Tensions between Iran and the United States are heating up, but an effective policy for managing relations with Iran and averting war has yet to emerge.
Since October, Iran has accelerated its nuclear program, blockaded the strategically important Strait of Hormuz and allegedly attempted to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador on U.S. soil. In response, the U.S. intensified economic sanctions on Dec. 31 against Iran that will prevent firms with connections to Iran’s Central Bank from doing business in the U.S.
Some experts, however, have urged the U.S. to pursue stronger policies as Iran gets closer and closer to achieving nuclear capability. In an article in the January/February 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs, Georgetown University political scientist Matthew Kroenig posits that military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities “could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States.”
Sophomore Tom Courtright is less sure that a nuclear Iran would pose a threat to U.S. security, as a nuclear attack by Iran would result in massive retaliation from the U.S.
“[Iran] is a regime with interest in self-preservation, just like us, so there’s little reason for it to do anything too brash and aggressive,” he said.
Professor of Political Science Sue Hulett is less sure, emphasizing that the danger of nuclear weapons lies in the threat of their use, as an attack directly from Iran is extremely unlikely.
“What [Iran] is hoping, it seems to me, is the U.S. will have such fear of these nuclear weapons that we will back away from all kinds of positions,” she said. “What seems even more probable is that Iran would give a nuke to al-Qaeda. Iran has something to lose if it messes up. Al-Qaeda, not so much.”
A nuclear arms race in the Middle East is also “a real possibility,” Hulett said, as Arab states such as Saudi Arabia might begin their own nuclear programs in order to counter Iran’s leverage. Despite this, attacking Iran now might do little to improve U.S. security.
“The costs are pretty impressive,” she said. “There’s the possibility of a wider war, retaliation by Iran against states in the region and the U.S. again being associated with attacking an Islamic country. And it would be unavoidable to not have a lot of civilian casualties.”
Still, Hulett does not believe that the U.S. should discount military action entirely, as it could provide a deterrent effect that sanctions alone may not.
“You don’t take your options off of the table,” she said. “So you don’t go around saying that we would never do it. Let the other side sweat … but it certainly would be something that would have to be our very last choice.”
Junior Eva Marley suggests diplomacy as a viable alternative to either sanctions or military action, although she acknowledges that such efforts have been less than successful in the past.
“I think diplomacy could work if there was a distinct plan,” she said. “We need a concrete policy, not just continuing to apply sanctions and hoping that that works.”
What such a concrete policy would look like is more difficult to discern. The newest sanctions against Iran only came about due to frustrations in Congress with the Obama Administration’s cautionary tactics, according to a Jan. 9 article in The Atlantic.
“It’s important to recognize the role of external forces,” Marley said. “Even if [President] Obama wants to open dialogue [with Iran], he may be pressured by Congress towards sanctions instead of pursuing diplomacy.”
Sanctions, although easy to employ and potentially effective at squeezing the incomes of a country’s ruling elite if targeted correctly, may not work in Iran’s case due to a lack of support from Russia and China, two of the largest purchasers of Iranian oil. And diplomacy, in Hulett’s view, may not be a strong enough policy.
“You’ve got to play hardball,” she said. “The only way that Iran will back down … is if there is strong resistance on the part of the U.S. and Europeans.”
While experts continue to analyze the situation in Iran, Courtright feels that the U.S. should turn its attention to the root of the threat: the anti-Western sentiment that pervades the Iranian regime, regardless of what sort of weapons it possesses.
“They only reason they want [nuclear weapons] is because we threaten them exorbitantly. We should instead focus on democratic transition from within the country,” he said.