"Containing Iran's Nuclear Ambitions"

Asher Henrie

SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer 2010)





Note: This article has in-text citations; full references are provided at the end of the article.

On February 11, 2010, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran declared openly and brazenly that his country was now a “nuclear state” (Slackman, 2010). It was this announcement on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that revealed publicly for the first time that Iran has been, and is now, capable of producing highly enriched uranium at a level above twenty percent-- a threshold critical in the technological leap necessary for producing higher levels of enriched uranium used in nuclear weapons. Mr. Ahmadinejad stated “We have the capability to enrich uranium more than 20 percent or 80 percent, but we don’t enrich because we don’t need it” (Slackman, 2010). On top of his declaration of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, he added words of caution to the West saying “Please pay attention and understand that the people of Iran are brave enough that if it wants to build a bomb it will clearly announce it and build it and not be afraid of you” (Slackman, 2010). While many in the world community, and even in the United States, were skeptical about Iran’s purported ability to enrich uranium to a level at or above twenty percent, an investigation conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that they had indeed “enriched small quantities of uranium at 20 percent” (Broad, 2010). Furthermore, they stated for the first time that they had found “extensive evidence” of “past or current undisclosed activities” by Iran’s military to develop a nuclear warhead, and that Iran was preparing to convert its uranium into metallic form- a step known as necessary for producing the core of an atomic bomb (Broad, 2010).

All of this information now comes to light following a National Intelligence Estimate published in 2007 which stated with “high confidence” that the Islamic Republic halted all of its efforts to develop nuclear weapons in the fall of 2003 (Mazzetti, 2007). While the world might like to believe the president of Iran when he says that any intention to build a nuclear weapon will be disclosed publicly beforehand, prudence, along with a careful analysis of national security interests in the region, dictate that other precautionary measures must be taken. Iran, because of its obvious nuclear ambitions, poses a clear and present danger to the vital interests of the United States in the Gulf region. Were Iran to ultimately produce nuclear weapons, an arms race would develop in one of the most politically and socially volatile regions of the world causing ramifications which would be felt on a global level. Therefore, in order to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons across the Middle East and protect its vital interests, the United States should adopt a policy of containment and deterrence in conjunction with its Arab allies in order to deter Iranians from attempting to gain strategic regional control in the Middle East through the creation of a nuclear weapon.

Policy Issue and Background

The Iranian nuclear situation facing the United States offers a wide range of challenges to the security of the Middle East. Iran’s efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction along with the means to deliver those weapons presents a discernable problem to the United States and its allies in the region. The actions that Iran has taken towards pursuing nuclear weapons, along with the wars that the United States is currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, have made significant changes to the military balance in the Gulf region and the Middle East, causing it to be at the forefront of the United States' foreign policy concerns.

After being elected to the presidency in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lifted a suspension of uranium enrichment that had been put in place by the reformist president Mohammad Khatami who came before him. Immediately following this course of action, the United States began seeking support for international sanctions against Iran designed to influence them to stop their enrichment. In April of 2006, following an announcement by Iran that it would expand uranium enrichment from 3.5 percent to an industrial scale, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the U.N. Security Council must consider “strong steps” designed to induce Tehran to change course in respect to its nuclear pursuits. In response, President Ahmadinejad vowed that Iran would not back away from uranium enrichment and said “Our answer to those who are angry about Iran achieving the full nuclear fuel cycle is just one phrase. We say: Be angry at us and die of this anger,” because “We won’t hold talks with anyone about the right of the Iranian nation to enrich uranium” (Fathi, 2006). Shortly thereafter, U.N. Security Council resolution 1696 demanded that Iran suspend all enrichment and reprocessing activities. Resolution 1737 was subsequently passed, imposing sanctions on Iran for its non-compliance with resolution 1696. Specifically, resolution 1737 was designed to prevent the supply, sale or transfer to Iran of equipment that was enrichment-related, designed for reprocessing or heavy-water related activities, or necessary for  the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems (U.N. Security Council 5612th Meeting, 2006).

