Issue brief: Iran

Flag of Iran with with nuclear atoms CBS/iStockphoto

The Electoral Issue:

Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons could lead to a regional arms race with other Middle Eastern states embarking on similar nuclear programs, disrupting the energy economy in the oil-rich Persian Gulf and jeopardizing the security of our ally Israel.

The Challenge:

To stop Iran from gaining the capacity to easily manufacture a nuclear weapon while preventing any economically disruptive problems with the world's oil supply.

Problems:

Israel's Security

Many Israeli officials see a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to the very existence of the Jewish state. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak explained, "This is not about some abstract concept, but a genuine concern. The Iranians are, after all, a nation whose leaders have set themselves a strategic goal of wiping Israel off the map." Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has publicly expressed doubts about the Holocaust and repeated the famous threat by the Ayatollah Khomeini's to blot Israel out of existence.

Iran's hostility to Israel is clear; what's not clear is whether Iran is prepared to act on that hostility. Conflicting reports have emerged about how close the Iranian nuclear program is to securing a nuclear weapon. Several Israeli officials, notably former Israeli Mossad (Intelligence) Chief Meir Dagan, have cautioned that the threat posed is not as imminent as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned, and that a preemptive strike to disrupt Iran's nuclear capabilities could have catastrophic results, sparking a bloody regional conflict.

The United States has affirmed Israel's right to defend itself while preaching restraint publicly and privately, urging Israeli leaders to allow sanctions and other efforts to run their course and discouraging any unilateral strikes on Iranian missile sites or nuclear installations.

Regional Arms Race

Iran's emergence as a regional power is being closely watched by neighboring countries, particularly Turkey and Saudi Arabia. If Iran manages approaches nuclear weapons capability, the move could spark Middle Eastern arms race, with other countries rushing to develop nuclear weapons to offset Iran's newfound strategic advantage. Secretary of State Hillary Clintonexplained, "It is not only about Iran and about Iran's intentions. . . it's about the arms race that would take place in the region with such unforeseen consequences."

Russia and China

Complicating efforts to halt Iran's drive to secure a nuclear weapon are two U.S. rivals, Russia and China. When the Iran Sanctions Panel of Exports delivered a report to the United Nations Security Council in 2011, Russia and China, two Security Council members, vetoed its publication. Although both nations supported several earlier U.N. resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran, they demanded amendments that weakened the effect of those sanctions and have expressed opposition to additional U.N. sanctions against Iran, forcing the United States and other Western Powers to move ahead with a separate package of sanctions outside of the U.N. In the past, Russia has aided Iran's development of nuclear capabilities, supplying them with the technology needed for nuclear power.

China's relationship with Iran is based on a need for energy security - Iran supplies a large portion of China's oil and natural gas. Both countries also benefit from being able to frustrate the West. According to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "Both China and Russia work to gain politically and economically from the ongoing competition between the US and Iran," viewing "ties to Iran as a bargaining chip in dealing with the US, European, and the Arab Gulf states." The authors conclude, "If the US is to be more successful in isolating Iran, it will need to convince both countries that Iran poses a greater threat to their interests than they now perceive, seek the help of the Arab Gulf states and other powers to influence China and Russia, and develop a more powerful mix of incentives and penalties to encourage Chinese and Russian cooperation."

Oil Supply

In 2010, Iran exported 2.6 million barrels of crude oil daily, making it the second-largest oil exporter in OPEC. Iran also wields a degree of control over the broader oil supply.

The country is perched atop the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow body of water that connects the oil-rich Persian Gulf with the rest of the world. Described by the U.S. Energy Information Administration as the "world's most important oil chokepoint," the Strait in 2011 provided passage for 17 billion barrels of oil each day - 20 percent of all oil traded worldwide, and 35 percent of all oil traded by sea.

Tehran has threatened to close the strait and halt the flow of oil if its national interests are "seriously threatened." Iran could use sea mines, missile batteries, or boats to make it hard (and expensive) to transport oil. In anticipation of potential Iranian action, the U.S. military has begun deploying warships in and around the Persian gulf to ensure the secure passage of oil tankers and drones to safely disarm sea mines. According to U.S. military officials, it would take 5 to 10 days to reopen the Strait if Iran tries to close it, but even a short temporary halt of oil from the Persian Gulf could wreak severe economic havoc, sending oil prices skyrocketing.

Next page: Solutions

  • Jake Miller

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