Sherrill on Oualaalou, 'Volatile State: Iran in the Nuclear Age'

David S. Oualaalou
Cliff Sherrill

David S. Oualaalou. Volatile State: Iran in the Nuclear Age. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018. xi + 218 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-02966-9; $20.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-03118-1.

Reviewed by Cliff Sherrill (Troy University) Published on H-War (September, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

This book begins with interesting and relevant research questions: How will a nuclear-armed Iran reshape the security environment in the greater Middle East and how will this affect great power relations globally? Unfortunately, the majority of the book does not focus on these questions. Rather, the discussion deals primarily with the immediate aftermath of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly known as the “Iran nuclear deal.”  

Analysis of how Iran would use nuclear arms politically (or militarily), or how others would directly respond to a nuclear-armed Iran is limited. For example, in the slightly more than one page of analysis falling under the heading “Israel’s Point of View,” the author’s main point is that Israel should understand Iran is not going to launch a nuclear first strike against Israel. As to how Israel will deal with a nuclear Iran, the book simply notes that “Iran is within its rights to think about its security and how a nuclear Iran will eventually alter the political calculus for Israel—and for the greater Middle East, for that matter” (p. 125).

An overarching problem for this book is that, although published in 2018, its coverage only extends through mid-2016. The book does not cover the Trump administration at all (the index contains no entry for Donald Trump). This is of central importance given the work’s emphasis on the JCPOA. Under the JCPOA, multilateral sanctions were greatly relaxed and Iran was able to enter into new trade relationships internationally. Indeed, the book tends to present the JCPOA as an irreversible, epochal change reintegrating Iran into the global economy. However, President Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA in May 2018 and reinstitution of US economic and financial sanctions on Iran have had substantial effects on the Iranian economy. Although other parties to the JCPOA have refused to reinstate multilateral sanctions, the ability of the United States to threaten denial of access to US markets for firms that continue to trade with Iran has proven effective in disrupting Iran’s economic opportunities globally. It is of course unfair to level criticism at the author for not anticipating the election of Trump (almost no one did) and such is not the intent here. Rather, this is an inherent risk faced by books premised on current events.

While events have overtaken the book’s analysis of the JCPOA, the larger question of how a nuclear-armed Iran would impact international relations remains of interest. Volatile State contends that an absence of US leadership will allow Iran to gain new power in the greater Middle East, in alignment with Russia and China. Yet the book is unclear as to how this alignment is driven by or dependent upon Iranian nuclear arms. A non-nuclear Iran appears to have been proceeding this way for the past several years, relying on a combination of support for sectarian militias, terrorist organizations, and rogue regimes to extend its power. Thus the book fails to offer a clear picture of how Iranian nuclear arms will impact geopolitics of the region separately from the ongoing temporary alignment of interests among states opposed to US power. 

With the above, the author argues that China will establish stronger ties with a nuclear Iran, even predicting that it may establish military bases in Iran (pp. 6, 15, 158). He asserts that “it is likely that China, rather than Russia or India, will enter into a strategic partnership with Iran that will permit that nation to establish a naval base on either the Arabian or Caspian Sea off the Iranian coast” (p. 168). (Conversely, on p. 49 he states that Russia and China are both partnering with Iran in the region and that “this partnership will eventually … become a security alliance.” There is no mention of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization headed by Russia and China, of which Iran is an observer state seeking full membership). Setting aside how Chinese naval vessels would reach the Caspian Sea, this statement calls for further explanation of purpose, given the vast strategic differences between the Caspian and the Arabian Sea. Importantly, there is no discussion of Article 146 of the Iranian constitution, which specifically prohibits the establishment of any foreign military base in Iran for any purpose. As this constitutional issue aligns with the current Iranian regime’s ideology that combines Shiism and Iranian nationalism, provision of foreign basing rights seems highly unlikely.

