Seeking the bomb or a bomb option? Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and the proliferation strategy theory

Intern, Nuclear Nonproliferation & Russia Program
March 29, 2022

The recent developments around the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran nuclear deal, have again sparked discussions about whether Tehran is dragging out the negotiation process to win time to produce nuclear weapons, thus presenting the world with a fait accompli. Regional neighbors of Iran, too, follow the events in Vienna with increasingly close attention and strain, worrying that, with or without a deal, Iran will pursue a more emboldened regional strategy. While empirical evidence does shed some light on Iran’s nuclear behavior, a different way of looking at the issue is through a conceptual rather than empirical lens. This essay makes such an attempt by drawing upon the argument from a newly published book, “Seeking the Bomb: Strategies of Nuclear Proliferation”, by Vipin Narang, a renowned expert on deterrence posturing and proliferation theory[1].

Narang’s theoretical framework can be outlined as follows: aspiring nuclear states choose to pursue nuclear proliferation through a specific proliferation strategy, and the choice of strategy is determined by external (threat assessment) and internal (domestic consensus or the lack thereof) factors. More precisely, Narang lays out three hedging strategies: technical, insurance, and hard hedging (hint: Iran belongs to the latter type), and three active proliferation strategies – sprinting, hiding, and sheltered pursuit (see Introduction & Ch. 1). Importantly, proliferation strategies may change, and they should be changed – the latter is crucial insofar as the international community’s efforts to impact the proliferator’s behavior are concerned. According to Narang’s own assessment, Iran’s nuclear program has undergone three subsequent stages since the 1970s: technical hedging (1974-1978), hiding (1987-2003), and hard hedging (2003-present). Indeed, in a 2021 report, ISIS experts noted that “Iran has a long history of hiding nuclear weapons activities and assets, such as the Amad Plan, other sensitive nuclear activities such as the Natanz and Fordow enrichment plants, the Nuclear Archive, and Turquz-Abad with its shipping containers filled with nuclear-weapons related equipment and materiel”[2]. The most recent observations of Ian’s clandestine activity concerned the Natanz underground complex, which turned out to be deeper than experts assumed[3], but also the newly detected December 2020 demolition activities at the Marivan site, part of the former nuclear weapons program infrastructure. According to the new satellite imagery, in December 2020 Iran seemed to have deliberately destroyed parts of the site to prevent the IAEA from accessing it. Later, the Agency informed of “its detection of uranium particles at the site”[4].

Interestingly, technological capabilities are not part of the theoretical framework developed by Narang – by contrast, the author contends that, given the political decision, technical capabilities may be procured by means of seeking external help or developing indigenous technologies. In other words, while it has some weight as a concern, technological competence should not be viewed as “the driver of strategic choice” (p. 50). Clearly, this stands in stark contrast to a more technological deterministic approach, entailing that to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons program, it is important to undermine its three pillars: “the means to make nuclear explosive material, weaponize that material into a warhead or an underground test device, and deliver nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles”[5]. The ISIS experts mean that eliminating the first two is of paramount importance, whereas completely dismantling the latter is practically unfeasible.

Evidently, while political motivations remain an important factor in considering whether a state may go nuclear, recent developments of Tehran’s missile and space program do warrant closer scrutiny. In their latest report, IISS experts highlight two points with regards Tehran’s missile program: recent advances point to Tehran’s strategic ambition growing out of a purely deterrent strategy, and thus towards more aggressive posturing and battlefield use of missile capabilities, primarily by increased accuracy of its missiles. Second, it is worth following the developments closely as producing long-range missile would suggest they are intended to be loaded with nuclear warheads[6]. Furthermore, U.S. concerns voiced in the aftermath of the IRGC’s successful testing of a satellite launch vehicle underscored that the vehicle “shortens the timeline to an intercontinental ballistic missile for Iran as it uses similar technologies”[7]. In other words, clear technological steps have been taken to signal Iran’s intent to have an independent missile capability.

Against the backdrop of the ongoing JCPOA negotiations, these developments seem to signify Tehran’s concern with its regional security environment. At the same time, however, the actions appear to have an international dimension, too. On Sunday 13 March 2022, the Revolutionary Guards conducted a missile attack on Iraq’s Erbil where two centers of Israel’s intelligence agency were located. “Accidentally”, some missiles landed near a Consulate general of the United States under construction at the site[8]. While the message may well have been intended for Israel, it does seem plausible to assume that was a calibrated reaction to the “outstanding” issues in the JCPOA process: the extent to which sanctions on Iran’s elite revolutionary guards would be rolled back[9] as well as whether the Guards will be removed from the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO)[10]. In fact, some U.S. officials did believe the attack on Erbil was addressed to the United States as well[11].

The proliferation strategy theory further postulates that domestic political consensus is “crucial in driving a state toward an active nuclear weaponization strategy” (p. 3). In these states, achieving fractured domestic consensus is key to preventing a hedger from pursuing an active proliferation strategy, such as hiding. Worth noting is Narang’s observation that, “Hedgers are not failed proliferators. They have chosen to intentionally stop short of an active weaponization strategy” (p. 296). That said, his interpretation of the significance of the JCPOA is further instructive: “[It] reversed Iran’s nuclear proliferation strategy from hiding to hard hedging, taking advantage of the elevation of Iranian moderates who were willing to accept limits on the nuclear program in exchange for an opportunity to reengage with the global economy and institute domestic reforms” (p. 320). Underscoring the importance of the deal for curtailing Iran’s motivations for becoming a clandestine pursuer, it is concerning that currently, from a technical point of view, Iran does have strong incentives to pursue a hiding strategy: “Its enriched uranium stocks combined with advanced centrifuges offer Iran a more practical way to produce weapon-grade uranium in a clandestine site rather than at its declared enrichment sites”[12].

