There is perhaps no situation more fraught with peril than the unfolding crisis in the Middle East over Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program. Israel is rumored to be preparing a military strike against key Iranian nuclear facilities, the Iranian government alleges that the Israeli Mossad and the American CIA are behind a series of assassinations of nuclear scientists and computer sabotage, and Israel alleges that Iranian agents are behind a series of bombings targeting Israeli embassies in Georgia and India. Iranian agents may also have plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.
The next few months will be critical, as sources within the Israeli government have indicated that this spring will be the most favorable moment for a pre-emptive strike to delay or cripple Iran's nuclear program. Such a strike, were it to occur, could potentially involve the United States, particularly since there are questions about whether the Israeli military is capable of launching an effective strike on Iran without American military support. Israel has launched pre-emptive attacks on its neighbors' nuclear programs before, destroying an Iraqi reactor in 1981 and a Syrian reactor in 2007. However, the size of Iran, its distance from Israeli military bases, and the geographical diversity of its nuclear installations, would make a pre-emptive strike on Iran far more difficult. Furthermore, Iran is a major state sponsor of terrorism, and it is widely expected that an Israeli or joint American/Israeli attack would mean that Iran would retaliate against American and Israeli targets throughout the Middle East.
There is also an economic dimension to all of this: Iran is a major oil producer (though under heavy sanctions from the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States) and is adjacent to some of the world's most heavily-trafficked sea lanes. Oil prices have already spiked in no small part due to tensions in the region, and a military strike could send the cost of gasoline into the stratosphere. This would have serious repercussions on the U.S. economy and U.S. politics.
Iran's nuclear energy (as opposed to weapons) program dates back to the 1950s (Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, pledging not to develop nuclear weapons, in 1968), and was ironically enough sponsored by the United States. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, however, there have been growing concerns that the Islamic regime is developing nuclear weapons under the auspices of the civilian program. Iran's leaders have repeatedly denied that the country has a nuclear weapons program, and even some within the U.S. Intelligence Community (meaning the sum of the various intelligence agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Defense Intelligence Agency, among others) admit that Iranian intentions are ultimately unknown.
The Iranian military has missiles capable of hitting targets in Israel, widely considering to be the most likely target of any future Iranian nuclear strike (however, it is far from the only one -- several European and Arab capital are also potentially vulnerable). Due to Israel's small size and high population density, only a handful of nuclear weapons would be required to completely annihilate the Israeli population (and, considering the geographical proximity, the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank). This fact, combined with the anti-Semitism of the Iranian leadership (the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, has repeatedly denied the Holocaust ever happened and allegedly called for the annihilation of the State of Israel) has triggered fears in the Israeli government of a possible "second Holocaust" of the Jewish people.
Israel developed its own nuclear arsenal in great secrecy in the 1960s, and though it has never officially declared itself as a nuclear power, there are, according to most estimates, around 200 warheads in the Israeli arsenal. The Israeli navy fields submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles, ensuring that, even in the event of a nuclear strike annihilating Israel proper, the remnants of the Israeli military will be able to launch a retaliatory strike. This is one of the main arguments against a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities -- if Iran's leadership is not suicidal, then they would never actually launch a nuclear attack on Israel, since the Israeli counterattack would destroy Iran.
What the Left & Right Say
Both liberals and conservatives are divided on what to do about Iran, not just with each other between themselves. President Obama has repeatedly said that no options are off the table when it comes to containing Iran's nuclear program, including military force. The president's stance comes from two distinct schools of thought. One is that the United States must protect its ally Israel from a potential nuclear attack from Iran; the other is the president's commitment (widely shared by liberals) to the principle of nuclear non-proliferation.
Many to the left of the president, however, are against attacking Iran, arguing that the U.S. should not involve itself in yet another long, bloody, and expensive war in the Middle East; that the dangers of a war with Iran are far greater than a nuclear-armed Iran, which can be contained through classic principles of nuclear deterrence; that Iran may not actually even be developing nuclear weapons; that Israeli and American interests are, in this case, not the same; and that Israel is exercising an undue amount of influence on American policy.
Conservatives are also divided, though less so than liberals. Neo-conservatives, out of favor since the Iraq War, go further than most, arguing that a war with the goal of regime change ought to be waged against Iran. More moderate conservatives limit themselves to calling for air strikes on Iran's nuclear installations, since, they argue, Iran's leaders are religious zealots who cannot be expected to act rationally and will therefore not be deterred through mutually assured destruction. The GOP presidential campaign has brought forth declarations of support for Israel and military action against Iran from all candidates save one. Libertarian Ron Paul is on record as opposing war with Iran, and libertarians in general are against a first strike against Iran.