The author also contends that China benefits from conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia in that such conflict affords China an opportunity to oppose the United States (p. 158). This seems to overlook the dependence of China on stable oil exports from the Persian Gulf region. China’s enormous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an investment in economic expansion, reliant on easy availability of energy resources. Conflict in the Persian Gulf region threatens the regular flow of these resources. Moreover, increased oil prices stress the overall economic environment globally, thereby jeopardizing the BRI and, more generally, China’s lucrative export trade in finished goods. While China is happy to cooperate in efforts to diminish US power, it is less willing to take actions that threaten its own well-being.

Oualaalou’s ultimate conclusion is that the United States has two choices with respect to a nuclear-armed Iran: (1) containment, or (2) living with it. He finds the former “useless” as the JCPOA has opened Iran up to markets that will counter US containment policies (p. 177). This argument has taken a direct hit with the apparent success of the renewed US unilateral sanctions in deterring firms around the globe from conducting business with Iran. No effort is made to thoroughly analyze the possibility of any type of military campaign or covert action to reverse Iran’s nuclear position. Rather, these are dismissed as bringing about too many problems for the United States. With respect to potential internal regime change, Oualaalou contends the regime would threaten use of nuclear weapons to quell any domestic challenges (p. 183). Accordingly, he prescribes “thinking outside of the box” and cooperating with Iran (pp. 187-88), although there is little analysis of how such policies could be undertaken politically in either the United States or Iran.

The book suffers throughout from unclear organization, apparent contradictions, and factual mistakes, all of which combine to detract from the clarity and authoritativeness of the work.

Exemplifying the poor organization, on p. 32 the author says he will discuss two major revolutions in Iran, “the constitutional revolution of the 1890s and the Islamic revolution of 1979.” The book then offers a single paragraph on the Qajjar dynasty, with no discussion of the 1905 constitutional revolution whatsoever (nor is there any discussion of events in the 1890s that bear upon this revolution). The book then spends five pages on a narrative of the conflict between the shah and Mohammad Mossadegh in the 1950s and the US role in support of the former, offering nothing on the Islamic revolution. To make matters more confusing, this is the crux of the chapter titled “History of the Persian Empire.”

A second example of poor organization is found in a section on the importance of the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. There the author includes a subsection entitled “Iraq’s perspective” p. 72). Yet most of the narrative describes US actions during the war, focusing in large part on alleged US assistance to the Iraqi chemical weapons program, citing as sources the “Iran Chamber Society”—a poor source for Iraq’s perspective—and something called the Green Left Weekly. Whether one finds the presentation convincing or not, it is not a discussion of Iraq’s perspective.

Several contradictions result in confusion as to the author’s arguments. For example, Oualaalou predicts that “Russia’s foreign policy in the region will remain steady” and, on the same page, that “Russia will remain flexible in its strategy in the Middle East” (p. 15). If Russia’s strategy is flexible, it is unclear how its policy will remain steady. Turkey is described as a “secular Sunni Muslim country” (p. 16), yet its long-term objective in Syria is described as “religious in nature: Turkey desires to see the extension of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Syria” (p. 18). If the latter is true, why is Turkey characterized as secular? On p. 124 the book outlines the efforts of Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia to develop civil nuclear programs before concluding, “The future will be marked by hostilities and a nuclear arms race in a region that remains deeply sensitive to nuclear weapons.” However, in chapter 5, the author presents analysis insisting that none of these states will pursue nuclear weapons. Likewise, after describing a potential Saudi decision to try to purchase a nuclear weapon from Pakistan as a “long shot” (p. 136), the book asserts that “the Saudis will aggressively seek to purchase an already-made nuke” (p. 144). At pp. 170-71, Oualaalou argues that Russia’s motive for involvement in the Middle East is to demonstrate that Russia is a great power to NATO; however, three pages later, he contends that Russia’s “real motive” in the Middle East is to contain and prevent the spread of jihadist Islamic ideology to the Caucasus and Central Asia (p. 174).

