The Course From Cyrus to “Taqqiya”

By Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

This article is forthcoming in the Winter 2012 issue of the Tehran-based International Politics Journal. For a full copy of the article please contact author directly at


The question of whether Iran will make the bomb is a vexed one. In balance are the unrelenting sanctions, the inexorable push to pariah status and the imminence of military action on the one hand, while on the other, is a chimerical power status that not only serves to satisfy civilizational urges but also fulfils its perceived destiny as the dominant regional player. This article examines the impact of Iran’s “national character,” as inferred through the prism of history and contemporary polity, on the current nuclear crisis and thereafter scans the larger strategic context that Iran is faced with. The article concludes with a short-term prognostication.

Keywords: Asymmetric warfare, Break-out capability, IAEA and Iran, Iran nuclear program and proliferation, Iran strategic context, National character, Persian vs. Islamic identity, US-Iran relations.


Introduction: The Weight and Substance of History

In 539 BCE, one of the most successful yet extraordinary sieges in the history of warfare was brought to conclusion when Cyrus the Great invested Babylon. Cyrus was an emperor of a mould that the ancient world had not witnessed. Rather than a head-on against an impregnable yet magnificent fortification, he chose not just the timing (to penetrate the city defences during a period of night long festivities and revelry) but also to harness nature by diverting the Euphrates as it coursed through the city and entering when the river level fell below its walls unchallenged. The city, historians report, fell without any significant resistance.

Babylon was the Jewel in Cyrus’s crown. His Achaemenid Empire now spanned from the Indus in the East to Sardis and Lydia in Asia Minor and Egypt in the West. What characterized Cyrus’ empire and gave it distinct features that set it apart from the empires of antiquity was its tolerance, its abhorrence of barbarity and pillage and most importantly the setting up of a humane organisational and administrative core. All this was embodied in training and Persian polity, which was sensitive to the historical and diverse cultural context within which the Empire flourished and drew sustenance.


And what of the other Gulf States and neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia, which on 10th February 2012 gave notice of its elaborate nuclear programme and did not rule out a weapons agenda? While this may have a domino effect on regional proliferation, it could also develop into a deterrent relationship in-region through the removal of nuclear inequity (an idea whose time may well have arrived). The difficulty with a resolution that takes such a tack is the conflict that it will arouse with the status quo powers that are more than likely to ensure that the current balance is not upset even if it means resort to a conventional clash. The more pressing anxiety is the coming of the next nuclear age when erosion of proliferation regimes presents increased probability of clandestine networks delivering the bomb to non-state actors, at which time prevention and pre-emption, are the only rejoinders. Despite the Byzantine nature of things, Iran has persevered with the belief that the most credible way to counter and buttress non-intervention in regional affairs is to attain nuclear weapon status. Notwithstanding this conviction, she has skillfully avoided a head on situation with the USA. Iran has also observed certain clear redlines when supporting militias in the Middle East in terms of hardware supplied and the groups supported. In their nuclear policy, Iran has found the means to challenge the USA in the latter’s contradictory approach to countering proliferation; of invading Iraq, cutting a deal with Pakistan, imposing sanctions on Iran, seeking a regime change in North Korea and indeed, turning a blind eye to Israel. In this unpredictable setting, nuclear weapons or even an unambiguous break out capability not only provides balance to a strategic posture but would also extract more concessions and more incentives from America and the West. The fact that Iran has progressed uranium enrichment levels from 3.5% to near 20% and has stockpiled over 1000 kg of low enriched uranium,29 while within the stipulations of the NPT, would suggest that Iran may well build for itself an unremitting ‘break out’ capability stopping a step short of weaponizing and yet at the same time giving notice of a looming potential.

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