Iran: Obama’s Fast Approaching Dilemma

As part of our series about President Obama’s second term national security and foreign policy challenges, we thought Iran needed special individual attention beyond our earlier summary of issues facing America abroad. The fact of the matter is the issue of “Iran” is part of the larger strategic structure and landscape of the greater Middle East. Iran and its nuclear ambitions and its relations to other countries of the region involve a complex weave of problems that are interlinked.


These issues include the Sunni – Shia divide, the influence of Iran over Iraq, and the feeling of vulnerability on the part of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States towards the possible nuclear weapons capability of Iran, and Israel’s sense of strategic danger from such weapons given the attitude of Iran toward them. Not least are the upheavals in the Arab world and especially in Syria, which borders on Israel and where Iran has invested so much on Assad’s regime. Furthermore, the impact on other nearby states such as Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, China, India and Russia are key factors for understanding.  Each of these states believes it has a stake in the future direction and power of Iran. We must not forget this to our peril.


One of our first requirements is to understand the context that is the prism that the leaders of Iran see as their interest and how they view the external danger to their regime. Their first interest, is survival as with all states. The second, is the survival of the regime itself. And the third, is how they view the best approach to securing the first two objectives. They are essentially seeking to keep in power and also prevent others from removing their influence and gaining a strategic advantage. Striking Israel is likely a lower priority than the first three.  It is for these reasons that they have pursued a nuclear weapons path.


The current uncertainties of the region including the Arab Spring, events in Gaza, the growing influence of Egypt and the war in Syria, are all part of the changing landscape that Iran faces and can only raise their concerns. But these events may also make them change their direction and assessment of their situation. 


The sanctions are working and if we have enough time we may help to change the balance of advantages and danger by the Iranian regime. They have unfortunately acted recently with their nuclear activities in ways that do more to heighten concerns by other powers than in ways that lessen tensions and indicate willingness to seriously negotiate. Only time can tell. 


It is not yet clear how far the Iranian regime will go towards entering into true negotiations with the Group of Six plus One. Much will depend on their calculation of their own interests and the cost they might pay versus the gain for each of their options.  If they were rational (a big “if”), they eventually will not go down the path of creating nuclear weapons since the cost undoubtedly would be great to them and the Iranian regime/people. 


We have just heard that Iran has downloaded the rods from its research reactor which could be a provocative move, and bodes badly for a move towards negotiated path.


From the view point of those states most involved and concerned about Iran’s actions, the challenge is to find the right balance of carrots and sticks to tip the balance towards a strategic agreement that removes the “nuclear weapons option” and moves Iran towards a “win-win” strategy and lessens risks for all sides.  There have been a number of ideas to design solutions that all sides can live with including letting them have a certain capability for enrichment but with such restraints, transparency and control that the danger of any use for weapons would be obviated.


Most likely (in my view) is that with the right sanctions in place along with proposals on the table that give incentives for the Iranians to halt their nuclear weapons ambitions and a larger regional “settlement” that brings security and stability to a wide range on regional countries, we may avoid the catastrophe that would be making war on Iran or Iran making war on the world.

This is a role that Obama and our allies can play which might help more than the Iranian dilemma but also help stability for the whole region.

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