At the same time, some experts underline that internally in Iran, the deal seems to be transactional rather than transformational, meaning that it will most likely not be pursued at any cost[13]. Therefore, the salience of salvaging the deal – and, indeed, the fragility of consensus around it – must remain high on the international agenda. Here, some observations are in order with regards recent developments in Iran’s relationship with the IAEA. In a Joint Statement made on 5 March 2022, the Director-General of the IAEA and the Head of the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran (AEOI) agreed to “accelerate and strengthen their cooperation and dialogue aimed at the resolution of the [outstanding] issues”[14]. The Statement also envisioned a set of actions to be taken to resolve the issues before the Director General’s concluding report, to be submitted to the IAEA Board of Governors in June 2022. These included “the AEOI <…> provid[ing] to the IAEA no later than 20 March 2022 written explanations including related supporting documents to the questions raised by the IAEA which have not been addressed by Iran on the issues related to three locations”. Notably, no such information has been provided. However, as became known on 17 March 2022, the IAEA confirmed that Iran “began on March 11 irradiating part of its stockpile of uranium enriched to 60% to produce molybdenum targets <…>. The process renders the material useless for weapons”[15]. In other words, while defying some of the agreed conventions, be it in relation to the JCPOA or vis-à-vis the IAEA, Iran seems to calibrate its response depending on the broader state of play around the JCPOA as well as regional security developments.

Summing up

In his recent lecture “Will Iran Get the Bomb?”, John Mearsheimer noted there exist two ways to thwart proliferators: through military action and by imposing sanctions. Based on the above discussion, it is safe to assume that Narang’s proliferation strategy theory gives a different answer to the proliferation conundrum – namely, incentivizing the potential proliferator not to proceed with acquiring operational weapons capabilities. What can be done in practical terms to succeed in doing so?

Currently, hammering out a new deal no longer seems enough. More steps need to be taken to ensure the deal does not get scrapped by its opponents, particularly in the United States where they are now present both among the Republicans and the Democrats. To achieve that, views of the deal supporters need to be made more vocal to overwhelm the discourse, particularly those that underscore the role of diplomacy and mutual gain: “We [the United States] have no reason to believe that there is a pathway, other than diplomacy, to extend the breakout time”[16]. Second, as a tentative solution, experts suggest closer cooperation with the IAEA, which should be fully (and unanimously) supported by the IAEA Board of Governors[17]. This would allow for an effective system for monitoring, detecting, and curtailing potential unlawful developments through exposure and subsequent punishment. In any case, however, any meaningful efforts should be underpinned by acknowledging Iran’s security concerns while allowing it and its regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and, prospectively, Israel to improve their relationship by direct engagement with one another. By alleviating some of Iran’s gravest security concerns and demonstrating firm political commitments with regards sanctions relief in exchange for curbing Tehran’s nuclear developments, it may be possible to accommodate Iran’s interests outside the nuclear weapons option.  

[1] See: Narang, Vipin (2022) Seeking the Bomb: Strategies of Nuclear Proliferation. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 381 pp.

[2] Albright, David et al. (2021) “Highlights of Iran’s Perilous Pursuit of Nuclear Weapons”. Institute for Science and International Security Report, 25.08.2021. P. 14.

[3] Albright, David, Sarah Burkhard and John Hannah (2022) “Iran’s Natanz Tunnel Complex: Deeper, Larger than Expected”. Institute for Science and International Security Report, 13.01.2022.

[4] Albright, David and Sarah Burkhard (2022) “More Demolition at the Marivan Former Nuclear Weapons Development Site”. Institute for Science and International Security Report, 01.03.2022. P. 1.

[5] Albright et al. (2021).

[6] Addressing the Iranian Missile Threat: A Regional Approach to Risk Reduction and Arms Control. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, March 2022. URL:

[7] Vahdat, Amir and Jon Gambrell (2022) Iran’s Revolutionary Guard says it launches 2nd satellite. Associated Press, 8.03.2022. Available:

[8] КСИР взял на себя ответственность за ракетный удар по Эрбилю. КоммерсантЪ, 13.03.2022. Available:

[9] Hafezi, Parisa, John Irish and Francois Murphy (2022) U.S., Iran at loggerheads over nuclear deal after Russian interruption. Reuters, 10.03.2022. Available:

[10] Norman, Laurence (2022) Iran Nuclear Deal’s Final Hurdle Is Lifting Terrorism Sanctions on Revolutionary Guards. The Wall Street Journal, 21.03.2022. URL:

[11] Politi, James (2022) Iran nuclear talks stumble as US rebuffs Russian demands. Financial Times, 13.03.2022. URL:

[12] See: Albright, David, Sarah Burkhard and Spencer Faragasso (2021) “A Comprehensive Survey of Iran’s

Advanced Centrifuges”. Institute for Science and International Security Report, 02.12.2021.

[13] See: “Politics, Paranoia and Pride: Iranian Security Policy under President Raisi”, available on Youtube:

[14] NPT Safeguards Agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Report by the Director General of the IAEA, GOV/2022/5. URL:

[15] Tirone, Jonathan (2022) Iran Eliminates Some Weapons Potential in Uranium Stockpile. Bloomberg, 17.03.2022. URL:,nuclear%20agreement%20with%20world%20powers.

[16] Desiderio, Andrew (2022) Dems start questioning Biden admin’s Iran nuclear talks. Politico, 22.03.2022. URL:

[17] Albright et al. (2021).