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3Qs: The Iran dilemma

Photo by Mike Mazzanti.

Relations between Iran and the U.S. have deteriorated in recent months, as America has sought to tighten economic sanctions aimed at Iran’s nuclear program and Iran has responded by threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, cutting off seaborne access to Persian Gulf oil. We asked professor Kimberly Jones, the associate director of the international affairs program and a faculty associate in the Middle East Center for Peace, Culture and Development, to analyze the complex relationship between the Middle Eastern nation, the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Why does what happens in Iran present such a major concern to the United States and other Western nations?

There are numerous reasons why the United States pays particular attention to Iran. For one, the U.S. and many of its key allies are concerned that Iran is actively seeking to develop a nuclear weapon. Second, Iran is strategically situated along the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway through which a major portion of global oil flows. Critically, Iran has threatened to close the strait resulting in a flurry of diplomatic posturing. Moreover, Iran has manifest interests, to differing degrees and expressed in different ways, in two of its neighbors: Afghanistan and Iraq. In terms of other states in the region, Iran has had acrimonious relations with two key U.S. allies — Saudi Arabia and Israel. Finally, Iran is on the U.S. Department of State’s list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism,” in part because of its linkages with groups such as Hamas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

If you just look at this list, Iran does indeed look like a global pariah. But this is just a list and beyond it lays a rich context underlying its strategic decisions — from engagement with actors in Iraq to “threats” regarding the Strait. We also need to be very careful to separate the rhetoric, harmful and outlandish as it may be at times, from hard actions, looking at Iran’s intent in a more nuanced way. If one truly wants to impact its decision-making in a positive way, one needs to understand the context in all its complexity.

What incentives does Iran have to cooperate with the international community on issues such as nuclear inspections and oil trade?

Contrary to the popular rhetoric, Iran is a rational actor and it responds in different ways to positive and negative inducements — carrots and sticks. However, too much attention, especially in the U.S., has been focused on the sticks — in part for political reasons. On the one hand, Iran doesn’t have a tremendous incentive to respond (in a good way) to the use of sticks such as sanctions — in part because there is, to a degree, a matter of national pride at stake. There is a sense of not wanting to be seen as backing down or “caving” to U.S. pressure.

On the other hand, Iran is suffering under the weight of sanctions and it does seek to manage its pariah status. It wants to strike a balance positioning itself as a regional leader against an ascendant Turkey, and stand up to what it perceives as Western/U.S. hegemonic policies toward the region.

How do reported covert actions — such as the recent killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist, which Iran has blamed on Israel — complicate international relations between Iran and the United States?

While Israel is a major U.S. ally, Iran and Israel view each other as enemies. Notably, Iran is not the only nation to question whether Israel is behind the recent murder of its scientist (as well as other covert actions). All of this, of course, adds another layer of complexity, raises serious concerns about regional stability and feeds a well-sated conflict.This is all set against a backdrop in which some think preemptive action, such as an attack from Israel or the United States, is needed to neutralize Iran. Overt military engagement with Iran is not in the best interests of either the U.S. or Israel. It misunderstands the threat and the costs far outweigh any potential benefit.