Nuclear Power and Islamic Reolutionary Ideology: an Indissoluble Bond

The Journal x Limes

The question of Iran’s nuclear program attracts serious and widespread security considerations. Concerns over Iran’s nuclear armament have been prompted since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported clandestine nuclear facilities in Natanz in 2003 , and were fueled by Tehran’s repeated failure in complying with its obligations under the Safeguards Agreement.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been vocal about its ambitions in obtaining nuclear power. In the wake of stalled nuclear talks, debating the motives behind this regime’s nuclear aspirations becomes of relevance.

The following article aims to highlight the contributions of Constructivist theory in regards to these power-seeking ambitions. For constructivists, actors in international politics are not identical, and differences are observable from their identity.


Identities constitute the basis upon which an actor will pursue specific interests and actions.

As representations of an actor’s understanding of who they are, they are socially structured through interaction with other actors, as well as sustained, over time, by the repetitive nature of these interactions.

The Islamic Revolution of Iran of January 1979 brought forward an international upset as a theological, Islamic, and anti-Western regime replaced a more than fifty-year-old long modern, secular, and pro-Western monarchy. While the revolution came off as a surprise, the event was, to some extent, predictable.

Such radical change could take place because in the years that led to the Revolution, the opposition to Mohammed Reza Shah’s and the Pahlavi dynasty had already been concretized and consolidated in the Shia political and religious faction led by Shi’ite cleric Ruhollah Khomeini. The element that most characterized such opposition was its ideology. In fact, the political culture of the Islamic regime relies on two specific and unique conjunct discourses of independence and justice, based on the Islamic-Revolutionary ethos.

Iran’s determination to pursue its nuclear program can thus be explained by these two ideational factors: nuclear power has a meaning for the regime because it guarantees the safeguard of its identity, of independence and justice.


Independence has been dominating the ideology of the Islamic regime, and of Iran, since the Revolution. During Pahlavi’s years in government, his opposition perceived a shared experience of authoritarianism, undemocratization, unequal development and discrimination; and attributed it to the Shah’s regime’s dependence on the West. Such conception would be formulated in the idea of Gharbzadegi, translated literally in a need for “Westoxification. Pahlavi brought forward a modernization and secularization movement during his White Revolution of 1963, which substantially translated into the so-called “Westernization”: on the first front, the Shah relied on foreign capitals and investments to finance his industrialization and urbanization reforms, while on the second, he sought not only a geo-strategic relation with the United States, but also attempted to replicate the Western cultural model, through education and the appropriation of American cultural values and lifestyles.

Yet, “Westernization” could only appeal to a small minority, that of the bourgeoisie, the military, and the bureaucratic élites, and excluded the national-liberals, socialists, the working class, and the Islamic-Shia intelligentsia; for whom the open-door policy resulted in the bankruptcy of small-scale domestic producers, while secularization, didn’t signify democratization considering the Shah imposed his authoritarian policies, including a US-backed coup to overthrow democratically elected Prime minister Mossadegh. The different instances of the secular oppositions were finally amalgamated into the Islamic and Shi’a ideology.

Identities are not set but are developed and then sustained over repeated interaction. The independence identity was specifically constructed as a result of the interaction between Mohammed Reza Shah’s US-backed regime and his opposition, the same opposition that, forty years later, still holds the reins of government in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Identities are, in fact, seen as the motor behind a State’s interests, actions and behaviors in the international arena. Thus, independence is a pillar of the identity of the current Iranian regime and throughout this discourse Iran frames its interests. In fact, independence is perceived in both a negative sense of refusing foreign dominance and achieving economic dependence, and in a positive one, where the State seeks a manifestation of its own autonomy through self-definition, self-control and self-reliance.

Constructivists will argue that nuclear ambitions might as well fit into these autonomy derived interests. Positive independence highlights the nuclear issue since nuclear power enables self-sufficiency, a motive repeatedly underlined by official news outlets and government statements. While asserting the country’s nuclear ambitions, Iranian officials have affirmed how “it can create nuclear fuel on its own”, is equipped with its own national experts, and how its nuclear program is of a “peaceful” nature. On the negative independence, Iranian political élites have argued how Western interests, of the US and the UK, have hindered its economic development and prosperity. Iranian leaders attempt to build both an international and domestic consensus as a 2007 survey by a Washington-based polling organization discovered 90% of Iranian support the nation’s right to develop nuclear energy.

