The United States and Iran: Power Plays in the Middle East
The United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran have endured terse relations from the time of the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
The current standoff, ostensibly centred on Iran’s nuclear program, arises from both clashes in geopolitical strategy and ideological differences between the nations.
The United States will need to secure the cooperation of major powers such as Russia in order to exert influence on Iran, and realize that both negotiation and compromise will be required to further its foreign policy objectives in the region.
The Iranian issue is particularly significant for the United States: political volatility in Iran may destabilize the entire Middle East, posing both strategic and energy security challenges to US interests in the region.
Iran has been known to behave unpredictably and uncooperatively in the political arena, particularly in response to US demands for greater transparency in the area of nuclear technology. This, and the recent domestic unrest during last summer’s elections, have cast the Iranian government as a rogue on the global stage and have, without a doubt, contributed to the current instability in the Middle East.
‘The main concerns of the Iranians are clear:
uncompromised physical and energy security
Seemingly unconcerned by this adverse publicity, the main concerns of the Iranians are nevertheless clear: uncompromised physical and energy security for Iran.
A Thirst for Energy
Perhaps unexpectedly, Iran is a net importer of gasoline for civilian and industrial use. Although Iran has the third largest proven oil reserves in the world, and also is the
third largest exporter of oil, the country’s oil refinery infrastructure does not have the capacity to provide independence in the energy arena.
This strategy plays on Iran’s comparative advantage arising from natural resources, yet although making economic sense; Iran has become dependent on nearby energy exporting nations to meet approximately 40% of its energy needs.
‘Iran is the only nation in the world to
possess a significant quantity of enriched
uranium – nearly 1.5 tonnes – yet has no has
civilian infrastructure to utilize this material’
Nuclear energy offers an alternative source of power. There is overwhelming domestic support for development of civilian nuclear technology within Iran. Indeed, nuclear power generation has the popular advantage of low carbon emission levels, although long-term storage of nuclear fuel presents both a non-trivial security and
Furthermore, the importance of energy security in the Middle East’s troubled geopolitical climes boosts the Iranian bid to develop civilian nuclear capacities. In principle such development is not precluded under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), although all such activity must take place under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
However, Iran has rejected such a partnership, flouting the IAEA rules at every turn. It is possible that regional volatility has bred uncertainty such that states have started to prioritise domestic concerns over participation in an international system, such as the framework of the NPT and the IAEA.
Iran’s nuclear programme is widely believed to be a civilian venture with a substantial military arm, involving teams attempting to design and build a nuclear weapon. Suspicion is compounded by the fact that Iran is the only nation in the world to possess a significant quantity of enriched uranium – nearly 1.5 tonnes – yet has no has civilian infrastructure to utilize this material.
Indeed, the ever-narrowing divide between civilian nuclear technology and military use of this expertise makes it relatively easy for a determined nation with sufficiently developed civil nuclear facilities to make the transition. There are nonetheless major technical, and diplomatic, challenges for such a state. These, however, have been overcome by many non-P5 nations, notably India and Pakistan, which have developed nuclear weapons in the last few decades.
‘Segments of the Iranian population
prioritise domestic security, by viewing the
acquisition of nuclear arms as the ultimate
A common route exploits the nature of most civilian nuclear power generation processes. The uranium fuel used in power generation is the approximately 5% enriched Uranium-235 which can undergo fission and produce energy. The remainder is uranium-238 which is not itself fissile, yet can absorb neutrons released from the fission of uranium-235. This may turn uranium-238 into uranium-239, which undergoes beta decay to create plutonium-239. This fissile isotope of plutonium has been
used in the construction of crude nuclear weapons, the most recent being those detonated by North Korea during nuclear testing.
The question remains as to whether Iran perceives the benefits of acquiring a nuclear weapon as sufficiently outweighing the international political backlash and immense costs incurred in pursuing the project. At home, the Iranian government enjoys broad support on this matter both from extremists and conservatives in power. Furthermore, uncertainty and volatility in the Middle East has seen segments of the Iranian population prioritise domestic security, by viewing the acquisition of nuclear
arms as the ultimate deterrent.
