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The Iran dilemma

3Qs with International Affiars Program faculty associate Kimberly Jones
January 19th, 2012

Rela­tions between Iran and the U.S. have dete­ri­o­rated in recent months, as America has sought to tighten eco­nomic sanc­tions aimed at Iran’s nuclear pro­gram and Iran has responded by threat­ening to close the Strait of Hormuz, cut­ting off seaborne access to Per­sian Gulf oil. We asked pro­fessor Kim­berly Jones, the asso­ciate director of the inter­na­tional affairs pro­gram and a fac­ulty asso­ciate in the Middle East Center for Peace, Cul­ture and Devel­op­ment, to ana­lyze the com­plex rela­tion­ship between the Middle Eastern nation, the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Why does what hap­pens in Iran present such a major con­cern to the United States and other Western nations?

There are numerous rea­sons why the United States pays par­tic­ular atten­tion to Iran. For one, the U.S. and many of its key allies are con­cerned that Iran is actively seeking to develop a nuclear weapon. Second, Iran is strate­gi­cally sit­u­ated along the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through which a major por­tion of global oil flows. Crit­i­cally, Iran has threat­ened to close the strait resulting in a flurry of diplo­matic posturing. Moreover, Iran has man­i­fest inter­ests, to dif­fering degrees and expressed in dif­ferent ways, in two of its neigh­bors: Afghanistan and Iraq. In terms of other states in the region, Iran has had acri­mo­nious rela­tions with two key U.S. allies — Saudi Arabia and Israel. Finally, Iran is on the U.S. Depart­ment of State’s list of “State Spon­sors of Ter­rorism,” in part because of its link­ages with groups such as Hamas in the Occu­pied Pales­tinian Ter­ri­to­ries, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

If you just look at this list, Iran does indeed look like a global pariah. But this is just a list and beyond it lays a rich con­text under­lying its strategic deci­sions — from engage­ment with actors in Iraq to “threats” regarding the Strait. We also need to be very careful to sep­a­rate the rhetoric, harmful and out­landish as it may be at times, from hard actions, looking at Iran’s intent in a more nuanced way. If one truly wants to impact its decision-​​making in a pos­i­tive way, one needs to under­stand the con­text in all its complexity.

What incen­tives does Iran have to coop­erate with the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity on issues such as nuclear inspec­tions and oil trade?

Con­trary to the pop­ular rhetoric, Iran is a rational actor and it responds in dif­ferent ways to pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive induce­ments — car­rots and sticks. How­ever, too much atten­tion, espe­cially in the U.S., has been focused on the sticks — in part for polit­ical rea­sons. On the one hand, Iran doesn’t have a tremen­dous incen­tive to respond (in a good way) to the use of sticks such as sanc­tions — in part because there is, to a degree, a matter of national pride at stake. There is a sense of not wanting to be seen as backing down or “caving” to U.S. pressure.

On the other hand, Iran is suf­fering under the weight of sanc­tions and it does seek to manage its pariah status. It wants to strike a bal­ance posi­tioning itself as a regional leader against an ascen­dant Turkey, and stand up to what it per­ceives as Western/U.S. hege­monic poli­cies toward the region.

How do reported covert actions — such as the recent killing of an Iranian nuclear sci­en­tist, which Iran has blamed on Israel — com­pli­cate inter­na­tional rela­tions between Iran and the United States?

While Israel is a major U.S. ally, Iran and Israel view each other as ene­mies. Notably, Iran is not the only nation to ques­tion whether Israel is behind the recent murder of its sci­en­tist (as well as other covert actions). All of this, of course, adds another layer of com­plexity, raises serious con­cerns about regional sta­bility and feeds a well-​​sated conflict.This is all set against a back­drop in which some think pre­emp­tive action, such as an attack from Israel or the United States, is needed to neu­tralize Iran. Overt mil­i­tary engage­ment with Iran is not in the best inter­ests of either the U.S. or Israel. It mis­un­der­stands the threat and the costs far out­weigh any poten­tial benefit.

by Matt Collette


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