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Paul Heroux

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The Standoff With Iran: Challenges And Options

Posted: 12/30/11 11:30 AM ET

War is said to be the result of political failure.

The tense standoff with Iran is heating up again since Iran has threatened to shut down the 34-mile-wide Strait of Hormuz. 15 million barrels of oil are shipped through the Strait every day, which makes up about 1/3 of the world's sea shipped oil. According to Trita Parsi, an expert on Iran, cutting off ability to sell oil through blunt sanctioning Iran's Central Bank is not only unlikely to increase world oil prices and hurt a fragile and recovering economy, it would have the perverse effect of encouraging Iran to cut off the Strait.

As it stands now, cutting off the Strait would limit Iran's ability to ship oil but if sanctions on the Central Bank are going to do this anyway, there is little additional harm done to Iran by shutting down the Straits.

Regional Neighbors

There is perhaps no country more concerned about Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon than Israel. Iranian President Ahmadineajad said that Israel should be "wiped off the face of the map"; this is serious and cannot be taken lightly. But open nuclear war between Israel and Iran is very unlikely. Israel knows that the consequences would be grave and in Iran's case, the regime knows that it would result in their demise. But open nuclear war with Iran is not Israel's only concern. There exists the threat of coercion and terrorism.

Iran's relationship with Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations is reason for concern; Iran could pass off a nuclear weapon to Hezbollah for use in Israel. But the flip side to that would be that 1) Iran would be the first suspect in such an act and quickly be retailed against and 2) it would be an uncontrollable concession of power with unforeseen consequences for Iran to release a nuclear weapon to a non-state actor, in this case a terrorist organization.

Iraq's fledgling democracy is also likely to be negatively affected by war with Iran. And Saudi Arabia is also likely to be targeted, too. Syria may need to crackdown even more repressively on its internal protesters in order to support Iran.

Options

Sanctions have been the main weapon of choice in trying to deter Iran from pursuing a nuclear capacity. Iran declares that sanctions are a violation of their sovereignty since they insist that their nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes, a point that the IAEA and much of the world community believes is disingenuous.

Complicating the issue could be that attacking Iran's known nuclear sites may well provide Iran with the justification to openly declare a nuclear weapon program -- the argument could be made that the international community would never again attack a country with nuclear weapons, but this is a claim that Iran could be internally considering at present as a means of deterrence. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that an attack on Iran's nuclear sites would eliminate all of Iran's nuclear sites, only known sites can be targeted, and second, there is no way to eliminate Iran's base of knowledge on how to build nuclear weapons, something that Iran has not yet done.

The Obama administration offered a hand of diplomacy to Iran in 2009 but these overtures were outright rejected by Iran.

President Obama was severely criticized by Republicans for not intervening in the 2008 Green Revolution in Iran, but this criticism may be unwarranted. In 1953, the US participated in a coup that replaced a democratically elected leader with someone who proved to be ruthless and oppressive. The US has been given responsibility for all that was done under the Shah since.

Being that there seems that there are three options: diplomacy, war (including cyber attacks) and sanctions. David Fromkin wrote in the Independence of Nations that sanctions almost always lead to war. If we continue down this path, we will eventually end up in military confrontations with Iran. Sanctions alone can easily be considered hostile and akin to an act of war -- the Japanese felt this way in WWII and justified their attack on Pearl Harbor with this logic. Iran feels this way, too. Over thirty years of sanctions on Iran has not changed the regime's conduct and attitude towards the US. In fact, one could argue it has reinforced their perception that the West and the US in particular is anti-Iran and anti-peace in the region.

Least Worst Option

There is no good single option to resolve this stand off. However, there is another way and that involves a combination of sanctions and diplomacy.

In the 1990s, in the Balkans war, the US applied a dual-pronged strategy of military pressure and diplomacy, and it worked. The world is not yet at a point where military intervention is necessarily wise or needed. However, we are at the point where we need to be equally as aggressive with our diplomacy as we have been with sanctions.

Diplomacy with Iran could involve a return of unfettered IAEA inspectors as a good will gesture for an abatement of sanctions. We might not get this outcome with a combination of diplomacy and sanctions, but we certainly won't get this with sanctions alone. In fact, history tells us that we are most likely but unintentionally marching toward military confrontation with Iran, something that is not in the best interest of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq or any other nation in the region.

China needs to be included in this equation. It is a customer of Iran's oil and China is in a position to work with the U.S. on curtailing Iran's nuclear ambitions. But due respect must be paid and their interests must be appealed to via carrots and unintentional consequences to them of allowing Iran to further its nuclear program.

The U.S. need not worry about looking weak for aggressively pursuing diplomacy even if it is part of a dual prong approach. As we learned from 8 years of war with Iraq, the costs in blood and treasure associated with war undermine our national strength economically, politically and militarily and this makes us weaker, anyway.

There is hope in Iran. The people of Iran have peaceful intentions; they do not want war, and they do not like their government. This is a point of leverage that international community can use. But Iran is a very nationalistic country and war with Iran is likely going to unite the people behind an unpopular government. This should be avoided.

PAUL HEROUX previously lived and worked in the Middle East and was a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense and Disarment Studies. He has a masters in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com