Despite growing international pressure, Iran remains defiant. In November of 2009, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors backed demands by the United States, Russia and China that Iran immediately stop building its newly-revealed Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant and freeze all current uranium enrichment (International Atomic Energy Agency, 2009). Notwithstanding, Iran continues to defy warnings issued by the international community. Currently, as verified by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran possesses the capability to enrich uranium at a level above twenty percent. By their own admission they have the ability to produce highly enriched uranium at levels up to eighty percent- more than enough to produce a nuclear weapon. Although Iran has not officially announced any intention to produce a nuclear weapon, their technological advances are making the day when they soon can an ever-present reality. These technological advances, coupled with their leaders’ rhetoric of violence and hate toward Israel and the West, cause concern over the fragile balance of peace in the Middle East. Further exacerbating the problem are  recently discovered activities in Iran which point to the possibility of weapons production. New production lines at Iran’s Isfahan Uranium Conversion Facility raise international suspicion that Iran could be using them to make metal components for weapons. Additionally, the transfer of low-enriched uranium to the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant brings Iran’s peaceful motives into question. Any enrichment done at Natanz would produce fuel levels far higher than what might be needed for a medical reactor in Tehran (Albright, 2010). Iran has not been, and is not currently being, totally forthright regarding their nuclear programs.  

Without question, Iran is now actively seeking to expand its influence in the region and is now the most serious threat to the security of vital U.S. interests in the Gulf (Cordesman, 2009). Up to this point in time, the actions of the United States have been largely ineffective in stopping Iran from pursuing the development of nuclear energy for non-peaceful purposes. Despite severe economic sanctions placed on the country, Iran defiantly continues to pursue the development of highly enriched uranium which has the possibility  of being used for purposes other than civilian use. While Iran may currently be several years from becoming a consequential nuclear power in the region, even a potential Iranian nuclear weapon will lead Iran’s neighbors, the United States, and Israel to concentrate on the nuclear threat it potentially poses in the region.

Iran’s apparent desire for unconventional weaponry and growing influence in the Middle East are extremely disconcerting from a regional control point of view (Gwertzman, 2006).

Assuming Iran does produce a nuclear weapon, it then becomes a real possibility that other countries in the region such as Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia will seek to match Iran's nuclear capabilities, in effect sparking a regional nuclear arms race with the potential to destabilize the entire Middle East. Religious division among Muslims further complicates the problem. Iran is predominantly Shi'ite Muslim while Egypt along with Turkey and Saudi Arabia are comprised of a majority of Sunni Muslims. This religious divide has been the cause of the majority of the sectarian conflict in the region. Furthermore, when emerging powers such as Saudi Arabia examine Iran’s actions, they undoubtedly see Iran gaining influence in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as having continued influence in Lebanon with the potential for further gains in Gaza and Palestine. Saudi Arabia is well aware of the risks associated with a nuclear armed Iran whose interests are spread all across the Middle East region. If Iran is left unchecked, neighbors such as Saudi Arabia would be forced to act in response to Iran’s actions by potentially developing their own nuclear deterrent. 

A recent Central Intelligence Agency report released in March of 2010 highlights the fact that Iran is now fully capable and “poised” to begin production of a nuclear weapon. The report, produced by the C.I.A. Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center, says that Iran is keeping open the possibility to produce a nuclear weapon and continues to enrich uranium at levels far above the necessary medical limits despite trouble with thousands of centrifuges they continue to have. Additionally, one of Iran’s “highest priorities” continues to be the production of more capable short and medium-range ballistic missiles which have the future possibility of carrying a nuclear payload (Gertz, 2010). 

