Nuclear Diversion Theory and Legitimacy Crisis: The Case of Iran


  • Acknowledgements: Earlier versions of this article were presented at the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination (LISD)'s Annual Colloquium on Religion, Diplomacy and International Relations (PORDIR) and at the 2012 British International Studies Association and the International Studies Association Joint International Conference. I thank Jeff Abel, Ali Ansari, L. Carl Brown, Wolfgang F. Danspeckgruber, Azar Gat, Emily Landau, Amir Lupovici, Scott Sagan, and Avraham Sela, as well as the anonymous reviewers and the editors of Politics & Policy, for their helpful comments and guidance.


Can an insecure regime use nuclear diversion to address its eroding domestic legitimacy? This article argues that facing a domestic legitimacy crisis, a regime might opt to “rally round the nuclear flag” to survive. Theoretically, I argue that, compared with conventional diversion, nuclear diversion is less susceptible to structural restraints, has a unique symbolic value that could aid in coping with an acute legitimacy crisis, and spans a host of diversionary strategies as it ascends the escalation ladder, both before and after acquiring the bomb. The theory is examined empirically via Iranian nuclear policy. I argue that facing a deepening legitimacy crisis, the Iranian regime, throughout Ahmadinejad's tenure, has been increasingly drawing on nuclear diversion to boost public support and that, if the legitimacy crisis lingers, the regime may opt to further employ diversionary nuclear strategies, most of which require a viable “nuclear latency,” rather than actual military nuclear capability.

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Ripberger, Joseph T., Thomas M. Rabovsky, and Kerry G. Herron. 2011. “Public Opinion and Nuclear Zero: A Domestic Constraint on Ditching the Bomb.” Politics & Policy 39 (6): 891-923. Kane, John, and Haig Patapan. 2010. “Recovering Justice: Political Legitimacy Reconsidered.” Politics & Policy 38 (3): 589-610. Darvich, Djamchid, and W. R. Campbell. 1982. “Mobilization, Participation and Governance in an Authoritarian Setting: Iran under the Shah and under Ayatollah Khomeini.” Southeastern Political Review 10 (1): 37-87.

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Kurzman, Charles. 2009. “Reading Weber in Tehran.” Chronicle of Higher Education. July 18. BBC News Africa. 2011. “Libya: Gaddafi Blames Osama Bin Laden for Protests.” BBC Online. February 24.


¿Puede el régimen iraní utilizar la duda que alienta sobre la finalidad estrictamente civil de su programa nuclear para distraer la atención de la erosión de su legitimidad? Este artículo sugiere que al enfrentar una crisis de legitimidad un régimen puede optar por abanderar la causa nuclear para sobrevivir. El artículo destaca que la distracción nuclear es menos susceptible a restricciones estructurales que otros tipos convencionales de distracción pues tiene un valor simbólico que puede ayudar a enfrentar una aguda crisis de legitimidad e involucra una variedad de estrategias de distracción, que están disponibles antes y después de escalar a la fase de adquisición de la bomba. La teoría es examinada en la política nuclear iraní. Consecuentemente se argumenta que el régimen iraní, durante la administración de Ahmadinejad, al enfrentar una cada vez más profunda crisis de legitimidad ha recurrido crecientemente a la distracción nuclear para incrementar el apoyo público y que de persistir la crisis, el régimen optaría por cuanta estrategia de distracción le permita el “estado latente” de su política nuclear, sea cual fuere su capacidad militar nuclear real.