Also see: Egypt |Iran |Tunisia | Yemen | Jordan|Syria
Iran is neither Arab, nor did it have a 2011 “Spring.” Yet Iran is constantly in the news as an emerging leader in the Middle East and a constant pain in President Barack Obama’s side.
From its 2009 suppression of the so-called Green Revolution, to its alleged aspirations for nuclear weapons, to its March 2 elections boycotted by the country’s reformist faction, Iran seems to embody that which runs counter to America’s interests and political ideology.
But when looking at the context of Iran’s actions and the political infighting within the theocratic regime, Iran’s politics start to make a lot more sense.
Internally, politics in Iran have been rocky since the quasi-public split between Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about three years ago. Formally, Ahmadinejad, as the leader of the Parliament, is the political leader and the face of Iran. However, in this theocratic system Ayatollah Khamenei yields the real power.
Ahmadinejad was formerly a member of the conservative political movement, yet his populist policies seemed to have rubbed his establishment the wrong way. Iran has not had an uprising in the vein of the revolutions in Egypt or Yemen, but did suppress a popular movement in 2009 triggered by what seemed to be rigged elections by the President’s supporters. Many conservatives blamed the unrest that followed on Ahmadinejad’s poor handling of the situation.
The power divide in the Middle East is often categorized as falling along sectarian lines, namely a Sunni/Shiite state divide. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has emerged as the Shiite counterbalance to Saudi Arabia’s Sunni influence in the region.
Within the context of this internal political unrest and the balance of power in the region, Iran as a majority Shiite nation is thrilled at the new revolutionary aspirations of their brethren in neighboring countries. Many Arab nations have majority Shiite populations which are largely suppressed by a Sunni minority in the form of a monarchy or dictatorship, such as in Bahrain. Newly liberated Shiite Arabs will tilt the balance of power more towards Iran. And with more regional clout, Iran could theoretically counterbalance and push out the United States’ influence in the region.
To further increase their influence in the region, Iran is now allegedly trying to add the supremacy afforded nations with nuclear weapons. Yet Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon could provoke an arms race within the region. Iran’s neighboring dictatorships already feel very threatened by a Shiite Iranian government which came to power though a popular uprising in 1979. If Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, Sunni leadership in the region will feel pressed to follow suit.
In response to the new sanctions imposed on Iran by the international community for its alleged nuclear aspirations, Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. At first glance, this looks like a futile and pointless gesture, as China gets more of its oil through the Strait of Hormuz than the United States does. The resulting world economic instability would be difficult to handle, but not terribly so.
However, the United States as the foremost naval power in the world today, and a hegemon since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has taken upon itself the responsibility of ensuring that sea lanes are kept open to trade. Preventing the free travel of oil through the Strait of Hormuz would be a direct challenge to the United States’ authority to police international waters.
In the past, the United States reacted to Iran with vague threats and international sanctions. However, Obama, probably pressured by the election season, has now drawn a red line in the sand. Obama has publicly stated that the United States will use military force if necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Now, the United States will risk losing its status as a world hegemon if it does not follow through with its threat of force. While such a loss of status is probably much more in line with the world’s power structure today, it is a transition that no politician wants to be responsible for. And if the United States loses its status as a hegemon during a diplomatic confrontation with Iran it will give Iran an enormous boost of prestige in the region. Iran will then be able to present itself as an alternative superpower to the United States in the Middle East.
So what’s so wrong with military action to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon? Experts say that a military strike in the same vein as previous Israeli air strikes would only set back the Iranian nuclear program by, at most, a year.
Iran learned from the Israeli stealth bombing of Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities. Iranian nuclear facilities are spread out and would take many separate attacks to neutralize all of the active sites. There, U.S. military has also admitted publically that its bunker-busting bomb is not capable of reaching hard targets in Iran.
Without a viable military response to Iran, diplomacy must win out. Americans can only hope that diplomacy remains the administration’s option of choice during an American election year.