While no single factual mistake is in itself damning, the regularity of errors raises doubts as to authoritativeness. Examples of factual mistakes include the following:

1). On p. 34, the book refers to the “Majlis” of 1919 as a religious establishment. The Majlis, in 1919 as well as in its current configuration, is the Iranian parliament. It is the least theocratic of the regime’s institutions. 

2). On p. 42 the book contends, “Qom holds religious meaning for Shiites similar to the Vatican for Catholics and Jerusalem for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.” While Qom is certainly the home of Iran’s Shia seminaries, most Shia would likely point to Najaf (home to the Imam Ali Mosque) as the more significant location in terms of both religious significance and scholarship. 

3). The book locates Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority as being primarily in the southeastern region (p. 102). Saudi Shias are in the northeast region. This matters because this places them near key Saudi oil fields and facilities. Later, the book identifies Pakistan and India as “Southeast Asia” (p. 135). Most would describe these as South Asia. Turkey is said to border “Georgia and Bulgaria to the northwest” (p. 138). While Bulgaria lies to Turkey’s northwest, Georgia lies far to Turkey’s northeast.

4). The book identifies Shias as a minority in Bahrain (p. 102). Most authorities identify Shias as a majority in Bahrain.  Later, the book identifies Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar as having majority-Shia populations (p. 180). While this gets Bahrain correct, neither Kuwait nor Qatar have majority-Shia populations.

5). On p. 113, a sentence begins, “After the release of the last American hostage in 1991, two years after the death of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei … ” (p. 113). While the passage clearly intends to refer to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, better editing should have remedied this.

6). The book suggests the Khobar Towers bombing “raised serious concerns in the [George H.W.] Bush Administration” (p. 113). The Khobar Towers bombing occurred in June 1996—nearly four years after Bush left office.

7). On p. 145, the author states, “Economically and socially, Egypt is considered the most populated nation in the Muslim world.” Setting aside exactly how the descriptor “economically” is applicable to this, it is simply wrong as there are much larger Muslim populations in Indonesia and Pakistan.

Overall, the book suffers from datedness due to political changes that have occurred after it was written. The primary research questions remain relevant, but the approach taken emphasized the JCPOA. Editors at Indiana University Press could have helped the author recognize and avoid many of the organizational, consistency, and factual issues cited above, but unfortunately did not.


Citation: Cliff Sherrill. Review of Oualaalou, David S., Volatile State: Iran in the Nuclear Age. H-War, H-Net Reviews. September, 2019. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Probably it was fortunate this volume did not include the most recent period of history to Iran's focus upon nuclear weapons and technology. US events have been less clear and determinative for this recent history and its emergence both politically and militarily.

In so being, the Volume does leave a couple of points of interest which may be both relevant and important for all parties to this developing history in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The larger question referred by this Review and Author does raise why would the impact of nuclear weapons, if developed by Iran, be largely different than experienced in the history of nuclear weapons development by others ? Seemingly, unless you conclude only 'madmen' run the Nation of Iran, their own experiences about the uses and misuses of nuclear weapons could be similar to what has already been history and experience for other Nations.

This is only one question and issue. China's developing of the Belt and Road system for trade raises another. Of what need would there be for sea lane transit or overseas bases given land transport ? Further, alignment with Russia and China may have some advantages but they also impose limits which might prove unwanted by Iran. The local impact[regional] seems a most likely consequence for nuclearized Iran than a more direct global impact though this may need further study and defining.

One last thought for now; recent history with Treaty agreement with the US and West has pointed out one of the more fundamental weaknesses of Democracies politically. Iran must certainly have noted this outcome; elections are fundamental to shaping and determining of foreign policy and military decisions for Democracy. Taking place every 4 years or 6 in some instances, 'stability' of more longer term history and events does not argue well for any but shortterm solutions to nuclear problems. Iran can easily see that whims of capricious voting in the US and elsewhere leads to swings in policies and decisions that may not last longer than the times in offices by individuals and particular political interests.

It is something of a suspicion that Iran, beset with their own problems of 'changes' over time may be more interested in something more longer term for their Nation in the Middle East and the World.

Just a few quick thoughts.