In a 2006 Ali G. sketch, former US secretary of state James Baker was famously asked, “During the Gulf War (in 1991), when did you decide to invade Iran?” When Baker clarified that the US had never invaded Iran but had a “troop presence for a short period of time in southern Iraq,” British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, in the persona of Ali G., retorts: “Ain’t they the same thing though?”
Paradoxically, this jest may yet turn out to haunt the Obama administration as it grapples with the dilemma of a politically fractured and nuclear-ambitious Iran, while US troops continue to steadily draw down in Iraq even as that country holds elections.
Ever since the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the infamous hostage crisis during the Carter administration, relations between Washington and Tehran have “fluctuated between bad and extremely bad”, according to Shahram Chubin, a noted scholar on Iranian affairs at Wilson Centre. Even when relations were bad, the two sides did work together, as was the case when the US (and its close ally Israel) supplied weapons and spares to Iran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.
However, for most of the past 30 years, relations have remained extremely bad with Tehran labeling the US as the great Satan and calling for death to America and Washington responding with its own threats and the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996.
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Since the end of the Cold War, when Iran revived its nuclear programme and built a capacity to enrich uranium, relations have deteriorated even further. The 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his repeated calls to wipe Israel “off the map”, coupled with the growing nuclear weapons and missile potential of Iran has brought Washington and its allies dangerously close to an open conflict with Tehran.
Although there are fundamental ideological, political and strategic differences between the US and Iran, the nuclear issue has become both the cause and the symptom of the current state of relations between the two countries.
While there is no doubt that resolving the nuclear issue will remain a stop-gap solution, it is also clear that addressing the nuclear issue could become a useful conduit for the normalization of bilateral relations at the strategic level, if pursued earnestly.
Though there is unanimous agreement that Iran does not possess nuclear weapons (as is the case with North Korea—another of US President Barack Obama’s inherited challenges), there is broad agreement that Iran is well on its way to acquiring all the necessary capabilities and expertise to build a nuclear weapon, if it chooses to do so in the future.
While Iran has consistently claimed that it is not interested in building nuclear weapons, its inconsistent behaviour and reporting of its activities has raised concerns at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the nuclear proliferation watchdog.
In its latest report released on 18 February, IAEA noted, “Iran has not provided the necessary cooperation to permit the agency to confirm that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.”
The Obama administration and other champions of non-proliferation have two options to address their concerns over Iran: political-diplomatic or military. The former approach is reflected in a series of UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran as well as efforts by the five permanent members and Germany to negotiate with Iran. However, Iran has been reluctant to negotiate with the imposers of these very sanctions. One reason might be that these sanctions, some of which have been in place since the late 1990s, have not been effective in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Although the US and other members of UNSC are now contemplating a new series of sanctions to target Iran’s shipping, banking and insurance sectors, there is no certainty that these will either be approved (China remains opposed to imposing new sanctions) or effectively implemented. Perhaps that is why Tehran does not feel the pressure to negotiate its way out of these sanctions.
Another reason is the sheer mistrust that has plagued the relationship in which even a genuinely friendly overture, such as Obama’s Nawroz greeting last year, is seen with suspicion. While negotiations over the nuclear issue could have paved the way for a strategic dialogue, no such initiative appears likely between Washington and Tehran.
The military option, which would include a series of pre-emptive strikes by the US or its allies against Iran’s nuclear facilities and perhaps a naval blockade, has not been ruled out. In fact, Israel has similar contingency plans for Iran and continues to push the US on the military options. However, Washington is reluctant to exercise the military option for several reasons.
First, there is no certainty that such a pre-emptive strike would be successful against all the nuclear facilities in Iran. Second, a strike is only likely to delay a nuclear programme by a decade at the most and is unlikely to halt it entirely. Third, Iran, which neighbours both Iraq and Afghanistan and has a presence in Lebanon through Hezbollah, is well placed to retaliate with its own counter-offensive against the US and Israeli interests. Fourth, any limited attack, irrespective of its success, will also strengthen the hands of the Iranian hardliners, unless the US and its allies are willing to carry out another prolonged regime-change conflict. Finally, any attack will effectively kill the sanctions regime.
Despite these drawbacks, the military option remains on the table because the political-diplomatic efforts have reached a stalemate. Unless Iran and the US and its allies can break through this logjam and start a serious and unconditional discussion to not only address the nuclear issue but also normalize relations, there is every possibility that Ali G.’s comic sketch might become a tragic reality.
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight. Your comments are welcome at email@example.com.