Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Clearly Clouded: The Persian Predicament

Chris Seiple


April 13, 2012

By Chris Seiple

The U.S. is apparently moving toward more decisive action regarding Iran’s nuclear capacity. This weekend, the U.S. will join with Russia, China, France, Germany, and the U.K. in Istanbul to consider Iran’s unspecified “new initiatives” regarding their nuclear program. Secretary of State Clinton said last weekend that the “window of opportunity” will not “remain open forever.”

Given the failure of past negotiations, it is necessary to consider how best to proceed should these weekend meetings not succeed.

No one wants the Iranian regime to acquire a nuclear weapon. The regime exports and supports terrorism throughout the world, and its leadership has repeatedly and publicly stated that it seeks the destruction of Israel.

Viewing this issue, however, is like a visit to the eye doctor; only a combination of various lenses provide the necessary perspective to balance shortsightedness and long-term vision.  

The intelligence lens is necessarily the first optic in viewing the clear and present danger posed by a nuclear Iran. Yet, after not finding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq—despite the consensus of nearly every intelligence agency in the world confirming their existence—can Americans be assured of a preponderance of evidence that would warrant military action against Iran?

Let’s assume that sufficient evidence is available. The next lens concerns our military capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity. The Iranians have placed various nuclear facilities deeply underground throughout the country, making complete destruction of their nuclear program nearly impossible. Surely an attack would delay Iran’s nuclear capacity, but for how long? And at what political and regional costs?

Next, let’s look through the lens of the Iranian people, who are generally cosmopolitan and tolerant, and who do not like the regime, as the June 2009 demonstrations most visibly reveal. Would an attack perversely lend legitimacy to a discredited regime, limiting any chance for internal political change?

Finally, let’s expand the aperture to include the rest of the “Muslim street.” An attack that inherently demands U.S.-Israeli coordination would build unity against America across the Muslim majority world.

The combined implications of a significant military strike are potentially threefold.

First, Islamists throughout the Middle East would be less inclined to encourage democracy: The politics could be too-easily defined against the “Zionist-Crusader” cabal that prevented a Muslim country from having nuclear weapons that they themselves already possess.  Second, it would become even more unlikely that peace negotiations would be renewed regarding Israel-Palestine, the primary lens through which much of the Muslim world (negatively) views America.

Third, a diminished Shi’a Iran would only enhance the credibility of Sunni Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has increased its oil supply at the request of the U.S., providing an option to those who no longer buy Iranian oil under the threat of U.S. penalties. An American-Israeli strike against Iran would degrade Saudi Arabia’s geo-political, religious and oil-exporting competitor, while implicitly continuing to support their export of an intolerant Islam in the Muslim majority world. (After all, the religious freedom problem in the Muslim-majority world, and its security implications, is foremost about how Muslims treat Muslims.)

In other words, the U.S. risks losing much more over the long-term if a military strike should occur – whether the strike is successful or not. So what might a comprehensive American policy in the Middle East look like?

America should unambiguously declare to Iran and the world that it (and not Israel) will take deliberate military action against Iran’s nuclear program after presenting evidence that is not only convincing but compelling. “Deliberate,” however, does not necessarily mean massive. Rather, appropriate action would be calibrated, beginning with an isolated but small demonstration of what military action looks like, signaling what might follow. Such a clear declaration—backed by the political will to carry it out—paradoxically creates the space for a comprehensive vision of regional engagement.

Elements of that long-term vision could include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Encouraging and working with all elements of transitional governments throughout the region, especially freely elected Islamists, to write and implement constitutions that actively protect all people as equal citizens under the rule of law —including Muslims not of the majority Islamic sect in a particular country as well as non-Muslims;
  • Discerning a comprehensive strategy to enable Iranian and Syrian democracy;
  • Re-starting the Israel-Palestine peace process (toward which a post-Assad Syria could contribute);
  • Engaging Saudi Arabia directly about religious freedom; and,
  • Developing, finally, a 10-year energy strategy that weans America off of Middle Eastern oil.

If the U.S. government views these elements in isolation, its vision cannot help but be cloudy. On the other hand, if America consistently articulated a clear vision for its engagement of Iran, the Middle East and North Africa, it is likely that more people from the region would not only understand and even respect U.S. policy, they would support U.S. military action if it became necessary.

—Chris Seiple is the President of the Institute for Global Engagement.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”