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Iran And Libya: Chasing The Nuclear Bomb – Analysis


By Ruhee Neog

With an intervention spurred by questionable motives underway in North Africa and a nuclear deliberations impasse between the P5+1 and Iran, one may ask: What of Iranian denuclearization? What effects, if any, will these developments have on Iran’s nuclear programme and its alleged pursuit of the bomb? Will Iran hasten the acquisition process? Or will it rest somewhat assured that its supposed weaponizing potential will help secure a bargain with the US without having to physically acquire nuclear capability? What measures can be taken to break the stalemated nuclear negotiations?

Speculations remain rife. In its capacity as an internationally appointed ‘rogue’ state, Iran and its nuclear politics have a disquietingly regular habit of grabbing headlines. This time though, with Japan and Libya vying for analytical space, Iran’s outstanding issues have been temporarily relegated to the backburner. However, its spectral presence in all strategic calculations cannot be dismissed lightly. In March this year, The Daily Telegraph reported Iranian plans for importing uranium ore from Zimbabwe. The report derived from leaked IAEA testimonials, which suggested that a group of Iranian foreign and trade ministers secretly visited Mugabe’s regime to cement the deal, in the wake of a trip by Iranian engineers who were sent to assess the veracity of Zimbabwe’s uranium deposits. Sanctions against both countries were condemned by their respective representatives as indicative of the hegemonic intentions of the US. On the other hand, those opposed to the move emphasized the dangers posed by a sub-culture of mutually beneficial alliances between pariah nations. By ignoring the sanctions imposed on it, Iran has chosen to stick a symbolic middle finger in the general direction of the West. It is noted with consternation that these events unfold, as mentioned earlier, against the backdrop of failed nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran in Istanbul in January 2011, and the international community’s incoherent intervention in Libya. Iran, it can be said with certainty, is quietly watching.


Events witnessed in Istanbul during negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran were rather bleak, and prognosticated this analysis. Iran was caustic in its pronouncement: The negotiating states wanted to dictate terms to Iran, instead of engaging in dialogue, which was wholly unacceptable to them. Iranian ‘prerequisites’ were the lifting of sanctions and a recognition of its right to enrich uranium. Without these it declared there would be no movement. The P5+1 negotiators were hoping to achieve a compromise on issues such as a new nuclear fuel swap agreement, previous instances of which had failed to see the light of day. The Iranians wanted the freedom to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, as stipulated in the NPT, and removal of targeted UN sanctions, before commencing discussion on other issues. Given the parallel agendas of both sides, it is no wonder that a stalemate was quite effectively reached. If anything, these talks reinforce the notion that that Iranian denuclearization is an unrealistic aim.

Iran has made its intentions evident. It will not abandon its nuclear programme, as demonstrated by its agreement with Zimbabwe, until various conditions are met, which the P5+1 are unwilling to concede. The implications of the intervention in Libya must therefore also be viewed in conjunction with the threat of a nuclear Iran. The Libyan intervention is significant because the display of military capabilities is not confined to the narrative of Libya alone. It is undoubtedly also a provocation; a warning of possible responses to sustained intransigence. As an ultimatum, therefore, it could spark off a spectrum of reactions in Iran, all of which have the potential to reach the same conclusion:

  • Fear of similar repercussions may lead to either an increased willingness for real dialogue over its nuclear programme or accelerated efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon
  • Derision for military maneuvers if the mission in Libya falters, which could consequently lead to renewed confidence in bending the international community to its will. Again, this may or may not involve a greater push towards nuclearization as a pressure tactic

Thus, both fear and confidence, two dissimilar emotions, could reach the same end: a reinvigorated push towards the acquisition of a nuclear weapon, perceived as the only bargaining tool capable of detaining military activity and winning compromises from the international community. The likelihood of this argument gaining primacy is not small and the argument could run thus: “Gaddafi was made to give up Libyan nuclear assets in exchange for the end of international isolation, and look what happened to him.”

If getting Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions is unrealistic and if the Libyan crisis only strengthens Iranian pursuit of the bomb, the order of business has to reprioritized. What about rapprochement along the lines of limited uranium enrichment in Iran in return for closer IAEA inspections, followed by discussions on a fuel swap agreement? It is certainly an idea worth considering. The four UN sanctions against Iran which demand an immediate halt of uranium enrichment, until it answers all questions regarding weaponization efforts, is another issue that can be pursued after some form of détente is achieved. It cannot be expected to occur if both sides maintain an immovable stance.
Ruhee Neog
Research Officer, IPCS
email: [email protected]

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IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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