On May 17, 2010, Iran along with Turkey and Brazil signed an agreement known as the “Tehran declaration” which required Iran to hand over 1,200 kg of enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for 120 kg of twenty percent enriched uranium to be used as fuel in Iran’s research reactors.  This deal did not require Iran to stop the enrichment activities that were currently underway in the country and since that time has been put on hold due to the most recent set of sanctions imposed by the United Nations on June 9, 2010. Currently, Iran continues to enrich uranium at levels up to a minimum of twenty percent.

Current U.S. Policy

Under current U.S. policy, diplomatic channels have been opened with Iran in order to try and negotiate an end to their nuclear programs in return for renewed economic investment in the country and the possible return to normal diplomatic relations. Economic sanctions which have been in place under previous U.S. presidents continue to stand despite fresh efforts to bargain. Since the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis of 1979, the United States has unilaterally imposed an extensive sanctions regime against Iran (O'Sullivan, 2003). Current sanctions imposed by the United States include:

1) Cut off access to the U.S. market for companies that sell refined petroleum products to Iran or help them refine them

2) Prohibition of trade of arms and materials which may be potentially used for military machinery.

3) Prohibition of trade or sale of aircraft parts.

4) No U.S. financial aid (unless directly related to humanitarian relief purposes).

5) The United Nations are banned from providing U.S.-derived funds to Iran.

6) Prohibition of direct access by Iranian institutions to the U.S. financial system (However, they are permitted to do so indirectly through banks in other countries).

7) Prohibition of U.S. involvement with petroleum production and development in Iran.

8) No scientific or military document sharing is allowed.

In March of 2009, President Barrack Obama extended for one year the economic sanctions first put in place by President Bill Clinton in 1995. The U.S., he said, is prepared to extend a “hand of peace” to Iran if it “unclenched its fist” (Reuters, 2009). However, in February of 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the U.S. Congress that the international community has “little choice” but to impose tougher sanctions on Iran due to its recent provocative actions related to its nuclear program. Iran has failed to respond to U.S. offers of engagement and has now further isolated itself by enriching uranium at higher percentages. This revelation along with the surprise news of the new Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant at Qom and the recent International Atomic Energy Agency report saying that Iran may be trying to design a nuclear armed missile have all contributed to the new hard-line stance the administration is advocating (Kaufman, 2010). New sanctions would be targeted at putting pressure on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps which is viewed as spearheading Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and is thought to own most of the government contracts responsible for construction and development within Iran. Despite Iranian determination to continue enriching uranium, U.S. officials remain committed to a bilateral approach of both international sanctions and incentives. In July of 2010, President Obama instituted new sanctions designed to influence Iran to abandon its nuclear program. These sanctions came at nearly the same time as new sanctions put in place by the European Union which rather than targeting refined petroleum sales penalize companies who choose to invest in Iran’s energy, banking, shipping, insurance transportation and nuclear related industries (Richter, 2010).

Strengths of Current U.S. Policy

While economic sanctions have not stopped Iran from continuing their nuclear and enriched uranium programs, there is no doubt that these measures have slowed Iran down and restricted them in their capabilities. Almost twenty years of sanctions, diplomacy, and dialog have had some success in impeding Iran’s ability to produce enriched uranium, and additionally has reduced any progress Iran might have made towards the creation of a nuclear weapon. Because of this foreign policy, Iran has had to take steps to make its programs more covert, effectively increasing the time and energy necessary to developing a viable nuclear program. Furthermore, increased scrutiny from the United States and its allies have highlighted the many risks that Iran runs in moving forward with such a program, such as increased isolation from world trading partners and the ever-present possibility of military intervention should Iran chose to continue unabated. On March 16, 2010, U.S. General David Petraeus said that Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon have been delayed and expressed his view that Iran would not have a bomb by the end of this year (Reuters, 2009).

