Alumni Column – US-Iranian Relations: Rising Tensions

Ryan Simmons '98

President Mahmoud Ahmedenejad arrived in New York this week to address America and the world. There are those who would portray him as clownish or insane. He is neither. It is critical, therefore, that we understand both what he represents and what we can do about it.

Under Ahmedenejad, Iran actively supports numerous organizations throughout the Middle East and elsewhere who are dedicated to the destruction of the United States and/or its allies and strategic interests. Be it Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, or the Mahdi Army, Iran has devoted many years to supporting militant anti-Western organizations both publicly and privately.

It has publicly provided arms, training and assistance to militant groups for almost 30 years. Despite Iranian denials of involvement with Shia militias in Iraq, there is abundant evidence pointing to their hand in both material and operational support for attacks against U.S. soldiers. Iran openly conspires with regimes throughout the world who aim to undermine or oppose American influence and interests. Of all the countries in the world that oppose the U.S., Iran is the only state actor who routinely bears responsibility for U.S. deaths.

Although Iran claims that its nuclear program is geared entirely towards civilian power generation, there is reason to believe that it is also pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Whether this is the case or not is less important than that Iran’s rivals in the region believe it is true, and there is little question that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel all believe it. Few people could reasonably argue that the world would benefit from a nuclear arms race in the region, nor from the increase in dubiously secured fissile material and highly trained nuclear weapons technicians that such an arms race would generate.

The answer then is war, plain and simple…

…Or is it? Certainly, it is reasonable to say some action should be taken, but what action will most effectively result in a positive outcome in both the short and long term? Arguments have been made for an economic response, a military response, or both.

Economically, we could impose sanctions, but there are limits to what new sanctions can be applied. Europe and the major players in the developing world are unlikely to accept any restriction that banned Iranian oil from reaching them. Most significant financial interactions and trade are already highly restricted with Iran. Furthermore, for the most part, restrictions are more likely to damage elements of the population who oppose Iran’s current government than those who support it. Aggressive American economic policy is used to justify cracking down on political opposition within Iran while subsidizing Ahmedenejad’s supporters by oil money. Some economic pressure is certainly helpful in stirring up dissent against Iran’s current policies. Realistically, however, there is little that more sanctions can expect to accomplish.

Alternatively, a military response boils own to either an invasion or short term air strikes. An invasion is impractical for many reasons. Though there is little serious doubt that the American military could defeat the Iranians in an armed conflict, to do so would require abandoning our current strategic interests and/or calling up large numbers of our already stretched reserves. Once we had achieved victory, the United States would be faced with trying to administer a territory with twice the population and four times the land area of Iraq. Add to that that Iranians would certainly resent our invasion and occupation, an insurgency would doubtlessly ensue.

As a second military option, bombing critical infrastructure or strikes against high value targets promises limited returns. The former would have little direct impact on Iran’s military or political administration, but it would solidify the resolve of hard line anti-American elements in the country. Civilian casualties would serve to validate the claims that America is a dangerous enemy of Iran, and in the long run would justify the need for nuclear defense. The later strategy of striking Iranian military targets offers no guarantee of successfully destroying hidden or heavily fortified nuclear facilities. In short, military strikes offer great risk and little realistic benefit.

In many ways, Iran is the most promising country in the Middle East in terms of a potential stable democracy. Iran’s population is generally characterized as young, computer literate and pro-western. In recent polls, the overwhelming majority view improved relations with the West as their highest priority. Despite its Byzantine structure, Iran’s government is essentially a representative democracy, and there have been major strides in the last several years towards reform of the hard line elements that currently hold power.

What is called for is a multi-tiered engagement strategy aimed at further distancing Iran’s people from their current government while simultaneously building a positive long-term relationship with reformists. Call it carrot-and-stick.

The carrot is a program of aid, financial incentives and chances for interaction directed at Iran’s people and monitored to ensure it is not subverted or abused by their government. Internet access, small business loans, online courses and foreign student visas, especially for arts and humanities programs, are a few areas that could be explored in an effort to encourage a closer association between Iranians and Americans. While there would have to be substantial safeguards in place to protect against abuse, espionage, and fraud, any effort to engage Iran’s people at the expense of its administration can only be good.

The stick takes the form of continued economic sanctions, albeit with some modifications, and increased pressure on countries which do business with Iran’s government, especially military, heavy industry and nuclear. While there is strong evidence to suggest that some degree of economic sanctions has increased public disapproval of Iran’s current administration, this must be tempered by the example of pre-invasion Iraq, where drastic sanctions were significantly more damaging to those who opposed the regime then those who were for it. As the world’s largest economy, the U.S. has substantial weight to throw against those who enable Iran’s government in flaunting international law and endangering regional stability.

At its simplest, America is a brand name. It historically is the brand that represents freedom of expression, adherence to justice and equality, innovation in technology, excellence in education and economic success. If America can successfully market itself to Iran’s people, then it stands to gain a powerful long term ally in a critical region of the world. If America fulfils Ahmedenejad’s characterization of it as a selfish, tyrannical, brutal, unstable, greedy, self serving colonial empire, we can only hope for a future of tyrants, puppets and instability.