"Let’s assume, for starters, that Iran’s theocrats are determined to acquire nuclear weapons. Western analysts say there is no evidence yet that the supreme leader has made that decision. But if you ruled a country surrounded by unfriendly neighbors — Persians among the Arabs, Shiites among the Sunnis — a country with a grand sense of self-esteem, a tendency to paranoia and five nuclear powers nearby, wouldn’t you want the security of your own nuclear arsenal?"
Two factors stand out from Keller’s point. First, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, does have sway over the situation; indeed, in 2005 he issued a fatwa that bans nuclear weapons under Islamic Law. Iranian authorities point to this religious decree as strong evidence that Iran is not moving towards developing nuclear weapons and cite a lack of cultural awareness between the West and the Islamic Republic as a main source of tension. Some Western analysts, however, do not trust the veracity of Iran’s claims and feel that the Supreme Leader is merely attempting to outwit the West.
Beyond the involvement of the Supreme Leader, is Keller correct when he attaches strategic importance to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons? An interactive map on Al Jazeera, last updated in May of 2012, shows the extent to which Iran is surrounded by American bases:
American forces line the coast of Saudi Arabi and the Emirates, and the U.S. also has significant troop presence in Afghanistan. Moreover, Iran shares a border to the southeast with Pakistan, a nuclear state, and is also geographically close to Israel, which, though unacknowledged, possess approximately 200 nuclear warheads and has consistently taken an aggressive stance towards Iran. Clearly, Keller’s argument that Iran may feel threatened is quite logical.
The point here is not to justify Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons, but to identify an important strategic explanation why Iran might pursue nuclear weapons. Iran, surrounded by U.S. forces and threatened from the west by a nuclear Israel, could be interested in developing nuclear weapons with its own security interests in mind.