As well, opening up diplomatic channels and trying to engage Iran has given the United States an opportunity to show its willingness to negotiate at the table with countries around the world typically considered to be enemies. Support in the U.S. for sanctions has grown after Iran has failed to compromise over their nuclear program in recent months (Dombey, 2010). Moreover, Iran is now being seen as unwilling to negotiate and international pressure is starting to increase from unlikely partners. There has been a positive response from the Russian leadership regarding ways to pressure the Iranian leadership and the argument is now being made to China, who is considered one of the greatest beneficiaries of Iranian petroleum exports( Kaufman, 2010). China, however, continues to resist stronger sanctions announcing that sanctions alone will not solve the issue concerning a nuclear Iran (Buckley, 2010).

Additionally, under current policy, certain internet services such as instant messaging and group file sharing are being provided to citizens. These services provide Iranians with the ability to access a free flow of information with the intent of undermining the current regime's control over all media and communications in the country (Landler, 2010).

Weaknesses of Current U.S. Policy

As stated previously, while economic sanctions have slowed Iran's progress towards producing a nuclear weapon, they have not reached the ultimate goal of stopping it altogether. Iran continues to pursue a course which will lead towards the eventual development of a nuclear weapon and delivery system. The problem is that it is undetermined whether further sanctions can change the attitudes or actions of the Iranian government and the Iranian public concerning acquiring nuclear technology. History up until now has shown that threatening Iran with sanctions will not produce the desired changes in their behavior. In reality, sanctions do more harm than good. Sanctions against Iran have contributed to the soaring price of oil on world markets which hurt consumers in the United States and benefit the Iranian economy. Mohammed Akacem, a petroleum expert at the Metropolitan State College of Denver recently said "I find a certain irony that the more pressure [we] put on Iran, particularly when the president says all options are on the table, the more the oil prices on the futures market spikes" (Beehner, 2006).

The fact of the matter is, harsh sanctions against Iran will not punish the ruling elite in Tehran who stand to benefit from the rising futures prices, rather they will serve to punish the Iranian people. Iran's treasury is now awash in cash, thanks to global oil prices topping out at over $70 per barrel, while one in four Iranians lives in poverty and unemployment hovers around the eleven percent level nationally. Harsher sanctions against Iran only serve to inflame Iranian nationalism while accelerating mortality among infants and the elderly. Sanctions will never work to stop Iran because Iranian leaders believe that nuclear weapons will bring them dominance in the Middle East and a new found respect at the international level. (Hurfbauer, 2006).

Moreover, in order for sanctions to truly be effective there must be a general consensus among the world's leading nations, especially those on the United Nations Security Council, that punishing Iran economically for its nuclear pursuits is an appropriate response. In June of 2010, the United Nations Security Council adopted a new resolution prohibiting Iran from investing abroad in nuclear and enrichment operations and allowing international inspectors to inspect Iranian ships in international waters. Unfortunately, some countries are not prepared alienate an Iran that has the ability to send the world crude oil price above $100 per barrel. This is especially true considering that so many countries are still trying to recover from the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Any sanctions offered by such countries will be "paced and mild" as opposed to sudden and harsh (Hurfbauer, 2006). Because the United States currently has little to no trade with Iran, it must depend on other countries to reduce trade in an effort to enact policy change.

Countries such as China, however, are far too invested in Iranian crude oil to pursue a policy of harsh economic sanctions. China is the world's second largest consumer of oil after the United States, and Iran is one of Beijing's largest suppliers. Chinese imports of crude oil from Iran grew to thirteen million metric tons in the first half of 2009. While that number accounts for only about fifteen percent of China's total oil imports, that number is up twenty two percent from the year before (Oster, 2009). In addition, there is substantial deliberation over the extent to which Iran’s trading partners are vulnerable to pressure from the United States to limit economic engagement with Iran. According to one Asian diplomat in Iran "The situation over sanctions is a huge opportunity for China, former Soviet republics and regional countries" (Smyth, 2007). In an especially candid remark in December of 2005, President George W. Bush said, "We are relying on others because we have sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran" (Dombey, 2007).

