I am posting here my contribution to a collection of articles just published by the Foreign Policy Research Centre (New Delhi) entitled, “Studies on Iran.”
Ever since the Islamic Republic of Iran came into being in 1979, there has been much that Tehran and Washington have disagreed on. Arguably the most important—and the most intense—disagreement between them has been with regard to the Iranian nuclear program. Tehran insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, and that it has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons. Washington fears that Iran is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, and points to Tehran’s lack of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency inspection program—as well as the “international community” more broadly—as justification for its concerns. The U.S.—especially under the Obama Administration—has sought to increase economic sanctions against Iran not just to induce Tehran to verifiably reassure the international community that it will not acquire nuclear weapons, but also to raise the costs of Iran’s not doing so to the point that Tehran is eventually forced to capitulate on the nuclear issue. Tehran has responded sometimes through openly defying American pressure and sometimes through indicating a willingness to cooperate with the international community on this issue but then not doing so. Both responses only fuel American concerns, and so the cycle continues.
The Iranian-American disagreement over the Iranian nuclear issue, of course, is not simply a bilateral issue between Washington and Tehran. Many other governments are also affected by and concerned about the Iranian nuclear issue, the American-led sanctions campaign against Iran, and their own relations with Iran more generally. As a result, the international relations of the Iranian nuclear issue are complicated.
With the possible exceptions of Syria and North Korea, there are no other governments that want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. But while some of them state this strongly (such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, France, and the UK), others do so more quietly (Russia and China), while others still do not say much of anything even though they would very much prefer Iran not to acquire nuclear weapons (Pakistan in particular comes to mind). Still, on the question of whether Iran should or should not acquire nuclear weapons, the overwhelming majority of governments agree (publicly or privately) with the U.S. that it should not.
As noted earlier, the Obama Administration in particular has sought to intensify international economic sanctions on Iran in order to force it to submit to international supervision over its nuclear activity. Yet while most other governments do not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, not all of them are as enthusiastic about this approach as Washington is. The U.S. began imposing economic sanctions in 1979 and has been steadily tightening them ever since. For the U.S. to impose additional economic sanctions on Iran, then, has little or no negative impact on the American economy since Iranian-American economic ties are already extremely limited.
Many other countries, though, have substantial trade ties with Iran. Some governments—such as the U.K., France, and Germany—have been or may be willing to sacrifice them in the attempt to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. But while many other governments do not want Iran to obtain them either, they are not so happy about being asked to sacrifice their own trade interests for this cause. Some have gone along with the increased sanctions that the U.S. and some European governments have called for more because they do not want their relations with the West to suffer—especially when the U.S. and EU threaten to impose penalties on those who do not comply with the sanctions regime. By contrast, some of Iran’s neighbors—most notably the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Authority, and Turkey—have sought to profit from serving as conduits for Iranian trade even while claiming to adhere to the sanctions regime against it. Others still—especially China and Russia—support some increased UN Security Council sanctions against Tehran as a means of currying favor with America and the West on the one hand, while on the other increasing their trade with Iran (a strategy which China has been far more successful at than Russia).
For many governments, the problem with complying with the increased sanctions against Iran that Washington in particular calls for is that doing so involves real economic sacrifices for their countries but will not necessarily succeed in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. For those governments most concerned about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, their anticipation that even a severe economic sanctions regime against Iran will not prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons has led them to contemplate the use of military means. Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel in particular sees the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran as so threatening as to require the use of force to prevent it. Various Saudi officials have indicated that they would not oppose—indeed, would actually facilitate—the use of force to halt the Iranian nuclear program. President Obama has indicated that he has not ruled out anything (i.e., military means) to achieve this aim.
It is doubtful, though, that there are any other governments that would support the use of force to halt the Iranian nuclear program. Their opposition, though, is likely to be highly differentiated. Some oppose the use of force in general. Others oppose its use without authorization from the UN Security Council (which would definitely not be forthcoming in this case). Others—such as Russia—oppose any American or Western use of force which they see as aimed at expanding the Western sphere of influence at Moscow’s expense. Still others fear being negatively affected by any ensuing Iranian-American conflict that might result. There are some, though, that might publicly condemn the use of force against Iran while privately welcoming it—either because it damages the Iranian nuclear program, provides them with a pretext for ending their cooperation with the American-sponsored economic sanctions regime, or both. There are even some (possibly China and Pakistan) which might welcome the prospect of a prolonged Iranian-American conflict as an opportunity for them to pursue aggressive aims of their own with less fear of being opposed by the U.S.
In their face-off over the Iranian nuclear issue, an important problem that both Washington and Tehran face is that each tends to overestimate the isolation of the other from the rest of the international community. Washington should not mistake most governments’ opposition to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons as implying that they would support (even privately) military action to prevent this or will agree to indefinitely ratchet up sanctions at America’s behest which increasingly harm their own economic interests. Similarly, Tehran should not mistake much of the world’s opposition to American military action that is not authorized by the UN Security Council as implying a willingness to do anything meaningful to defend Iran should it be attacked by the U.S. and/or Israel. Tehran should also keep in mind that if it does actually acquire nuclear weapons, it is not just the U.S. and Israel that will react negatively. Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons is likely to be followed quickly by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt seeking to do so, and by these countries and several others turning more toward the U.S. to deter and contain Iran—even as many of them continue to actively trade with it.
The acquisition of nuclear weapons, then, will not necessarily increase Iranian security as Tehran might hope and expect. On the other hand, American policy toward the Iranian nuclear issue is more likely to receive broader support if Washington aligns itself with the interests and concerns of others instead of attempting to force them into supporting a policy formulated by the U.S. and a just a few of its close allies that is insensitive to their interests.