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Live and Let Live: In Search of an Alternative to Preemptive Strikes against Iran

by on January 6, 2012

After the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its report on Iran on 18 November 2011,1 the discussion of what should be done, both by America as well as internationally, has increased significantly in response to the pressure of growing fear. Among other places, the issue has become prominent in GOP campaign trail, on which former Governor Mitt Romney has called Iran “the greatest threat that the world faces over the next decade,” and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has argued what is needed is a regime change in Iran.2  Perhaps regime change is another cloaked component of Gingrich’s proposed Reaganomics 2.0.

In swift response to the IAEA report, sanctions against Iran have intensified in an attempt to contain its leaders by posing significant setbacks to its economy. Despite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s warning in 2010 that the passing of new sanctions against Iran would mean “relations between Iran and the US will never be improved again,”3 President Obama still proceeded to enact the most recent and aggressive sanctions against Iran into law last week.4 Similarly, the European Union has indicated this week that it will take similar action against Iran at its 30 January meeting.5

For many, though, sanctions do not yield enough pressure to disband the threat of Iran attaining nuclear weapons. In the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, for instance, Matthew Kroenig argues that “the consequences of a U.S. assault on Iran would be as bad as or worse than those of Iran achieving its nuclear ambitions.”6 The entirety of his article, pessimistically sub-titled “Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option,” seeks to dislodge arguments against military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Kroenig’s concerns reiterate those of Eric S. Edelman, Andrew F. Krepinevich, and Evan Braden Montgomery, who published similar concerns exactly a year ago in the same magazine.7 These same three authors reiterated their concerns later in an online Foreign Affairs article on the IAEA’s findings, and they conclude that “the United States faces the difficult decision of using military force soon to prevent Iran from going nuclear, or living with a nuclear Iran and the regional fallout.”8

Despite these hawkish concerns from current or former government officials and advisors, the sanctions seem to be significantly effective. As Fareed Zakaria observes, the sanctions have “pushed its [Iran’s] economy into a nose-dive.”Amir Taheri questions the effectiveness of Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, a key strait along which much oil exports pass, and he notes that Saudi Arabia plans to increase its oil exportation by 1.5 million barrels a day.10

Though it seems to be fashionable to call Iran’s actions “saber-rattling” these days (as seen in Taheri’s title), it is well to remember that Iran’s actions are increasingly defensive rather than offensive. In his 2006 book Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions, Shahran Chubin explains that, in both its offensive and defensive actions, Iran is driven more by its goals and aspirations than its worries stemming from international pressure against it. What we are now seeing, however, is, I would argue, increasingly clear evidence that Iran is—and perhaps has been for some time—primarily on the defensive rather than the offensive. Iran seems not only to be concerned over its incompatibility with U.S. presence and interests in the Middle East, as Chubin notes.11 (Precisely this point was made in 1975, when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi reportedly complained that the U.S. was infringing upon Iran’s sovereignty in its pursuit of nuclear technology.12) It is now also recognizing its incompatibility with the emerging form of democracy being demanded from various citizenries in the wake of the Arab Spring.13

Recognizing this shift toward defensiveness helps explain Iran’s desire to continue to pursue nuclear energy, despite international resistance and calls to cease its nuclear programs. In some ways, it could even be likened to Israel in the 1960s as it developed its nuclear weapons. Like Iran, Israel at the time was considered too instable to possess nuclear weapons, and the U.S. aggressively resisted its pursuit of nuclear technology. By 1969, Henry Kissinger admitted controlling Israel’s nuclear program was possible, and he instead recommended that America “persuade them to keep what they have secret.”14  Israel’s policy of secrecy has been problematic and has created innumerable problems for nuclear discussions surrounding the region. The keeping secret of its nuclear weapons in the future will be all the more difficult for Iran, seeing that it is severely lacking in allies.

I say, though, that it is wise to look to Israel when considering Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons because it, oddly enough, is in a very similar position to Israel: it is surrounded by countries who think ill of it, and it finds little support in the world at large when it looks beyond its immediate neighbors. In so many of the discussions of what to do about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, what one may notice is that Iran is never treated as a sovereign nation; rather, it is spoken of as an overgrown child who still has an unhealthy fixation on a dangerous toy, and the adults around it must intervene on its behalf to keep it from seriously harming itself and others.

Perhaps now is the time to begin treating Iran as a sovereign nation rather than persistently threatening to attack it—or even, as did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while she was campaigning for the presidency in 2008, that America would “obliterate” Iran if it were to strike Israel.15 To argue this is not to suggest that nations like the U.S. and Israel should suddenly become allies or bed-buddies with Iran; on the contrary, they should maintain their vigilance and tread carefully when dealing with a leader such as President Ahmadinejad, who recurrently denies abundantly documented events such as the Holocaust and 9/11. Sanctions should, I think, be maintained in order to strain a country behaving dangerously and making serious threats.

