Neorealism & The 2015 Iran Deal. By: Shakiba Fadaie.

Note: In this post, I use the words structural realism and neorealism interchangeably.

Overview of the Iran Deal

In a controversial article sparking debate among international relation scholars, Kenneth Waltz defends the Iranian endeavor towards a nuclear bomb. Waltz published his piece in the journal of Foreign Affairs in 2012, approximately three years before the Iran Deal. Now, six years after Waltz’ publication, little optimism remains after United States President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Iran Deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), on May 8th 2018. The JCPOA was a deal between Iran, the P5+1[1] and the European Union. In short, the agreement cut Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium by 98%, reduced its number of gas centrifuges by two thirds and allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the right to inspections of Iranian test.[2] In exchange, the six countries and the EU would lift sanctions imposed on Iran that greatly hindered its access to the global market. Lifting of nuclear-related economic sanctions allowed Iran to recover approximately $100 billion of its assets frozen in overseas banks[3].

Kenneth Waltz’s Take

Kenneth Waltz, having written the “Why Iran should get the Bomb” three years before the Iran deal, makes the claim that Iran’s attainment of the bomb would most likely “restore stability to the Middle East.”[4] He argues that by developing a bomb, Iran finally puts an end to Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly, which has long “fueled instability in the Middle East.”[5] Waltz uses historical records and North Korea’s current situation to argue that sanctions implemented on Iran fail to deter Iran’s building of the bomb. He goes further to say economic pressures may instill feelings of isolation within Iran, furthering their interest in nuclear development, hence being counterproductive to the Western agenda. Waltz explores the option of Iran going ahead with nuclear development, however, Waltz argues this is not undesirable, since it can “produce more regional and international stability.”[6] Ultimately, if Iran goes nuclear, deterrence on a global scale will apply, and the power balance is restored in the Middle East. Quickly, it becomes evident that Kenneth Waltz is looking through a neorealist lens to prove his argument that where “nuclear capabilities emerge, so, too, does stability.”[7]

Neorealism, also known as structural realism, postulates that great powers and states are the major players in international society. Using power as the currency of international politics, structural realism examines structural constraints within the international system. Specifically, structural realism rests on the premise that states operate in an anarchic system, where centralized authority is simply nonexistent. Due to this, states are constantly in a position to seek gaining relative power and pursuing animus dominandi, or their desire for power as mentioned by Hans Morgenthau. A prominent neorealist, Morgenthau published in 1984 that “international politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power.” [8] This ultimately leads to what realists refer to a “self-help” system, where states rely solely on themselves to ensure survival – furthering competition with other states.

For Kenneth Waltz, a prominent structural realist, Iran’s attainment of a nuclear weapon is simply a natural progression towards a regional balance of power. It strengthens the relative power and security for not only the United States, but regionally in the Middle East as well. This can be brought back to the concept of the security dilemma, a term coined by John H. Herz. The security dilemma, in simple terms, means that the steps one state takes towards security (usually through strengthening military or building nuclear arms) leads another state to feel less secure, hence triggering the second state to also take actions to feel more secure. In turn, the first state then feels less secure. For Waltz and John Mearshimer alike, this is completely natural in an anarchic international system, and leads to stabilization. Through mutually possessing the power to cause mass destruction, Iran and Israel use internal balancing to reach a desired outcome of peace and stability.  If more states possess the ability to use nuclear arms offensively, these powers balance one another and states are less likely to pursue destructive warfare. This is the driving point of Watlz’ article. The rise of one hegemon in the Middle East, with no counter balancing force is particularly dangerous to neorealists such as Waltz.

Can structural realism support the Iran Deal?

          Application of Waltz’ theory of structural realism to the Iran nuclear crisis indicates that Waltz supports Iran obtaining nuclear power. However, I pose a potential argument against the neorealist perspective. If one takes a cost-benefit analysis approach to the Iran Deal, an argument can be made that the Iran deal is a more desirable outcome rather than the possibility of Iran developing arms. Firstly, the JCPOA aligned with American raison d’état (national interest) of the United States by stopping Iran from developing weapon grade uranium. Weapon grade uranium is approximately 90%, and Iran must keep enrichment to 3.7%.[9] We can also note that uranium enrichment used for medicinal practice is 20% enriched, which demonstrates the severe level of restriction Iran faces. Through the IAEA inspections, transparency is encouraged between Iran and the US and US can further use Iran to promote its political interests within the region. The deal also lifts a tremendous amount of sanctions – as mentioned above – re-establishing Iran as a major player in the oil trade and international market. Bringing in huge profits, the Iranian government and people also benefit greatly through the JCPOA since it puts an end to years of economic turmoil for Iranian citizens. Through the structural realist lens, Iran is still achieving stability through economic development and improvement. Iran can also work on strengthening its military, furthering its power in the Middle East, and supporting Iranian pursuit for influence. The deal also outweighs alternatives such as the use of hard power or an attack on Iran, which could forever damage the political climate of the Middle East. Through the neorealist lens of International Relations, all states are rational actors that must act rationally. However, if a rational actor conducted a cost-benefit analysis of the Iran Deal, it is a far more fruitful alternative than potential war.

In response to this, I counter argue that the Iran deal demonized the idea of Iran going nuclear, and saw it as something that needed to be stopped immediately. It also failed to establish a bipolar balance between Israel and Iran in the Middle East. A bipolar Middle East is by far more stable than Israel’s present nuclear monopoly, as the principle of deterrence would diminish all incentives for either side to wage war. My perspective would surely be supported by structural realists such as Kenneth Waltz, however, other International relations theorists may place greater importance on international cooperation. The English School would be a great example of this, as discussed by Tim Dunne in International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity. The English School in general would place value on informational institutionalism, such as the signing of treaties, peace talks and overall diplomacy. [10] The battle between contesting theories will continuously persist, however, it is time that may truly dictate Iran’s fate in the atomic twenty first century.




[1] P5+1 refers to the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States) plus Germany.

[2] UN Security Council, Security Council resolution 2231 (2015) [on Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear programme], 20 July 2015, available at: [accessed 13 October 2018]

[3] Jackie Northam, “Lifting Sanctions Will Release $100 Billion To Iran. Then What?”, All Things Considered, NPR (16 July 2015).

[4] Kenneth Waltz “Why Iran should get the bomb,” Foreign Affairs, 91(4): 2-5 Waltz. 2015

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Morgenthau, Hans J., 1954. Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, 2nd ed., New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

[9] UN Security Council, Security Council resolution 2231 (2015) [on Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear programme], 20 July 2015, available at: [accessed 13 October 2018]

[10] Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith International Relations Theories: Discipline and Diversity, 3rd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.


One Reply to “Neorealism & The 2015 Iran Deal. By: Shakiba Fadaie.”

  1. Great article Shakiba.
    I agree the Israeli nuclear monopoly is the greatest danger to the Middle East. Your article perfectly explains the realist perspective, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    All the best to you,

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