Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


December 2005

As America debates how long U.S. troops should remain in Iraq, to bolster the new government after December 15, neighboring Iran looms as the most serious near-term security threat facing both the United States and Europe.

The conflict in national interests between Iran's Islamic regime and the western powers can be stated succinctly: Iran desires to become a nuclear power in order to gain international influence and prestige; the European Union and the United States regard the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran as a great threat to their interests in the Middle East and South Asia. Russia, another interested party, does not want a nuclear armed Iran.

Iran's leaders claim their nuclear program is for civilian purposes only, not for building nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) does not accept that claim and demands that Iran submit to inspections of all its nuclear facilities. In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush branded Iran as part of an "axis of evil," including also Iraq and North Korea, that threatened world peace. After American forces succeeded in toppling Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, neo-conservatives urged the White House to turn its attention to Iran and North Korea. They suggested that strong action, including military pressure, be exerted against Iran to force its hard-line government to change course or, even better, to induce its ouster.

Unlike North Korea, a desperately poor country with few natural resources, Iran is a more economically developed state that has large oil exports to finance a nuclear program. Economic incentives are therefore not a potent bargaining chip in negotiations with Tehran, as they are with North Korea.

Four policy options are open to Washington and Europe in dealing with Iran:

A precedent for this option is Libya, which agreed two years ago to give up its quest to be a nuclear power in exchange for political and economic support from Europe and the United States.

A precedent for this action is Israel's 1981 aerial attack on Iraq's nuclear weapons facility, then nearing completion. This bombing curtailed Iraq's nuclear program, but it did not stop Saddam Hussein's determination to continue the quest.

Today, Washington is skeptical that EU-3 negotiations will convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Policymakers worry that Iran will "string along" the Europeans and then announce that it has achieved nuclear power status. India followed that course in the 1990s.

If EU-3 negotiations with Tehran reach an impasse and Russia or China refuses to accept U.N. sanctions against Iran, what should the United States do?. Few Americans are willing to accept a nuclear-armed Iran that is run by an anti-American Islamic regime, one that aspires to be the dominant power in the Middle East and threaten U.S. and British influence in the Persian Gulf.

The military option has little support in the United States at present because of our sobering experience in Iraq. Even though the Pentagon has the capability to launch accurate, non-nuclear, weapons from submarines and the air to destroy one or more Iranian weapons plants, Congress and the public lack any desire to approve such action unless Iran poses a direct threat to the United States or its forces in the Middle East.

As a result, the policy dilemma in Washington will continue.

File last modified on Saturday, 15-DECEMBER-2005 2:17 PM EST

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