Policy Recommendation

In order to maintain order in the Middle East and prevent Iran from becoming a dominant power, the United States must follow a plan of engagement followed by a policy of containment and deterrence. It is the United States responsibility to protect its vital interests and the interests of its allies by cooperating with regional actors with the intent to restore a balance of power in the region. This plan will be carried out in two ways:

First, it must be understood that avoiding dialogue with Iran is not an option and any pre-emptive  militarily strike on any of Iran's nuclear facilities would only worsen relations with not only Iran but its Arab neighbors. In addition, the United Nations would no doubt oppose such actions as would the majority of the United States' allies.  Any preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would only serve to further alienate the population of the Middle East, especially reformists in Iran, who may look at U.S. actions with skepticism. Sunni Arab leaders who we consider allies would no doubt condemn the attacks out of fear of the potential backlash by angry Muslim citizens. Furthermore, any unilateral military action taken against Iran would severely jeopardize the fragile stability in countries of vital U.S. interest such as Iraq. It would give rise to unpredictable regional instability and cause a severe disruption to Western vital interests in Afghanistan, Israel, and the Straits of Hormuz leading to an escalation of U.S. military activity in the region which could severely cripple relations with its Arab allies. Therefore, it is recommended that the President continue his current policy of open dialogue in hopes of convincing Iran to forego their current nuclear ambitions.

It is imperative that Iran and the Arab world understand that the United States is not interested in a unilateral, first-strike option against their nuclear facilities like the operation that was carried out in Iraq. It should be the goal of the United States and this administration to publicly portray the purpose of our foreign policy with Iran as trying to bring an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons development in a peaceful and diplomatic manner. Publicly, the United States must recognize Iran's sovereign right to produce peaceful nuclear power. However, the U.S must also point out the fact that Iran does not have the right to nuclear weapons specified in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It is apparent that after thirty years of dialogue and bargaining that Iran is not willing to give up its nuclear energy pursuits. It is therefore recommended that the administration accept the fact that Iran is now a nuclear country and offer an incentives to Iran to join the international community in order to ensure that Iran’s nuclear technology is being used for safe and peaceful purposes. It should now be the goal of the United States and the international community to create a proposal for Iran which would acknowledge publicly their right to peaceful nuclear technology granted they ratify and implement the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and become subject to continual inspections by the IAEA.

Through such a plan it would be possible to keep Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold and testing a nuclear weapon. Assuming Iran chooses to go ahead and build and test a weapon, they would be under condemnation by international law and would be dealt with accordingly. If they choose not to join, then the United States will be seen as having done all it can to try to work in a peaceful and diplomatic matter with Iran. In addition, economic incentive packages and a return to normal diplomatic and trade relations should publically be offered in return for Iran’s ratification and acceptance of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Publicly, the United States should be seen as doing everything in its power to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons programs and sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In this manner, both the United States and Iran are in a winning situation. Iran retains the right to pursue peaceful nuclear technology while the United States also achieves its objective of regulating Iran’s nuclear program and bringing them back into the international community. Further sanctions will not deter nor convince the Iranian regime to deviate from its current course.  Only acknowledgement and acceptance of their peaceful nuclear rights along with offers to normalize diplomatic and trade relations can Iran be influenced to take  steps in the right direction and come to the bargaining table.

Should Iran choose to reject international cooperation and ratification and implementation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, then other measures must still be taken to try and influence them to change. One of Iran’s current weaknesses is dependence on foreign oil. Currently Iran imports nearly thirty to forty percent of its refined gasoline for domestic consumptions despite being a major oil producer. Since May of this year when new U.S. sanctions were place on the country, imports into Iran have fallen by nearly fifty percent and Iran seems to be starting to pay attention. Iran’s people are suffering and the Iranian regime can only ignore the needs of their population for so long. Iran has a population growth rate of six to eight percent annually and their current energy sector simply cannot meet the needs of the people. The United States should seek private deals with Russia and China which could potentially limit these countries' oil and gas investments in Iran's energy sector and stem the flow of imported oil into the country should Iran continue not to cooperate. It is thought that Russia and China have too much capital invested in Iran to possibly restrict the flow of crude oil and technology into the country. However, as Iran inches closer to the production of a nuclear weapon which has the ability to destabilize the entire Middle East as well as the world oil trade, the chance of Russia and China exerting influence on Iran becomes greater. China and Russia are the second and fourth largest consumers of world crude oil (respectively) and cannot afford to see world oil prices skyrocket to levels over $100 U.S. dollars.

