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How does Israel's nuclear program contribute to Iran's nuclear ambitions?

Question submitted by Tiki Archambeau, from Burlington, VT, May 10, 2013

Answered by: Jane Vaynman

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Iran's nuclear ambitions are likely driven by multiple factors, from security concerns to domestic polices. However, political competition within Iran, rather than Israel's nuclear capabilities, plays a more significant role in driving Iran's nuclear ambition.

In one view, Iran is threatened by Israel, a state with opaque nuclear capabilities, and seeks its own nuclear weapons to balance Israel. However, this interpretation is problematic. First, research suggests that states seek nuclear weapons to respond not only to nuclear adversaries, but to security threats more broadly, including conventionally armed neighbors. Second, from Iran's perspective, the principal threat to its security is the United States, not Israel. Even without Israel's nuclear or conventional weapons superiority, Iran might see security as a reason to seek nuclear weapons. Additionally, other states in the region, such as Egypt, could likewise be threatened by Israel's capabilities, and yet they have not pursued nuclear weapons.

Iran's nuclear ambitions may be driven more by forces within its own borders than from external pressures. Some domestic political actors may favor a nuclear program because it gives their groups additional power, influence or resources. There is evidence that Iranian elites are not monolithic, suggesting that tensions are likely. For example, some actors in Iran have been unwavering in their commitment to a nuclear program, and some more open to negotiations. Opposing Western pressure and rejecting any accommodation with the US also gives legitimacy to the Iranian regime. The Iranian leadership could be using the international dispute over the nuclear issue to justify silencing political opposition within Iran, and therefore has political incentives to continue pursing the program. Such observations suggest that Iran's nuclear program may not be the result of a calculated security decision in response to Israel, but rather domestic political competition.