The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Structural Realist View

Tuesday, April 5th, 2016

While a traditional structural realist approach will conclude that the Iranian nuclear is deal disadvantageous to the relative power position of the U.S., an alternative view into the theory can be used to explain the agreement’s strategic significance and logic.


The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, was negotiated between Iran and six Western powers—the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. President Barack Obama argues that “because America negotiated from a position of strength and principle,” the deal successfully constrains Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons and thus strengthens the security of the United States. However, when analyzed from the perspective of structural realism—a realist theory of international relations which postulates that structural constraints determine the behavior of major players—it can be argued that it is not in the interest of the U.S. to cooperate with Iran and the other countries. According to traditional interpretations of this theory, it’s advantageous for the U.S. to instead pursue a unilateral, competitive policy on the issue. Even though the deal limits Iran’s nuclear capabilities for ten years, it will empower it in other ways. The deal will remove international sanctions and enable Iran to integrate back to the global economy, among other benefits, which is likely to strengthen its relative power regionally and internationally. In addition, the competitors of the U.S., such as Russia and China, are likely to benefit from the deal through oil market implications and the ability to engage in arms trade with Iran. While a traditional structural realist approach will conclude that these aspects make the Iranian nuclear deal disadvantageous to the relative power position of the U.S., an alternative view into the theory can be used to explain the agreement’s strategic significance and logic.

The basic assumption in structural realism is that the international system is anarchic, lacking an ultimate authority with ability to enforce agreements or order. States act as unitary rational actors and primarily aim to achieve a secure position in the international community. They view each other as “black boxes,” with a focus on their external actions, and leave out considerations related to internal characteristics of their competitors, such as governance system, personalities of decision makers, and cultural environment and norms. In the traditional structural realist view, states’ main concerns are the relative gains that competing states might achieve, as well as the problem of cheating over agreed rules or regimes. This results in a self-help system, where states provide their own security, compete with other states, and only rarely find a path for cooperation.

However, when analyzing the deal in the light of the arguments that Charles Glaser makes in his article “Realists as Optimists: Cooperation as Self-Help,” it is possible to reach an alternative conclusion. His theory is relevant to the circumstances of the deal, as it focuses on peacetime, defines “cooperation” as coordinated policies that avoid arms races (which the Iran deal aims to do), and “competition” as unilateral military buildups and alliance formation. Glaser challenges the traditional view and argues that the basic assumptions of structural realism do not lead inevitably to competition. He states that “under a wide range of conditions, adversaries can best achieve their security goals through cooperative policies, not competitive ones, and should, therefore, choose cooperation when these conditions prevail.” Glaser’s analysis introduces three arguments that show how structural realist assumptions will actually predict state cooperation, rather than competition. Each of these can be applied to the Iran nuclear deal, creating a logical framework to support the assumption that the outcome of the deal can be positive for all sides, and particularly to the U.S.

First, Glaser argues that cooperative policies are an important form of self-help. If a competitive arms race is seen as a risk—in the case of the Iran, a nuclear arms race encompassing the Middle East—then reciprocal constraint will be beneficial to both sides. Especially if the outcome of the arms race is uncertain, the risk of ending up in a more disadvantageous military position will be a genuine threat. Even if the outcome is certain, the competition could result in technological development that would be even more destructive, leaving all sides more vulnerable if these capabilities are deployed. Lastly, Glaser points out that uncertainty about motives can also make cooperation more rational than competition, as “cooperation is valuable if it reduces the adversary’s insecurity by reducing the military threat if faces.”

In Iran’s case, the U.S. and its allies see the Iranian nuclear threat as a clear security concern, as well as realize the possibility of a nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. Despite the superiority of the American military and its ability to support its allies, it is evident that the West does not have a complete knowledge of Iran’s capabilities. Thus, these countries cannot be fully certain of the outcome if a military conflict breaks out. Cooperation through the nuclear deal, in this case, is more advantageous than a competitive approach towards Iran. With regard to the last point, the nuclear agreement will diminish the military threat that Iran faces, since giving up its nuclear program eliminates many of the motivations for states to launch an offensive attack against it. Despite uncertainty about Iran’s motivations, the agreement creates stability and room for cooperation through reducing Iran’s insecurity.

Glaser’s second argument has to do with the fact that “security is much more closely correlated with mission capabilities than with power.” States, in order to increase security, should consider their ability to turn political influence into military mission capability in the context of the current policy options. With these conditions, cooperative options can outweigh competitive ones as more desirable and feasible. In the case of Iran, several sources—from the interviews of American military leaders to actually implemented war games—demonstrate that an attack against Iran would be “a counterproductive failure.” The U.S. and other states can use the rhetoric of keeping military options on the table (representing a competitive approach) but when the issue is considered from a purely military perspective, it is clear that there are limitations to carrying out a successful offensive mission. Thus, arms control and cooperation through the Iran nuclear agreement is the preferable policy option for the U.S.

Glaser’s third argument is that military policies can be used as a communication tool and that security-seeking states should certify that “its adversary understands that its motivations are benign,” providing a reason for the competitor state to reassess its motives and intentions. This means that “countries should sometimes exercise self-restraint and pursue cooperative military policies, because these policies can convince a rational opponent to revise favorably its views of the country’s motives.” The Iran nuclear deal represents a cooperative policy that gives concessions to Iran and provides an incentive for the country to change its confrontational foreign policy towards the West. Glaser argues that through eventually lifting the arms sanctions, the deal makes it possible for Iran to provide for its own defense, which also creates regional stability. In addition, cooperation through the nuclear agreement will give the U.S. more flexibility in positioning its military resources, and possibly support the future disentanglement from the region, which might be a part of the U.S. long-term strategy and national interest.

When Glaser’s perspective on structural realism are applied to the Iran nuclear deal, it is evident that it is in the interest of the U.S. to cooperate with Iran and other Western powers. In the long term, the deal will strengthen the relative power and security of the U.S. both regionally in the greater Middle East and internationally.

Henrietta Toivanen is an undergraduate at Claremont McKenna College, majoring in Biophysics and International Relations, and is originally from Kuopio, Finland. She has held positions at Aon Global Risk Consulting, the Atlantic Council, and Crisis Management Centre Finland.