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Issue brief: Iran

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.



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



Sanctions forbid U.S. individuals and companies from doing business with Iran. The most recent raft of economic sanctions came in the wake of the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who abandoned the more conciliatory posture of his predecessor and resumed uranium enrichment in defiance of the international community. In response, the United Nations targeted Iran's nuclear program and froze the assets of people involved in it.

The Bush Administration levied sanctions on Iranian banks. In 2010, President Obama signed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, broadening the sanctions to restrict Iran's importation of refined petroleum products and further tightening the ban on foreign property and financial transactions with Iran. The European Union has enacted various measures of its own.

While sanctions have not yet dissuaded Iran from its pursuit of a nuclear bomb, they do appear to be having a real impact on Iran's economy. The New York Times reported, "International oil experts say Iranian exports have already been cut by at least a quarter since the beginning of the year, costing Iran roughly $10 billion so far in forgone revenues. Many experts say the pain is only beginning, since oil prices have been falling. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Iranian currency is also being affected - inflation is up 21 percent - and the price of staples like bread has increased 40 percent.


President Obama has touted the efficacy of sanctions and asked for patience, saying the United States should allow the sanctions to bite before we consider alternative options. Mitt Romney, while also supportive of sanctions, has taken a hard rhetorical line, accusing the President of not doing enough to deter Iran's nuclear program without specifying exactly what he would do differently.

Challenges: Are the sanctions having an effect on Iran's political apparatus or are they simply squeezing and inflaming the Iranian people who have no connection to the nuclear program? And if they are affecting the ruling class, can these sanctions inflict enough economic pain in a short span of time to make Iran renege before they are able to develop a nuclear bomb?

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has declared that the sanctions will not derail Iran's nuclear program, explaining, "They (the West) explicitly say they need to increase pressures, tighten sanctions to force Iranian authorities to reconsider their calculations, but a look at the facts leads us not only to avoid reconsidering our calculations, but to move on our intended path with greater confidence." His certitude is echoed by Israeli PM Netanyahu, who recently insisted, "We have to be honest and say that all the sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota," saying that sanctions need to be backed up by a credible military threat to have the desired effect.

Military Action

U.S. policymakers who have repeatedly insisted that "every option is on the table," clearly indicating that the United States is prepared to take military action to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.

Military action could take the form of targeted air strikes on Iranian missile sites and nuclear installations, eliminating crucial pieces of Iran's nuclear infrastructure in an attempt to scuttle their ability to continue developing the bomb. Some more hawkish policymakers have even proposed a strategy of regime change, arguing that only a displacement of the Islamist government in Iran will finally end the country's nuclear ambitions. Given the tenacity of the regime, it is likely that regime change could only result from a sustained military campaign involving ground troops.

Israel is able (and evidently willing) to launch targeted air strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure with or without U.S. approval, but a sustained ground war would likely require the full participation of the United States.

Challenges: Any Israeli or American military action against Iran would cause considerable chaos in the region. It could well strengthen the resolve of the Iranian regime and harden the anti-western attitude of Iran's people. It could isolate Israel and the United States from the international community who would view a unilateral strike as an act of undue aggression. Depending on the length and depth of the military involvement, it could also lead to a protracted conflict that the American public may be unprepared to sustain after more than a decade of war in the Middle East.

A move to strike Iran would also alienate Russia and China, complicating our cooperative relationship with these two rivals on other, unrelated issues. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister warned, "Of course any possible military scenario against Iran will be catastrophic for the region and for the whole system of international relations." China's public statements have been similarly cautionary. Proponents of military action against Iran must explain why it is our last, best option, and how they will define the mission discretely to avoid committing the United States and Israel to a costly, extended conflict in a volatile region.

Covert Intelligence Action

Someone - it's not fully clear who - has been engaged in a clandestine campaign to disrupt Iran's nuclear program, assassinating nuclear scientists and other key figures and sabotaging Iranian computers with a series of viruses that have dealt significant setbacks to Iran's nuclear program.

Since 2010, at least 5 Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed. Iran blames the United States and Israeli intelligence services, although both the CIA and the Mossad have denied involvement in any assassinations. Perhaps more damaging to Iran's nuclear ambitions was the Stuxnet computer worm, a virus developed by Israeli and United States computer scientists to infiltrate and damage computer systems associated with the Iranian nuclear program. The United States and Israel have not formally claimed responsibility for the malware, but computer science experts believe that a virus so complex and so destructive could only have been developed by a nation-state with a very high-value target in mind.

Challenges: Cyber warfare and secretive assassinations may well serve the purposes of those who employ these tactics, but they risk opening Pandora's Box: how will the perpetrators feel if and when those same tactics are turned against them? These methods are generally used in defiance of international norms, a reality that forces the actors to hide their fingerprints.

Finally, there is no guarantee that these targeted attempts to disrupt Iran's nuclear program will be ultimately successful - they are delaying tactics, not an all-encompassing solution. Supporters of continued covert intelligence action must justify the use of such extraordinary methods, and they must also explain what they will do if these methods fail to produce the desired outcome. If Iran marches inexorably toward the bomb, assassinations and cyber warfare be damned, what then?



Is it absolutely imperative that the United States stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? Or can it simply contain their aggression after the fact, ensuring that Iran's acquisition of a nuclear bomb does not endanger Israel or spark a regional arms race? Questions like these, taboo among American politicians but increasingly debated by some analysts, are based on a suspicion that Iran may be bluffing.

Apart from the rhetorical hostility toward Israel, is there any real reason to suspect Iran would use these weapons in aggression and actually launch an attack on the Jewish state? Such an attack would undoubtedly earn a reprisal that could wipe Iran from the face of the earth. Iran's leaders may be aggressive, but some insist that they are not suicidal.

Challenges: Critics insist that it is folly to trust the intentions of a regime that has repeatedly demonstrated a disregard for international norms. If we are wrong, and Iran decides to launch a nuclear strike on Israel, the tragic results would change the world forever. A strategy of containment, rooted in hypotheticals and assumptions about the underlying sanity of the Iranian Regime, is a risky move - it could prevent the chaos of a preemptive strike, but it could also invite unparalleled disaster. President Obama has thrown cold water on the idea, warning, "Make no mistake: A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained."