Adam L. Silverman, PhD*
As we move past the Thanksgiving holiday into December, and as the Republican primaries lurch ever closer, we can be assured that the reverbations from the recent IAEA report about Iran's nuclear program will continue. While some of this will be part of the posturing by candidates either in the Republican presidential primaries or in the lead up to the House and Senate campaigns in 2012, some of it will be the result of the US's responses to the report and the challenge that Iran presents, as well as how other major international and regional actors respond. As the US attempts to ratchet up the economic pressure through new sanctions, Russia, a major trading partner of Iran, as well as a major player in Iran's nuclear development program, has indicated that it opposes them. It is, perhaps, an appropriate time to step back and reflect on the actual strategic challenge that Iran's nuclear program presents to the US.
There are two key questions we have to ask in regard to any potential response towards Iran's nuclear development program: 1) will US action towards Iran actually prevent them from pursuing and/or acquiring a nuclear weapons capability? and 2) will US action towards Iran to prevent them from pursuing and/or acquiring a nuclear weapons capability change the Iranian government's behavior in the manner that we want? Looking at possible options we can reasonably rule out further and/or increased sanctions. To be blunt they have not worked. While they initially inflicted some pain on Iran that gave way long ago and Iran has managed to survive and grow despite them. While I am sure I am about to give a whole lot of people serious agita, now might be a good time to consider what might happen if we actually tried doing something else like pursuing a serious diplomatic initiative. Since trying to lock down and close off Iran has not actually worked, perhaps opening up trade and travel to Iran just might. While there is certainly no gaurantee of success, continuing to do what we are doing is, to paraphrase Professor Einstein, crazy. I can not help but think that the ability of diasporan Iranians to travel home, for Iranians to travel to other places including the US with less hassle and difficulty, for scientific, professional, and business exchanges to occur can not but have a positive effect. At some point we can not keep pointing to the stick and saying it is a carrot.
And it is the answer to the issue of how much risk and how best to achieve the effects we would like to see, combined with a good deal of clear and accurate information about Iran's national identity, how it interacts with and is shaped by Iran's unique social, political, and religious structures and institutions (see graphic below), and how identity and structures work on each other to make Iran resilient enough to withstand American efforts to economically and diplomatically isolate it for over thirty years.
Another important question in trying to determine how much risk we are willing to assume is whether or not the use of force would be effective? Given the reported locations of Iran's nuclear facility (please see image below), this would not be a matter of simply trying to repeat the Israeli strike on the Osirak reactor.
Morevoer, given Iranian national pride and identity a strike on Iranian nuclear sites is likely to actually rally support for the current government, which is antithetical to our stated goals. Furthermore, striking Iran would most likely have a long term opposite effect convincing those within the Iranian government that they actually need to pursue nuclear weapons as a deterrent to the US. And it is important to remember that from Iran's perspective the world looks like this:
I can not help but think that while we might be able to severely hurt the Iranians, doing so will not produce the governmental reforms we would like to see and would ultimately only reinforce those Iranian positions that they might need a nuclear weapons capability to deter more powerful actors liks the US. Moreover, Iran has the ability to hurt us economically through actions that effect the price of oil. American and global economic recovery is already anemic, any disruptions in the Persian Gulf and Straits of Hormuz will drive the price of oil up and make a poor economy an absolutely terrible one. It may eventually be necessary to emply military options in regards to Iran's nuclear development program, but we should only do so if we have actually exhausted all other possible options without success. Before we reach that point we should actually try something different. This would definitely be preferable to what seems to have become our default threatened and/or actual response: invading Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries and not achieveing the results we want.
* Adam L. Silverman, PhD is the Culture and Foreign Language Advisor at the US Army War College. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US Army War College and/or the US Army.