Yet nations can remain defensive and vigilant, all the while beginning to respect the sovereignty of another nation, even if that nation is currently defined as an “axis of evil.” Perhaps the most immediate way to do this is to take seriously Iran’s claims that it needs to develop means of creating a great deal more energy. It has, after all, been saying this for decades, and it has renewed this claim in recent years as international pressure has swelled. Almost everyone suspects that Iran’s claim to be pursuing nuclear energy but not nuclear weapons to be completely false—and, let’s face it, they are more than likely right.

But what, I must wonder, would happen if the international community called Iran’s bluff by taking its claim to need to pursue means of producing more energy seriously? Furthermore, what would happen if the international community, alongside strict sanctions, also invested in alternate, non-nuclear forms of energy production in Iran? The Iranian government was able to quickly back-pedal when President Ahmadinejad threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, saying it had no such intention of doing so and that the President simply misspoke (that is, “over-spoke”), but it cannot easily alter the line it has presented for decades about needing more energy for the country. This is, I think, a way to test the veracity of Iran’s claims without committing acts of war against it and creating inevitable human casualties (also known, rather unjustly, as “collateral damage”).

Kroenig is surely right when he claims in his new article on Iran that “time is a valuable commodity.”16 Yet it seems there must be other ways of delaying Iran’s attaining of nuclear weapons without preemptively initiating war with it, causing collateral damage, violating its sovereignty, and endangering the fragile state in which the world hangs at present. Perhaps peacefully calling Iran’s bluff and helping rather than hurting it is, for now at least, the best course of action to take alongside sanctions.


2 See Fareed Zakaria, “Iran’s growing state of desperation,” Washington Post 4 Jan. 2011.

3Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: new sanctions ‘will mean Iran US relations will never be improved,’” The Telegraph 05 May 2010.

4Obama signs Iran sanctions bill into law,” BBC News 31 Dec. 2011

6 Matthew Kroenig, p., 77, in “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option,” Foreign Affairs Jan./Feb. 2012: 76-86

7 Eric S. Edelman, Andrew F. Krepinevich, and Evan Braden Montgomery, “The Dangers of a Nuclear Iran: The Limits of Containment,” Foreign Affairs Jan./Feb. 2011: 66-81. There, they express the concern that

Iran would become increasingly aggressive once it acquired a nuclear capability, that the United States’ allies in the Middle East would feel greatly threatened and so would increasingly accommodate Tehran, that the United States’ ability to promote and defend its interests in the region would be diminished, and that further nuclear proliferation, with all the dangers that entails, would occur. (p. 67)

Eric S. Edelmen, Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., and Evan Braden Montgomery, “Why Obama Should Take Out Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Foreign Affairs 9 Nov. 2011: n. pag.

Zakaria, n. pag.

10 Amir Taheri, “Iran’s self-defeating saber-rattling,” New York Post 3 Jan. 2012

11 Shahran Chubin, Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006), pp. 113-115

12 See William Burr, p. 25, in “A brief history of U.S.-Iranian nuclear negotiations,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Jan./Feb. 2009: 21-34.

13 The legitimacy of these democratic movements and the purity of the democracies created in successful movements awaits to be seen. If Libya is any example, however, the new form of government is not without serious blemishes.

14 Kissinger qtd. in Avner Cohen and Marvin Miller, “Bringing Israel’s Bomb out of the Basement,” Foreign Affairs Sept./Oct. 2010: n. pag.

15 See David Morgan, “Clinton says the U.S. could ‘totally obliterate’ Iran,” Reuters 22 Apr. 2008

16 Kroenig, p. 85

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2 Comments
  1. Michael Ross permalink

    Conversely, America’s threats towards Iran, both publically and internally (such as those made in the recent Republican debates), can also be called “saber-rattling.” America is in no position militarily or economically to make good on its threats towards Iran for several reasons.

    First, Iran has a small but competent military which is much different than what the U.S. has been fighting during the past ten years in Iraq and Afghanistan. The sheer size and logistical capabilities of the U.S. military would probably overrun Iranian military forces in the end, but the causalties would be closer to a Vietnam-type conflict rather than the Iraq/Afghanistan-type conflict. Such casualities would leave both governments in very precarious positions at home in the eyes of thier civilian and military population.

    Second, it’s hard to say who would come to Iran’s aid if America were to strike first. The first names you hear are Russia and China, but each of those countries have their own internal problems as well, so their contributions could be varied and partial. However, as the U.S. continues to push China out of Africa and therefore its access to needed energy resources, disrupting Iran’s hydrocarbon output, may provoke the Chinese.

    In a world where the major nations have nuclear weapons capabiity, it isn’t hard to understand why Iran wants to also join the nuclear club. Iran does need alternate energy sources as it consumes so much of its own natural resources, as is pointed out in this IMF article, so nuclear serves a dual purpose. But what worries me isn’t Iran having a nuclear weapos so much as having a nuclear reactor that could have a disaster. As Albert Einstein once said, “Nuclear power is one hell of a way to boil water.”

    So your question asking “…[W]hat would happen if the international community, alongside strict sanctions, also invested in alternate, non-nuclear forms of energy production in Iran?”, is a necessary one to ponder.

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