Iranian rockets and the ‘security dilemma’

Yazar: Yrd. Doç. Dr. Assel Tutumlu  – 8 Mart 2018

Realist accounts of International Relations are often described as outdated in academic debates. Views that treat world politics as a competition for power among states with different capabilities and the ‘survival of the fittest’ no longer represent mainstream perspectives. Terms such as arms race, security dilemma, bandwagoning and balance of power seem archaic because inter-state wars are rare and conflict takes economic rather than military form. Instead, analysts tend to conduct ‘middle-range theorizing’, concentrating on exploring specific issues, in the specific regions, at specific time periods. However, some cases in International Relations do nonetheless warrant realist interpretation. Recent crisis in the US-Iranian relations illustrates the relevance and significance of the realist paradigm.

On 15 January, Iran attempted to launch yet another rocket into space aggravating already tense relations with the United States. Although the rocket with a characteristic name “Payam”, (Message in Farsi), failed to reach the orbit, it nonetheless reignited suspicion among American policy makers that Iran is harboring a desire to develop ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. US also revealed the fact that ever since Bush Administration, Washington has been actively engaged in sabotaging Iranian space program despite the fact that Iran does not have enough nuclear fuel to develop a warhead. The 2015 nuclear deal forced Iran to dismantle most of its enrichment facilities and ship over 90% of nuclear fuel to Russia. Nonetheless, this clandestine program continued under Obama and Trump administrations. It is hard to draw definite conclusions, but Iran suffers from the world’s highest failure rates in rocket launching (67%, in comparison with the world’s 5% average). So, Iran may have a sufficient ground for suspecting US involvement in what it legitimately claims it is entitled to. In response to this, Iran, according to Shea Cotton: “hides its failures and exaggerates the success”. It continues to stress that any country can develop and engage in space programs as long as it is created for peaceful purposes. This climate of distrust is one in the long queue of incidents in which two countries fail to find amicable solutions.

Another recent crisis in the bilateral relations was in the second half of the 2018, when the US unilaterally exited the 2015 nuclear deal on the grounds that it has a ‘suspicion’ that Iran is not fulfilling its part of the deal and re-imposed one of the harshest sanctions in history in November 2018. Sanctions, which prevent Iran from selling its oil on the international markets and conduct foreign currency transactions via SWIFT system, aim to isolate Iran economically to induce a policy change in which Iran will give up its desire to become a regional power. These sanctions came in stark contrast with the assessment of other major players and international institutions. Experts of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) continue to certify that Iran complies with its obligations. European countries also state that they do not have anything that makes them suspicious about Iranian obligations. Russia closely follows by stating that Iran is complying with the UN resolutions and is already the most inspected country by the IAEA. Iran perseveres and despite the drastic domestic conditions, continues to develop its nuclear energy spending over $500 billion since 2006 in defiance of the US sanctions.

The conflict in the bilateral relations between the US and Iran usually proceeds in the following manner: first, Iran declares its desire to gain independence by acquiring an object, which in its mind represents a sign of modern and great power (be a nuclear energy or a space program). Such a desire complies with International law and international agreements that Iran has ascended to in the past. However, the United States responds with pressure, regardless of whether or not Iranian policies comply with previous commitments. It goes on to stress that since Iranian government cannot be trusted, it must be contained either through sanctions or militarily since the possession of such strategic assets imperils security of the region and beyond. Such offensive rhetoric inspires tougher response from the Iranian leadership, with Tehran then asserting its right to possess object of modernity and begin to cover up to develop these capabilities on their own or by collaborating with other rogue states, such as North Korea. Obviously, when these collaborations are revealed publicly, the US leadership feels total lack of trust and attempts to punish Iran more. Realists call this the “spiral of distrust”, or the security dilemma. It can thus be suggested that Iranian-US relations can be best explained through the prism of the security dilemma despite the common caricaturizing of the realist paradigm and its dismissal as ‘archaic’.

Such spins of distrust between the two states, coupled with the US strategy of containment, lead to stronger response and desire to defy on part of Iran. The ‘security dilemma’ is difficult to resolve, since Iran takes such advances as a challenge to its national power. For the US, Iranian defiance also signifies a challenge to the universal peace built on the liberal principles. International organizations and third party states can de-escalate bilateral relations, but they will have a relatively small influence on ensuring trust and cooperation between the two states.