The Ultimate Deterrent
At the forefront of Iran's political agenda is the security of the Iranian Republic.
From the time of the Islamic Revolution 30 years ago, Iran has faced sanctions worth billions of dollars imposed by the US. Furthermore, the American role in the 1980-1987 Iran-Iraq war and the 2003 invasion of Iraq has made Iran deeply suspicious of the West.
By no means an endorsement of Iranian designs, the leading Israeli military historian Martin van Crevald remarked in the International Herald Tribunal in 2004: “Had the
Iranians not tried to build nuclear weapons, they would be crazy.”
Negotiation between the US and Iran, on a wide range of matters including the nuclear issue, has reached a stalemate: hard-line positions taken by both sides on top of nearly a decade of diplomatic silence under the Bush Administration has taken its toll on talks. Furthermore, there is strong opposition, both domestically and politically, to reaching a compromise with an ‘evil’ regime – a sentiment shared by both sides.
Iran may hence perceive a nuclear deterrent as a bargaining chip to be used as leverage against the United States in an attempt to address its key security concern: a guarantee that the US will not seek regime change within Iran within the foreseeable future.
Such a rational is unfortunately aided by the recent removal of North Korea from the US State Department’s ‘terror list’- despite the detonation of two nuclear devices. This response may lead Iran to believe that it may develop military nuclear capacities without serious repercussions, while retaining the benefits of deterrence and military superiority in the region. Iran’s first nuclear weapon may only be a matter of time.
Israel warns that it is prepared to strike pre-emptively in order to cripple Iranian nuclear capacities. Political rhetoric aside, however, such a strike, with or without Western support, is unlikely. Estimates put Iran's military as one of the strongest in the Middle East, with missiles reaching as far as some NATO members in Eastern
Europe. It warns of a ‘limitless’ response to any attack: a threat not taken lightly. Furthermore, neither Israel nor the United States has an overwhelming military superiority over Iran.
‘A strike by the U.S. or a Western force is
unlikely in the short-run’
In any case, an attempt to disable Iran's nuclear facilities would be a challenging undertaking. Notably, we have seen that there are inherent difficulties in destroying over ground reactors such as Iraq's Osirak reactor: it took a pre-emptive Iranian strike in 1980, a pre-emptive Israeli strike in 1981, and finally an American attack in the Gulf War to fully destroy this facility. Further complications arise as the location of all of Iran’s nuclear sites is unknown, and many existing facilities are reinforced or underground such as at Qom.
The lack of any foreseeable benefits from a pre-emptive strike, coupled with an inevitable Iranian response, is convincing evidence that such a strike by the U.S. or a Western force is unlikely in the short-run.
A deepening of ‘soft’ measures, such as economic sanctions, may prove to be a viable alternative. However, political arm-twisting requires partners.
As many of Iran’s oil and banking contracts are held with European-based companies, this unique situation allows the United States to exert leverage over Iran through the imposition of further financial sanctions and, crucially, by being able to constrict if not cut off Iran’s supply of gasoline.
Indeed, contracts worth billions of dollars have already been withdrawn. Over the last few months, Iran has responded by hoarding enough gasoline for four months energy supply.
Sanctions have the potential to not only cripple Iran's economy, but by targeting the civilian population, may also spark massive social unrest due to rising prices in the
currently heavily subsidized domestic gas market.
In step the Russians
The United States cannot implement such sanctions unilaterally, depending on Russia for support. Russia is the world's largest refiner of gasoline, and can either supply
Iran directly with gasoline or indirectly through satellite states such as Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.
This fact alone bestows huge influence on Russia with regards to the enforcement of energy sanctions by the US; Russia can single-handedly render such sanctions
ineffective via supply of the Iranian gasoline market.
‘Russia can single-handedly render such
sanctions ineffective via supply of the
Iranian gasoline market’
It is thus unsurprising that Russia has been courted at the international negotiating table. While Russo-Iranian relations are not warm, Russia is naturally reluctant to reduce gasoline profits by supporting sanctions on Iran without incurring considerable gain. Indeed, any settlement must be forged with the explicit consent of the Russians.
