapon of such capabilities. However, we must take identity out of the question and focus on why a state might require nuclear capabilities.

‘The Bomb’ is not simply a light machine gun, whose use will only create minor ramifications. There have been two instances of an atomic weapon being used in history, and both were devastating, combining to an estimated loss of life at over 180,000. [6] Actors, rational or irrational, realise the huge toll of death that comes with the use of such a weapon, and resultantly many people acquire it for defensive, rather than offensive, reasons.

Iran is situated in a volatile part of the world, the Middle East. Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Gaza, Palestine, Syria; this list is one of actors who haven’t felt the effects of complete peace for a long time. As well as this, as mentioned, countries like America feel obliged to interfere in the affairs of Middle-Eastern states. It would suggest, for this reason, that the use of a bomb aggressively by Iran would be met with almost swift and immediate destruction by either the attacked, or of a western actor. Therefore, it is highly likely that, even if Iran carries the anti-western sentiment to the extent it wants to attack, it would simply use the bomb for deterrence and protection.

It may even go as far as to send a message to America that intervention is not an option; America’s history of bringing ‘freedom’ to the Middle East has been far from ideal; Afghanistan and Iraq are in political tatters and highly destabilised, and even if this had come about without America undermining the regimes in these states, they have hardly helped develop democracy in the region. As a result, Iran may not want the same treatment brought to their borders, and the acquisition of nuclear weaponry would be a way in which they would be able to secure this.

This is not to make the case for Iran gaining nuclear technology – by highlighting reasons beyond aggression that Iran want the bomb, acquisition of such weapons is not justified. The point is to merely allow us to note that the identity America looks to place on Iran rules out the possibility of other potential reasons for Iran desire for nuclear acquisition to gain any prevalence: they’re simply seen as aggressive.

In conclusion, if we are to believe reports from various global institutions, it will be a long time before Iran is in a position to hold the bomb. Despite Paul Ryan being correct when he said Iran now has the nuclear capacity five-fold of what it did when Obama first took office, it still doesn’t hold sufficient infrastructure and capabilities to create a weapon of mass destruction. However, in time, if it were to accumulate such a resource, the international community holds with it the requirement of not placing pre-conceived identities on Iran.

If this were to happen, then in fact the international community may sooner aggravate the ‘rogue’ state, and fulfil a pre-constructed prophecy on Iran and its motives, than to simply accept it as a mature and legitimate state.

Article by Simon Renwick. Edited by Joe Austin.



[2] – Third Presidential Debate 2012, subject; Iran

[3] Wendt, A. (1992) Anarchy is What States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics, pp.396-7