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"Ask the Experts: What Would Iran Do With a Bomb?"

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers his speech near the Azadi (freedom) tower at a rally to mark the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that toppled the country's pro-Western monarchy, Tehran, Feb. 11, 2012.
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"Ask the Experts: What Would Iran Do With a Bomb?"

Op-Ed, Politics, Power, and Preventive Action, A Council on Foreign Relations Blog

February 21, 2012

Authors: Micah Zenko, Former Research Assistant to Graham Allison, 2003–2006; Former Research Associate, Project on Managing The Atom, 2006–2008, Kyle Beardsley, Sarah Kreps, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2007–2008, Matthew Kroenig, Former Research Fellow, Project on Managing the Atom/International Security Program, 2007–2008, Annie Tracy Samuel, Former Associate, International Security Program, July–August 2014; Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2011–2014; Former Research Fellow, Dubai Initiative, Fall 2011, Todd Sechser, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 2004–2006

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security



Former Project on Managing the Atom (MTA) Research Associate Micah Zenko asked several international relations and security studies scholars to contribute their thoughts on the impact of a potential Iranian nuclear weapon. Specifically, he asked: "If the international community believed—through testing or intelligence estimates—that Iran possessed a nuclear weapon, what impact would the bomb have on Iranian foreign policy?"

International Security Program (ISP) Research Fellow Annie Tracy Samuel was one of the contributors along with former ISP Research Fellows Sarah Kreps and Todd Sechser and former ISP/MTA Research Fellow Matthew Kroenig.




  • Annie Tracy Samuel is a Research Fellow in the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of History at Tel Aviv University. Her research focuses on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Iran-Iraq war, and Iranian security and foreign policy.

Iran's possession of a nuclear weapon would be a troubling and disturbing development, especially for the future of the nonproliferation regime and for stability in the Middle East.  However, there is reason to believe that Iran's theoretical possession of a nuclear weapon would not profoundly alter the essence of its foreign policy.

Iran's foreign policy, both before and after the 1979 revolution, has been largely pragmatic, particularly in action if not always in rhetoric. Though it has miscalculated the effects of and reactions to its policies, as well as adopted violence as a tool to achieve its strategic goals, Iran's policies have generally been conceived with rational security objectives in mind.  The hypothetical development of a nuclear weapons capability would not fundamentally alter Iran's overriding foreign policy objective—regime security.

Iran's leaders, like those in other states, want to remain in power.  They want the regime in which they have invested and which serves their interests to endure.  Foreign policy, in addition to safeguarding Iran's borders and national integrity, is a means for safeguarding the regime.  Possession of a nuclear weapon will likely make Iran more impervious to attack and may make Iran bolder in its support for armed groups.  However, possessing a nuclear weapon will is not likely to alter Iran's paramount foreign policy goals of national and regime security.

Further, possession of a nuclear weapon is likely to cause Iran's isolation from the international community, an outcome Iran does not want.  Iran would therefore be likely to use any advantages of possessing a nuclear weapon in a way that would not significantly increase its international isolation even further.

The Islamic Republic is not an irrational or suicidal regime.  A nuclear weapon will not make it one.

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For Academic Citation:

Zenko, Micah, Kyle Beardsley, Sarah Kreps, Matthew Kroenig, Annie Tracy Samuel, and Todd Sechser. "Ask the Experts: What Would Iran Do With a Bomb?." Politics, Power, and Preventive Action A Council on Foreign Relations Blog, February 21, 2012.

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