Pakistan’s complicated relationship with its neighbor forced the country to contemplate obtaining a strategic deterrent that would provide it with non-conventional protection early on.
The country is caught between its difficult geography and massive demography, and this weapon was crucial for addressing the implication of this mix, which puts the Pakistani security forces under constant pressure. They must constantly (since attaining their independence) keep an eye on the evolution of their neighbor’s capacities and the ramifications this leaves on domestic stability and its foreign (regional and international) interests. Thus, its deep state put the nuclear option on the table early on.
Things differ when it comes to Iran, which did not face the same challenge of the demographic complexities neighboring Pakistan or its geographical difficulties. Although the people of Iran had suffered a great deal because of their geography, both the country’s geography and demography have historically been leveraged to impose its geopolitical influence. This ability to leverage the country’s demography and geography compelled all of the regimes that have ruled contemporary Iran to develop their war-making capacities, from the Shah’s regime to the Islamic republic.
The former Iranian regime did not develop a nuclear doctrine. However, those who live through this stage of history are of the opinion that whatever the regime ruling Tehran, it would not hesitate to seek atomic weapons after India and Pakistan had already managed to develop their own. Even Ayatollah Khomeini, who ended the nuclear program after the fall of the Shah, reversed course and called for its resumption because of the pressures brought about by the Iran-Iraq war.
Currently, with the crystallization of the Iranian regime’s ideology and its continuous efforts to export it, the regime has made rivals out of most of its neighbors, near and far. It did so despite the economic and social crises ripping Iranian society apart. Despite the hardship caused by squandering the country’s wealth on maximizing its external influence and pursuing its nuclear project, which has drained the treasury, the regime continues to address the situation with a mentality similar to that of Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, or maybe even starve, but we will get our own,” he said in 1965.
Iran refrains from discussing, either directly or indirectly, its need for a nuclear weapon. Simultaneously, it blackmails the international community in negotiations with it by developing its nuclear program till it reaches the brink of military capability. However, although a few decision-makers are advocating the pursuit of nuclear weapons, whatever the cost, building on an approach somewhere in between the two models (North Korean and Pakistani). Indeed, the costs to the regime would be far lower than those paid by the regimes in Libya and Ukraine.
In Libya, many believe that Muammar Gaddafi would have met a different fate if he had not given up on his nuclear project and handed all the weapons his country had developed over to the United Nations after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The war in Ukraine has left Iranian political elites asking themselves whether Moscow would have occupied Ukraine at all if the latter had kept its nuclear weapons? Regardless of their military superiority, who would invade a country with nuclear weapons? These considerations leave those who made the final decision-makers in Tehran facing two difficult options. They look at the Libyan and Ukrainian cases and become increasingly convinced that they need to obtain a strategic deterrent force to safeguard their positions.
However, they are also aware that crossing the distance separating from this goal, while it may be short in the opinion of some international experts, would come at a high regional cost. Some have suggested the Iranians could be facing the scenario of an Iraqi “July”.
Iran will likely start a nuclear arm’s race in the region, and this would raise the specter of a crushing war if Tel Aviv were to decide to address Iran’s nuclear project preemptively, as it had done with Iraq’s “July” project, swiftly eliminating what it considered an existential threat.
And so, it is clear that Iran has several nuclear options. However, they all come at a high cost, the regime’s dilemma, despite that everyone agrees that the goal of nuclear weapons is more defensive than offensive, is that its program is tied to its expansionist project, which has become a crushing burden domestically and externally.