What follows is a brief sketch of Iranian history, and Iran has one ancient history. The Persian Empire, in its various forms and dynasties, spanned some 2,500 years. The Achaemenids ruled from Greece to India, butted heads with the Spartans at Thermopylae, and according to the Bible allowed the Jews to return to Israel from the Babylonian captivity, and were only finally conquered by Alexander the Great; the Parthians and later the Sassanids were Rome's and Byzantium's great enemy in the East; the Muslim conquerors of Iran adopted many Iranian customs themselves while thoroughly Islamizing Iran; the country felt the wrath of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. Zoroastrianism, one of the earliest monotheistic religions, was founded in Iran the 6th century BCE, and even to this day retains some adherents. Iranian culture, with roots stretching back millennia, is "Iran's prize possession," according to scholar of Iran Richard Nelson Frye, and Iran's ancient history and culture are a source of immense pride and passion amongst Iranians.
Modern Iran, however, is the product of a twentieth century replete with despotism, democracy, revolution, and theocracy. In 1900, Iran was a highly decentralized country dominated by Great Britain and Russia--the king, or shah, had little power outside of Tehran. Reza Shah, who came to power in a coup in 1921, modernized the Iranian state and dramatically expanded the size of the army, which formed the basis of his power. Despite Reza Shah's frequent efforts to break free of British orbit (he was sympathetic to Nazi Germany and even requested that the name Iran--which means "Land of the Aryans"--be used instead of Persia on official documents), Britain still had an outsized influence. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, the British and the Soviets invaded Iran and deposed Reza Shah, installing his son Muhammad Reza Pahlavi in his place. The monarch's power was somewhat proscribed from 1941-1953--the British encouraged constitutional monarchy and the Soviets supported the socialist movement in Iran.
This period of liberalization ended after the war, when Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq, a liberal and a nationalist politician, attempted to nationalized Iran's oil industry in the early 1950s, which had hitherto been controlled by the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Bluntly admitting in internal documents that "control of [Iranian oil] is of supreme importance," the British MI6, along with the CIA, launched a coup against Mossadeq in 1953, the result of which was to make the shah, backed by the army, again the supreme power in Iran. The shah presided over an oppressive, authoritarian state -- SAVAK, the shah's secret police, were renowned for their effectiveness in suppressing dissent. He was also firmly pro-American, and even maintained cordial relations with Israel.
The shah's reign came to an end in 1979, when a popular revolution forced him to flee the country. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a political and religious leader and fierce opponent of the shah, was declared the Supreme Leader of the newly-formed Islamic Republic of Iran later that year, outmaneuvering his more secular and less zealous fellow revolutionaries. The new republic, despite some democratic elements (including an elected president and parliament), was a theocracy, with supreme political power vested in unelected clerics.
The new government regarded both the Soviet Union and the United States with hostility, and relations with America deteriorated to the breaking point after a group of Tehran students took hostage the staff of the U.S. embassy. Khomeini also talked in his speeches about exporting the Islamic revolution abroad, alarming the secular dictators who dominated the Arab world. Seeking to capitalize on Iran's weakened position after the revolution, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched an invasion in 1980, sparking an eight-year-long bloodbath, involving both the use of chemical weapons and the appearance of World War I-style trench warfare, and killing nearly half a million Iraqis and half a million Iranians. The war concluded in a stalemate despite Soviet, American [who went so far as to engage Iranian naval and air forces in the Persian Gulf], French, and Arab support for Iraq.
Peace with Iraq in 1988 and Khomeini's death in 1989 moderated the regime somewhat, with Akbar Rafsanjani and moderate Mohammad Khatami serving as president, but hardliner Ali Khamenei succeeded Khomeini as Supreme Leader. In 2003, however, Iranian politics took a turn back to extremism after being labeled as part of the "Axis of Evil" by American president George W. Bush (Iran had hitherto been cooperating in a limited capacity with the United States in Afghanistan). In 2005, conservative populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who caught global headlines with his bellicose rhetoric, was elected over the more moderate Rafsanjani.
In 2009, however, Ahmadinejad's re-election was marred by massive fraud, which sparked immense national protests that culminated in the death of nearly one hundred people. Western analysts believe that as a result of the crackdown, the government enjoys little legitimacy in the eyes of its urban population; this could easily change, however, if a foreign power began bombing, as the Iraqis did in 1980.
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