12th January 2013: Nuclear Iran & Strategic Culture Research

Bill Keller in The New York Times on new books about nuclear weapons proliferation:


What has been sorely missing from the debate about Iran’s nuclear program is a serious, reported effort to understand what goes on in the minds of the Iranians. David Patrikarakos, a journalist who has written for a number of high-end British periodicals, fills that void with “Nuclear Iran,” a cleareyed history of the Iranian nuclear program, enriched by access to a number of key participants and a wealth of scholarly empathy. The book contains more administrative detail and diplomatic byplay than a lay reader will crave, but it also includes a succinct and subtle rendering of modern Iranian political history and a digestible primer on the basics of nuclear science. (For the record, Patrikarakos, unlike Bracken, believes that, as counterproductive as an attack on Iran might be, “the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is worse.”)

In large measure, the history of nuclear Iran is the story of the relationship (“pathology” might be a better word) between Iran and the United States. Our present Iran problem, we are reminded, is partly of our own making. We installed the shah, who embraced nuclear power as a flag of Persian modernity. We indulged Saddam Hussein in his brutish attack on Iran — a war that led Iran’s Islamist government to conclude that it was on its own in the world. The fact that we invaded Afghanistan while paying court to terrorist-­breeding (but nuclear) Pakistan taught Iran that weapons of mass destruction command deference. Then, in the Bush axis-of-evil years, our hard-­liners convinced their hard-liners that nothing short of regime change would satisfy Washington. Add these understandable fears to a long history of xenophobia and Persian status anxiety, and it would be astounding if Iran didn’t at least contemplate acquiring the bomb.


When a young Jack Snyder wrote a 1977 RAND monograph that conceptualised strategic culture he tried to understand Soviet politico-military elites and their decision-making on nuclear weapons. David Patrikarakos‘s book joins David Crist‘s The Twilight War (New York: Penguin Press, 2012) in exploring the strategic interdependence of Iran’s nuclear development program with United States politico-military decision-making. A nuclear Iran is thus exactly the kind of geopolitical problematique that contemporary researchers interested in strategic culture might study. Snyder was part of a so-called first generation that might have used national country studies to understand the Iranian leadership. Now, this is the domain of political psychological profiling and estimative assessments for strategic intelligence. The so-called second generation would highlight the strategic interdependence of Iran and United States decision-making, and strategic alliances — including the US support for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the George W. Bush Administration’s decision in late 2001 to invade Afghanistan in order to end the Taliban regime’s support for Al Qaeda. The third generation might examine the evolution of institutional decision-making which has led to the “present Iran problem” for the United States. The fourth generation might examine how the international system and regional developments helped to shape United States and Iran decision-making; and might also compare Iran as a case study to countries like South Africa and Libya that have rolled back their nuclear capabilities. Patrikarakos and the other authors that Keller profiles might be the beginning of a literature review for a research program on United States and Iranian strategic cultures, and their decision-making and threat perception role in nuclear capability-building.