State Identities and Foreign Policy Change: the Logic and Political Dynamics of Iran's Nuclear Policy-Making, 2002-2015

Date of Award

December 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Mehrzad Boroujerdi

Second Advisor

Matthew Cleary


Foreign Policy, Iran, Nuclear Nonproliferation, Nuclear Policy, Nuclear Proliferation

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


This research studies the changing patterns of accommodation and resistance in Iranian nuclear policy from 2002, when its nuclear issue was internationalized, to 2015, when Iran and major world powers reached the comprehensive nuclear deal, known as the JCPOA. By developing and applying a synthetic analytic framework, this dissertation explains Iran’s nuclear policy shifts over this period in terms of the changing power dynamics between the two competing state identity discourses of “revolutionary-Islamic” and “moderate-Islamic” within Iran’s political space.

Through a two-stage analysis employing discourse analysis, content analysis, and process-tracing techniques, I first demonstrate how Iran’s nuclear policy preferences were shaped by the two main rival national self discourses operating in its political space. This involves illustrating how Iranian political elites’ understandings of the foreign policy situation and their cost conceptions and levels of sensitivity to costs on the nuclear issue, or, more broadly, their understandings of Iran’s national interests, were defined by their respective national self-conceptions. At the second stage, I examine the processes and political dynamics in which competing preferences were translated into policies. This entails the analysis of situation-relevant systemic (mainly economic sanctions and military threats) and domestic political, economic, and institutional variables that interacted with and affected the relative power positions of competing policy discourses.

I find that when the revolutionary-Islamic discourse was dominant, Iran resisted compromise with Western powers and exhibited a higher tolerance for economic and physical security costs. In contrast, when the moderate-Islamic discourse was politically empowered, Iran showed greater sensitivity to economic and physical security costs and was more inclined toward accommodation and compromise with Western powers over its nuclear program. However, given the fragmented nature of Iran’s political system and the continuous influence of the revolutionary-Islamic discourse through unelected institutions, Iranian nuclear policy reflected compromise and bargaining between elected and unelected power centers when the moderate-reformists controlled elected institutions. This factor, coupled with the shared elements of both discourses, explains why full accommodation did not become a thinkable and viable policy option for Iran when the moderate-reformists were in power.

Apart from the institutional setup of Iran’s political system, systemic and other domestic political and economic variables also affected the relative power positions of competing discourses to variable degrees. I find that when controlling Iran’s elected political institutions, the moderate-reformists’ domestic bargaining power was reinforced by external military threats, economic sanctions, the oil-dependent nature of Iran’s economy, and the extent of Iran’s nuclear progress. The revolutionary-Islamic groups instead were assisted mainly by their monopoly control over all policy-making institutions, external balancing opportunities, and domestic public opinion to sustain their favorite nuclear policy of resistance. Overall, this research reveals an interactive relationship between systemic variables and state identity discourses in Iranian nuclear policy-making. Rather than having automatic and inevitable effects on Iran’s nuclear choices, systemic variables became politically salient to Iran’s nuclear policy only when situated in a favorable domestic socio-cognitive structure.


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