U.S.-Iran Nuclear Deal: An Agreed Framework from the Prism of Constructivism and Nuclear Norms

After the 35 year long deadlock between Iran and the United States, the negotiators have successfully agreed to propose a landmark framework for a future deal. The basic contours of the framework orchestrate a win-win situation for the parties involved. For Iran, its nuclear infrastructure would not be targeted or dismantled, while at the same time, the deal aims to control and limit its options regarding the use of nuclear technology. Iran maintains its right to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear energy, but its progress on the enrichment route would be stalled for 10 years whilst giving ingress to the inspection teams for verification purposes. Transparency will thus ensure and consolidate mutual trust and minimize opportunities for Iran to make clandestine progress on its nuclear program.

Despite skepticism shown by critics over the modalities of the nuclear deal, serious concerns were also shared by the Israeli PM Netanyahu on lifting economic sanctions and limiting the scope of the agreement by excluding Iran’s missile program. Nonetheless, the experts in the background are working on the technical aspects, and political leadership in Iran and the United States are wary of creating greater barriers to acceptability in their respective legislative bodies. Having said that – the nuclear deal (if it materializes) will prove to be a major breakthrough and an unprecedented measure of diplomacy in the history of nuclear nonproliferation.

Many blog authors have suggested the possible implications of the future deal on domestic politics, bilateral relations, and regional politics. I attempt to examine the efficacy of nonproliferation norms in motivating Iranians to sign the deal by using the constructivist tool.

The three types of nuclear nonproliferation norms help explain the efficacy of the deal from the Iranian standpoint. In case of Iran, the descriptive (what states actually do) and injunctive norms (what states say) come into play. Iran was making steady progress on its nuclear program, yet it claimed to benefit from the peaceful uses of nuclear technology. As with Libya, the international community was not satisfied with the Iranian position and discouraged its quest for nuclear technology. Failing to convince the world of its narrative, particularly in the midst of diplomatic isolation, Iranian policy relied on the subjective norm, the third type (what a state thinks that other states think it should do).

The status quo pattern of behavior by Iran was not serving its interests anymore; hence, Iran felt the need to reconstruct its image and fit in with the basic threshold of expectations of the world. The failure of descriptive and injunctive norms paves the way for a state to shift the status quo and reorient its national interests. In this process, there is a chance that such a state would undergo an identity shift, which would be a slow transition. Alternatively, the process may involve a tactical adjustment to achieve long-term policy objectives with a minor change from previously-held policy objectives. According to constructivism, the normative state behavior is subject to change as a result of an understanding of previous experiences. States are also hell-bent on developing social acceptability after paying big costs.

Thus, it is important to view sanctions as means to an end, and not as an end in itself. Iran faced the most stringent economic sanction regime ever imposed by the United States. This resulted in a heavy economic cost on Iran. In this regard, sanctions played a significant role in bringing Iran to the negotiating table. The further imposition or continuation of sanctions will not bring anything better than the current situation. In fact, sanctions cannot dissuade states from acquiring a weapons capability. At times, sanctions reaffirm the assertion to possess the capability, as witnessed in the cases of India and Pakistan. Diplomatic isolation, coupled with sanctions, persuaded Iran to rethink its strategic objectives and reconstruct its image to shed off the label of ‘axis of evil’ and seek security through cooperation with other world powers. Iran’s willingness to cooperate and “stand by [its] promises,” as articulated by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, communicate a normative shift in its policy objectives.


Image: U.S. Department of State, Flickr

Posted in , Iran, Negotiations, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons

Sannia Abdullah

Dr. Sannia Abdullah is a political scientist and Research Affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University. Previously, she was a Stanton Nuclear Security Post-doctoral Fellow (2017-2018) at CISAC and has also worked with Cooperative Monitoring Center, Sandia National Labs (Albuquerque, NM). Previously, she had been teaching in the department of Defense and Strategic Studies, Pakistan. Since 2016, she presented her research in ISA 2018, Atlantic Council, ISAC-ISSS-Annual Conference, and University of Notre Dame. She was invited to deliver lectures at the USAFA on Pakistan’s deterrence stability and maturing force posture. She expressed her academic views at different forums including Pentagon, Lawrence Livermore National Labs, and Congressional Budget Office and in some Think Tanks in Washington D.C. She had been a Nonproliferation Fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), in Monterey and SWAMOS alumni of Columbia University (2011). Since 2010, Dr. Abdullah has been part of several Track-II dialogues and had an opportunity to learn decision-making trends through her regular participations in Table Top Exercises exploring escalation control and deterrence stability in South Asia. Her research recently published in The Washington Quarterly, Asia Europe Journal, War on the Rocks and South Asian Voices. She is working on her book manuscript focusing on the evolution of Pakistan's nuclear behavior and its deterrence logic. Her research interests include governance, Organizations and Institutions, Military and Nuclear Policy.

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2 thoughts on “U.S.-Iran Nuclear Deal: An Agreed Framework from the Prism of Constructivism and Nuclear Norms

  1. Sannia,
    Back in the day, we believed in conventional wisdom that sanctions would not work very well if a country had a precious commodity for sale, like oil, that others needed to buy.
    Sanctions have come a long way. Iran is a textbook case of how effective they can be — even when a country has a necessary commodity to sell.
    Conventional wisdom #2 is that sanctions will not stop a country that feels it absolutely must have something. For example, Pakistan was sanctioned heavily, but its leaders felt they had to have nuclear weapons — and they got them, despite the sanctions.
    Conventional wisdom #3 (at least in DC): Iran’s leaders will obtain a nuclear arsenal. Given conventional wisdom #2, and the terms of the framework agreement, I wonder if conventional wisdom #3 is correct. Critics of the deal have no doubt about CW #3. In their view, Tehran has signed up because it will cheat, or go for the Bomb after the deal expires. I’m not convinced (yet).
    Best wishes,

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