Therefore, in contrast with the realist paradigm which sees it as a matter of either defensive or offensive scopes, for constructivists, nuclear obtains a symbolic importance, as a matter of national pride in technological and economic advancement. Discourse analysis may reinforce such idea, as official statements have pointed out how nuclear power would be aimed at solely peaceful purposes and a “monopoly of production and sale of nuclear fuel” exists not in a “permanent center with an international name and appearance”, but in fact “in the hands of few western countries”.


Peaceful use of nuclear energy is the right of all nations in accordance with rules of international law. All nations should be able to use this clean energy for vital uses in the country and for the people. “Nuclear energy for all, nuclear weapons for none”. As read in Iran’s Policy on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, Iranian nuclear ambitions rest on another element of identity which compliments the ideological pillar of anti-dependence; such is focused on the value of justice.

Justice, and overall, more global Third Wordlist and “New World Order” instances were advanced during the Islamic Revolution; and still constitute an ideological pillar of the State, as reflected in the Constitution: Iran considers the “rule of justice and truth as the right of all people” (art. 154). The discourse of justice constitutes a norm in Islam to be sought by Muslims in their social life. With the advent of a theocratic regime, the norm has affected both domestic and international politics. Iran has attempted to export the Revolution transnationally through the framework of Islamic universalism, where justice becomes a value to be affirmed in all international activities. Constructivists argue that norms influence the behavior of States.

States adhere to norms because these reflect their expectations of preferred behavior. In this sense, norms are linked to the identity. Yet, internationally recognized norms can be contested by States in what scholars define as norm contestation; this can occur when different cultural contexts lead to different interpretations. Iran’s contestation of the norm associated with the international non-proliferation regime, highlighted by its persistent ambition in developing its nuclear program, could be framed in this outlook by analyzing the idea of justice in the Islamic Republic in relation to its interpretation of international NPT regulations.

In fact, the Iranian Parliament had ratified the NPT in February 1979, agreeing on preventing nuclear proliferation and promoting peaceful uses of nuclear energy. But the IAEA’s report to the UN Security Council in March 2006 had been perceived as the first obvious case of unjust behavior of international organizations, at the hands of the great powers. Ever since, Iran’s nuclear discourse has been focused on condemning the double-standard nature of the NPT, which allows for some actors (the nuclear haves) to enjoy rights related to nuclear development and technology; while the others (the non-haves) are impeded from doing so. The argument fits into the critical view of the unfair nature of international politics where internationally binding instruments restrain the principle of sovereign equality. The concern has been voiced by Iranian news agencies, which portray an “improper behavior” of Western power and additionally, the Iranian regime views the United States as the actors who have exempted themselves from internationally recognized norms including non-interference and non-proliferation.

Hence, the desire to develop its nuclear program fits in a justice-seeking foreign policy, of contestation of norms that appear in contrast with an ideological pillar of the State. Nuclear realization fulfills not only the personal Iranian need for independence but becomes a goal to challenge the unjust non-proliferation regime. Thus, the oppression and isolation in the region attribute meaning to nuclear power. Iran’s desire for nuclear empowerment addresses the right to play a significant global role in the international arena, like the United States and its nuclear allies, and therefore to be treated equally.

A Constructivist lens for negotiation and mediation?

In Constructivist views, since 1979 brought the clerical regime under Ayatollah Khomeini to power, the Iranian nation has been dominated by a revolutionary ethos and this has been translated into its foreign and security policy. The current regime’s revolutionary values, of independence and justice  are linked to the country’ ambitions in developing its nuclear program. Nuclear power gives meaning to the Islamic republic by fulfilling the symbolical values.

As an overall parallel interpretation of a state’s ambitions and securitization processes, the debate remains on whether or not addressing identities may offer suggestions for mediation and negotiation practices.

A cura di Yasmina Dionisi


Akhtar Shaheen, and Zulfiqar Khan. 2014. “Understanding the Nuclear Aspirations and Behaviour of North Korea and Iran.” Strategic Analysis 38, no. 5 (September): 617-633.

Kayhan Barzegar. 2009. “The Paradox of Iran’s nuclear consensus.” World Policy Journal 26, 3): 21-30.

Farrell, Theo. 2002. “Constructivist Security Studies: Portrait of a Research Program.” International Studies Review 4 (1): 49-72.

Farsoun, Samih K. 2016. “Introduction: Iran’s Political Culture.” In Iran. Political Culture in the Islamic Republic. London: Routledge.

Karimifard, Hossein. 2012. “Constructivism, National Identity and Foreign Policy and the Islamic Republic of.” Asian Social Science 8, no. 12 (February): 239-246.

Karimifard, Hossein. 2012. “Constructivism, National Identity and Foreign Policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Asian Social Sciences 8, no. 2 (February).


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