The Iranian regime is extremely vulnerable to any change in gas imports from other countries and needs modern technology which could be used to increase its ability to refine crude oil. Currently, Iran imports more than forty percent of its gasoline and diesel used every day. An aging infrastructure has put severe limits on Iran’s ability to produce gasoline necessary to meet even their own needs. Even a slight drop in gasoline and diesel imports as a result of bargaining with Russia and China could be a chance to extract concessions out of the Iranian regime. Chinese companies have invested in exploration and production projects in Iran worth approximately $29 billion. Other investments relating to refining and other activities are currently valued at $10 billion (Sheikholeslami, 2010). Countries such as China and Russia see U.S. sanctions against Iran as a huge opportunity to bolster their economies with very little direct competition. According to one energy analyst in Vienna, “Iran will find partners supplying them gasoline” (Sheikholeslami, 2010). In spite of this, the United States should seek to cooperate with China and Russia or else the chances of success become far less likely as Iran will meet its energy needs through other partners.

Secondly, the United States must seek to actively contain and deter Iran through a buildup of conventional arms in allied countries surrounding Iran and in the Middle East, as well as a “nuclear umbrella” provided by the United States. The United States' Arab allies must understand that the U.S. is dedicated to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons technology. Were Iran to produce a nuclear weapon, it is feasible that a nuclear arms race in the Middle East could develop. Most states in the Middle East, however, are concerned primarily with avoiding and potential outbreak of war which could occur causing massive regional instability. Some countries like Saudi Arabia have stated that they have examined nuclear options and rejected them, but this is no certainty that they will not in the future and much depends on current and future Iranian action (Amlin, 2008). It therefore becomes imperative that the United States not leave a power vacuum in the Gulf region which Iran could easily occupy. U.S. and global dependence on Middle East energy exports make the region a crucial strategic interest. This means the United States must occupy the role of guarantor of security in the region.

The United States has a long history of selling conventional arms its Arab allies in the Middle East. Further sales to Middle Eastern partner countries should easily garner congressional support. Since 2005, Saudi Arabia has purchased over $11.2 billion in U.S. defense articles and services. The United Arab Emirates have purchased close to $10 billion (Entous, 2010). However, sales in the past have typically been of second tier military goods designed to not give any country a “qualitative military edge” over the United States’ main ally, Israel, or itself (Dombey, 2010). Currently, the United States is conducting deals with Saudi Arabia over the sale of $30 billion worth of military equipment, including 84 F-15 fighter jets. Concern arises over arming countries in the Middle East who have an interest in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon but whom also may be hostile towards Israel. The proposed deal, however, would arm the jets with onboard targeting systems similar to those offered to other foreign governments which are not as advanced as those used currently by the U.S. military or Israel. Israel has repeatedly voiced its concern that the United States risks undermining its military advantage with these sales (Entous, 2010). Despite these concerns, some policymakers view arming countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as a straightforward case because of their more moderate stance towards Israel (Dombey, 2010). The United States should continue to sell modern military equipment to these countries as a potential deterrent for Iran. Iran’s neighbors in the Middle East must be seen as powerful adversaries capable of taking defensive measures should Iran choose to pursue a nuclear weapon and potentially use it.

