Is Iran a Rogue State?

by Peter Jenkins

Speaking on 12 February about the latest North Korean nuclear test, the outgoing US Defense Secretary said (according to the BBC): “We’re going to have to continue with rogue states like Iran and North Korea.” Does Iran deserve to be bracketed with North Korea? Is Iran a rogue state?

Unlike North Korea, Iran has remained a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It has continued to submit to international inspection the nuclear material in its possession. It has never expelled the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It has never tested a nuclear explosive device. It is assessed to be acquiring a capability to make nuclear weapons, but to be undecided and open to persuasion to refrain from their manufacture.

In a 1994 issue of Foreign Affairs, the US National Security Adviser of the time argued that, to be classified as a rogue, a state had to commit four transgressions: pursue weapons of mass destruction (WMD), support terrorism, severely abuse its own citizens, and stridently criticize the United States.

It is questionable whether Iran is pursuing WMD. Ten years ago, Western officials believed that Iran sought nuclear weapons. Since late 2007, there is growing support for the thesis that Iran is developing, as other Non-Nuclear Weapon States have done, the ability to try for nuclear weapons if it sees advantage in doing so — a different matter, legally and practically.

Evidence for the pursuit of chemical (CW), biological, and toxin weapons, is scant to non-existent. Having been gassed by Western-supplied Iraqi troops in the 1980s, the Iranians developed CW technologies and built production facilities, but they abandoned the program when they decided to adhere to the CW Convention in 1998.

Support for terrorism is another matter. There is ample evidence of Iranian support for groups that the US government regards as “terrorist”. But an old saying — “one man’s terrorist is another’s resistance hero” — is not irrelevant, since the main beneficiaries of Iranian support have been Hezbollah and Hamas (neither of which is considered “terrorist” by the vast majority of UN member states).

Iran’s Islamic government treats political dissidents badly and has the blood of thousands of political opponents on its hands, albeit mainly from the first decade of its existence. Iranians enjoy far greater freedom, and are more empowered, than North Koreans, but being politically active outside the system can cost them dearly.

A Strident critic of the US? Guilty as charged. But ought that to be a criterion of roguishness in the US, a democracy that cherishes freedom of speech?

As it happens, in June 2000 Iran was cleared of the rogue state charge by no less an authority than the then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright.

Of course, verbally abusing Iran as a “rogue state” would be of no import if the West had no need of some sort of understanding with Iran about the future scope of its nuclear program.

That is not the case, however. Instead, it has become ever clearer that a nuclear understanding with Iran is in the West’s interest. Western diplomats used to imagine that they could dispense with dialogue and negotiation. Sanctions or the use of force would put a stop to Iran’s development of dual-use technologies and its exploitation of loop-holes in the NPT. Few still harbor that illusion.

Imposing sanctions has failed to bend Iran to the West’s will; at best, it has created a pile of chips that can be exchanged for Iranian concessions in a nuclear negotiation.

And using force no longer looks appealing. The cost/benefit calculation has evolved. The potential reckoning is not quite as grim as in the North Korean case, where the use of force could provoke the obliteration of much of Seoul. But the risk that Iran would retaliate, if attacked, by destroying Saudi desalination plants and oil terminals is a major deterrent, and that is not the only concern.

Verbal abuse could also be ignored if Iran’s leaders had shown themselves indifferent to it. The evidence, however, points in the opposite direction. As recently as 7 February, Iran’s Supreme Leader warned the US against imagining that any form of aggression would conduce to a nuclear settlement.

I have been dipping into a book written by Senator William Fulbright in 1966: The Arrogance of Power. Worried by the worsening situation in South East Asia, and the absence of formal relations with Communist China, the Senator regrets several tendencies: seeing China as the embodiment of an evil and frightening idea; “dehumanising” the Chinese adversary; interpreting information to fit negative preconceptions; and avoiding communication for fear of “giving something away”. He calls on his fellow-countrymen, instead, to treat China with “the magnanimity that befits a great [US] nation”. “Bellicosity is a mark of weakness and self-doubt.” “The true mark of greatness is magnanimity.”

The US is still a great nation. Can it bring itself to treat Iran with magnanimity?

Photo Credit: A. Davey

Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. And tell us, whatever good came from place called Israel. Whole ME lives in horrors of wars and permanent preparednes for wars….And Israels undeclared arsenal of WMD?
    What good gave Israel to World????
    Was there any so called Muslim terrorism before 1948?, and attack on King david Hotel was not that bithplace of ME terrorism?
    Iran is Real country with its regime, towsends years did not change borders, over 200 years did not attack anybody, has biggest population /25000/of Jews living in harmony with muslims….No need to go on…. peter czech

  2. “The US is still a great nation. Can it bring itself to treat Iran with magnanimity?”

    Momma always said, “Great nations are as great nations do.”

    = = = =
    Richard Resnick wrote, “What has Iran given to the world?”

    The Cyrus Cylinder will be on display in several cities in the US starting Mar 9, 2013, in Washington, DC.
    The Cyrus Cylinder, dated to the 6th century BC, records the first declaration of international human rights.

    If you prefer cutting edge technology to ancient heritage, be aware that Iranian nanotechnology has developed a device that can arrest cancel cells in pancreas, prostate, etc. by delivering oxygen in targeted locations and doses.

    But maybe you’re not threatened with cancer.

    For routine medical care, Iranians have developed a system of home health care that is so effective that the US state of Mississippi has invited Iranians to implement the program in that state. Perhaps they could call it “IraniansCare.”

  3. Mr. Resnick- It is too bad that your understanding of Iran- and not only of its current polity, but also its history and culture- is so limited, and that you have not been able to visit and travel the country and meet its people, including its leaders. There is enough silliness to go around, including our conflated “war on terror”, which might be more aptly described as our war of aggression on “terra”. I doubt Iran will collapse for many decades to come.
    Given the pressure that has been forced upon it, it still continues to develop and grow and establish broader and deeper relationships with its neighbors in trade, investment- including in its infrastructure- and cultural exchange. These are missed opportunities the U.S. should instead have been affording itself through a better relationship with Iran. It would only result in greater prosperity and stability for both our nations and the rest of the world.

  4. @Richard. From my readings over the past year or so, Iran is anything but a ‘backwards’ nation. Being able to successfully take over and land a sophisticated US drone, build hitech helicopters, build the longest inner city tunnel in the world to World standards, develop a medical outreach system that there people are now helping the state of Mississipe implement, etc. I really recommend the book “Going To Tehran” you can read about it and the authors at this site:

  5. The terrorist regime of the Islamic Republic rules through terror and state fascism. A regime that is the world’s greatest sponsor of terror and is a pariah regime is most definitely a rogue state. A state which is ruled through an illiterate “Supreme Leader” who is “only answerable to god” is the definition of a fascist theocracy. A regime in which the Guardian Council vets the other positions of government ensuring that any individual running for any kind of office is part of the Islamic establishment and is fanatic and Islamist enough is indeed a rogue state. Iranians envision the day in which Iranians can too live in freedom and human dignity so that the values and cultural mores of the Iranian people can once again shine. The last 34+ years has been very dark and horrible indeed… let’s hope the end is near for this regime. For the sake of the Iranian people, for the sake of humanity and world security.

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