President Obama announced a more aggressive approach to Iranian nuclear proliferation, but American aggression is misplaced and fails to understand Iranian policy. One of the fundamental theories in international theory is that every nation-state’s goal is to survive, meaning the elites will do anything to remain in power. Nuclear annihilation brought on by the launch of nuclear weapons in no way facilitates that goal; neither does handing off such weapons to terrorist groups, especially when such weapons have a unique radiation signature that is traceable to the plant—and, thus, country—from which it originated. Next, Hezbollah, which some suggest could be Iran’s proxy in a nuclear scenario, almost certainly will refuse a part in any scheme because it does not want to lose the legitimate political power it has finally built up in Lebanon.
Furthermore, a strike can at best only delay the Iranian nuclear program, while painting Iran as a victim of the combined power of a consortium of Western nuclear states.
While intentionally stating that a military option to eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapons capability was not off the table, the President cautioned Israel against conducting a preemptive military strike in the same speech. Rather, he emphasized relying on hardened sanctions to force Iran to abandon its weapons programs.
Fundamentally, this raises two issues. The first is the assumption that Iran is actually on the path towards building nuclear weapons, which as recently as three weeks ago US intelligence found to be false. Given the high stakes, there is an important difference, however slight, between conducting nuclear research, which the general community agrees is happening, and actually becoming committed to building the weapon, upon which there is still debate given Iran’s zealous secrecy regarding its program.
In 2005, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a fatwā stating that the possession, production, and use of nuclear weapons were prohibited under Islam and that Iran would not proceed to acquire such weapons. Moreover, Khomeini reaffirmed his position on Feb. 28, calling the possession of nuclear weapons “a grave sin”.
Before one expresses skepticism about these claims, it is important to remember and consider the religious connotations that come from issuing a fatwā. Especially for Shiites, fatwās become binding based on the relation between the follower and the issuer of the fatwā. The religious, ethical, and even legal importance of following a fatwā is directly tied to the influence and legitimacy of the issuer. There is no one alive in Iran with more religious and political authority than Khamenei in Shiite Iran; therefore, his fatwās are the normative guide next for the nation. Reneging is not an option, not only because of the loss of legitimacy resulting from social stigma, but also because Khamenei is fighting his own internal political battles with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and cannot afford to lose his advantage as the supreme religious authority.
The second issue is that sanctions are not working; in fact, they very well may be harming the Western effort by reinforcing more stringent security measures and secrecy by the Iranian government. Yes, the argument goes, if they have nothing to hide, then why go through all of this trouble? Yet, Iran has every reason to protect an investment that has cost it significant money and lives. Sanctions simply push Iran to build greater defenses for its program, and the faster they do so, the faster the hawks in Israel will agitate for a preemptive strike that even Israel’s public is skeptical of.
An interesting new alternative that has not yet seemed to gain much traction with policymakers is to address the issue from a normative view rather than the traditional realist’s approach. Nina Tannenwald recently discussed this constructivist strategy as a way to deal with Iran with little-to-no risk. According to Tannenwald, employing Khomeini’s own rhetoric to emphasize Iran’s own skepticism about the morality of nuclear weapons can only help by either confirming Iran’s intent not to produce weapons or strengthening realist arguments for restraint on the issue. And it is not risky because this strategy is not mutually exclusive with the administration's current tactics.
On Feb. 29, the New York Times published an opinion piece by former chief of Israeli military intelligence and director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies Amos Yadlin that emphasized the “now is our last-chance to strike” mentality pervading current policy discussion. Yadlin, like many other political analysts and strategists in his position, quite justifiably stresses Iran’s possible acquisition of nuclear weapons. But before the hawks manage to provoke a crisis-mindset among governments and forces dangerous military action against Iran, everyone ought to take a moment to reconsider the entire set of arguments, the entire collection of evidence, and the entire range of alternatives, before taking drastic action.
Lucas Chan is an editorial assistant of the Georgetown Journal Online and a freshman in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.