Apart from arming Arab allies with conventional weapons, the United States must also be prepared to protect the Middle East with a “nuclear umbrella” and strike Iran in case of any hostile act committed against regional allies. In order to prevent other countries in the Gulf from pursuing nuclear weapons, the U.S. must provide nuclear security such as the security guarantees they made to Europe during the Cold War. There would be no need for any Middle Eastern country to produce nuclear weapons because the United States would guarantee their safety, should Iran take action. While that option is not currently necessary based upon Iran's current nuclear capabilities, should the time come when they do possess nuclear weapons, the U.S. must deploy nuclear armed forces in the region in addition to its currently placed conventional forces to target Iran.  Iran must become aware that any actual hostile act against any of these nations would be an act of aggression which would be dealt with swiftly and with counterforce. It must be made clear to Iran, on a private level, that the United States and its allies have military and financial ability to handle any threat or capability created by the Iranian regime. Any subsequent military action taken by the United States and its allies would be a justified counterattack from which Iran could never recover. Military strikes conducted on Iran's nuclear facilities alone would inflict severe damage to the country and the option would still exist of destroying Iran’s power, gas, and refinery facilities, effectively crippling the nation. Any attack by Iran on its neighbors using conventional or nuclear weapons would immediately warrant the involvement of the international community making a U.S. counterattack justified and supported.

United States’ military bases in the Middle East would provide a base of operations for any counterattack conducted against Iran. Bases in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates all provide access to Iran within hours and military bombers could be armed and ready to strike within a short time following any Iranian aggression. Additionally, missile ships positioned in the gulf will have the ability to launch cruise missile strikes at a moment’s notice. Any counterattack performed in response to Iranian aggression would be designed to limit civilian casualties and eliminate crucial military and government targets vital to not only the Iranian nuclear program but their military defense as well. Civilian casualties must be minimized so as not to turn the population of Iran that supports the reformists within the regime against the United States and its Arab Allies. Undoubtedly, there would be some civilian deaths due to the close proximity of many of Iran’s nuclear sites to civilian centers, but strategic bombing campaigns with GPS guided munitions would minimize the number of casualties. The largest number of casualties would come in the form of civil contractors working on Iranian nuclear programs at the established target sites.

Deterrence has been an effective and credible means of deterring countries in the past from taking military action. Preventive war is simply not a viable or effective option after what the United States has encountered in Iraq. Any preemptive action conducted by the United States would lead to diplomatic isolation and an increased terrorist threat. Deterrence must be the first line of defense against Iran and they must know that their weapons will become ineffective because any military action they take will bring a determined response from the United States and its allies. Former Indian Army Chief, Gen. Shankar Roychowdhury asked the question “Do nuclear weapons deter?” He responded by saying, “Of course they do. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons deterred India from attacking that country after the Mumbai strikes” (Press Trust of India, 2009). A nuclear armed American presence in the Middle East would protect its allies and give Iran no incentive to use a nuclear weapon. It is a possibility and a fear, nevertheless, that Iran would share nuclear bomb intelligence with others such as Hezbollah or Al-Qaeda, using them as proxies in Iran’s fight. However, were a nuclear device exploded by any of these groups the United States would assume that Iran was responsible for this and would take action accordingly.   

Some may argue that Iran is undeterrable because the current president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believes in a religious apocalypse. Deterrence and containment work when your enemy is ultimately concerned that any action he might take would result in his total destruction. On the other hand, irrational behavior cannot be predicted. However, President Ahmadinejad believes in an apocalyptic end to the Western world in which he plays a crucial role. A role in which he will usher in the final battle between "good" and "evil" in which he sees the United States as evil and the roadblock to the return of the "twelfth imam" who will cleanse the earth of all impurity. He has stated publicly that the main mission of the Islamic Revolution is to pave the way for the imam's reappearance (Krauthammer, 2005). It is a likely possibility that this man believes that the creation and use of a nuclear weapon could be the catalyst for the imam's return, sparking off what he considers to be what modern day Christians would refer to as "Armageddon". Critics, however, argue that he is in no way trying to create chaos in order to carry out some theological vision of Iranian world dominance. This picture of Iran as a suicidal regime is not realistic. Iran knows that if they attack Israel or any other U.S. ally in the region that the United States has the capability to destroy Iran and the regime in power. Rather, Iran and its leaders simply wish to have a greater stake in Middle Eastern affairs as a emerging power in the region. Despite the possibility of his irrational behavior, the United States and its allies must do everything in its power to convince the ruling elite in Iran and its people that a potential attack on any of its Middle Eastern neighbors would be an act of political suicide requiring action from the international community. Iran must realize that it will never be able to achieve its full international potential without cooperating with the United States.