The US has thus taken an increasingly conciliatory approach to securing Russian support for action to halt the Iranian nuclear programme. In a move criticised by former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton as giving up the United States’ cards for no palpable gain, the U.S. withdrew their plans for the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) installations in Poland and Czechoslovakia in a hugely significant move.
Since Tsarist times, Russia has favoured surrounding itself with what are effectively satellite states – states that are subject to overwhelming Russian influence. This practice has allowed the Russians to maintain a sphere of influence extending to the Baltics thus forming a wall of states buffering it from Western Europe.
The BMD installations in Poland and Czechoslovakia were thus viewed as an effort by the United States in particular to restrain Russian ambitions in the region. This is not least due to the presence of the BMD systems, which limit the ability of Russia to project power, but also their operation by a large number of NATO and American personnel in former Warsaw Pact nations.
Withdrawal of these installations signals a deceleration of US expansionary policy in Eastern Europe characterized by the extension of NATO membership to Germany, Turkey and former Warsaw Pact Members, such as Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland over the last two decades. It is with these gestures that the US is courting Russia; in return cooperation on the Iranian issue is expected.
Deal or No Deal
October 2009 saw an offer on the table for Iran agreed by the U.S., Russia and France. Under this proposal Iran would stop enriching uranium, send pre-processed uranium to Russia for enrichment, and finally receive the enriched uranium for civilian use.
In this way, assuming all commitments were upheld, Iran would not be able to acquire nuclear fissile material for military purposes. An increased sense of security for the
U.S. and a ‘guaranteed’ supply of nuclear fuel for Iran ensured that this was a serious proposition for Iran to consider.
The Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, said on the 20th of November 2009 that Iran has ‘every reason to be distrustful’ of the West (Stratfor). Indeed, Iran views US commitments as being transitory, and fears that a change in Administration may undermine previous assurances.
This is true also in a more general, inter-state, sense. A deterioration of relations between any parties involved may precipitate a situation where Iran has the most to lose. Iran would have relinquished its nuclear capability and physical uranium stock, and hence control of a large proportion of domestic energy supply, putting Iran in a potentially precarious position.
Negotiations appear to be at an impasse. Employing a strategy similar to that of states such as North Korea, Iran both acts, and says it will act, in ways that appear to be irrational. Outsiders are confounded in trying to fathom Iran’s true position and policy.
Indeed, hostile activity, including recent war-games and threats to retaliate overwhelmingly in the face of any Israeli attack, has exacerbated the situation. While Iran knows that any aggressive action against Israel will most likely result in a major war and its destruction, Iran nonetheless wishes to be seen as crazy enough to attempt such an act.
The uncertainty, and fear, that this behaviour generates plays into the hands of the Iranians. However unlikely, political and military leaders are forced to evaluate all threats to international security.
In November 2009, Iran stated that it would agree to the proposed programme by and large but insists on keeping the majority of its fuel within Iranian borders. This demand is directly contrary to the central thrust of the deal, which aims ensure nuclear material is not directly under Iranian control.
Since then, further aggravating the situation, Iran has announced its intention to build ten new uranium plants. What happens next depends on the willingness of the United States to either negotiate or punish, how much the Russians will cooperate, and how far Iran will dare to push both sides. The global political landscape has changed; US approaches in foreign policy must change with it.
Iran will have to compromise on the nuclear issue eventually. Being outside the international system with regards to nuclear technology, while permitting experimentation, is detrimental both politically and economically for the State. Playing will continue until this is a done deal.
One thing is clear. The United States has come to realize that it cannot influence foreign nations in the same manner as the previous Administration. It is forced to rely more on diplomatic cooperation with other nations such as Russia in an effort to forge multilateral solutions to global problems.
The global political landscape has changed; US approaches in foreign policy must change with it.
Cong Sheng is a 2nd year student of chemistry at Imperial College. He is a keen debater, MUN participant, and Co-founder and Deputy Editor of ‘A Global Village’.