The question arises whether the United States should conduct one of the most massive military buildups in the Middle East? Should the United States arm allies in the region with enough weaponry to destroy not only Iran but all other potential enemies if they so choose? Recent history has shown that armed engagements backed by Western and Eastern powers have not produced the outcomes desired. Contemporary examples, such as the United States training and arming the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, have led to many of the current strategic and military problems faced by the U.S. in the Middle East today.  Osama Bin Laden himself was a recipient of backing and training from United States’ C.I.A. agents in Afghanistan. With so much religious and ethnic tension and a long history of conflict, tribal war, and ever shifting alliances, sending billions of dollars of arms to a region thought of as a powder keg waiting to ignite may seem less than prudent to some. Those whom the U.S. chooses to arm today could in fact be supporting the United States’ enemies of tomorrow. Israel no doubt will express concern with such a massive buildup of weapons in a region overtly hostile towards them. However, focus must be placed immediately and directly on ensuring the safety and security of Middle Eastern allies who account for almost one-third of the entire world’s oil production.

What's more, it must be asked whether Iran is a sizeable threat to the United States and its allies. What does the United States stand to gain apart from securing stable energy prices? Some argue that the U.S. stands to lose its already wavering influence in the Middle East through any containment policy. U.S. intervention will help to radicalize and further divide the Muslim countries by supporting the Sunnis while alienating the Shi’a. As one scholar said “Containing Iran today would mean promoting Sunni extremism” (Nasr, 2007). Interests in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel could be seriously jeopardized because of such an alliance and potentially have the capability to influence a new wave of  radical nationalists determined to diminish U.S. power and authority in the Middle East.   

It is imperative in the coming years that the United States act with certainty in protecting its interests and allies in the Middle East. The United States must accept Iran’s right to pursue peaceful nuclear technology. If Iran chooses to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons and ratify and implement the Non-Proliferation Treaty then economic sanctions should be evaluated and eased extensively as an incentive for compliance with the standards of the international community.

For diplomacy with Iran to work, the United States must communicate clearly and openly not only what they expect from Iran but what the United States is prepared to support. Greater incentive must be given to Iran to join the world community and abide by international law. However, recent history with Iran has shown that this possibility is far from likely and therefore the United States must plan accordingly. Failing to plan for all contingencies with Iran is ultimately planning to lose control over the Middle East. Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons in a peaceful manner should be the United States' first priority in the Middle East. However, the United States and its allies should still establish a unified defensive force, prepared to counteract any aggression from Iran. In order to do so the United States must put in place a policy of containment and deterrence by arming its Arab allies with the conventional weaponry necessary to deter Iranian hostility. The United States itself must also have in place conventional weapons designed to react immediately to any possible attack by Iran.

Should Iran eventually develop nuclear weapons, the United States must react in kind by strategically targeting Iran's key infrastructure as well as military and nuclear facilities in case of an unprovoked attack. All military action should be designed to limit civilian causalities, despite the fact that not all civilian deaths will be avoidable.  An attack of this kind would destroy Iran's ability to produce nuclear weapons in the near future. While peace in the Middle East without military action should be the United States' foreign policy goal, only through deterrence and containment can the United States hope to keep Iran at bay and encourage the nation to one day abandon its nuclear pursuits.


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Full Citation for This Article: Henrie, Asher (2010) "Containing Iran's Nuclear Ambitions," SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHenrieIran.html, accessed [give access date].

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