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



Barack Obama belatedly decided his policy in Afghanistan by ordering a surge of 30,000 troops. Now he faces an equally tough decision on how to deal with a defiant Iranian government that is determined to become a nuclear power in the Middle East.

In October, the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia hosted a conference highlighting the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall's fall. A speaker noted that few observers realized at the time how profoundly this event would change the strategic landscape of Europe, as it led to the early reunification of Germany, the demise of the Soviet Union, and formation of the European Union (EU).

A similar dramatic change, this one in the Middle East, occurred ten years earlier, in 1979, when a radical Islamic movement overthrew Iran's government headed by the ailing Shah. Within months, the new Revolutionary Islamic regime sanctioned the seizure in Tehran of fifty-two American diplomats by the Revolutionary Guards, who held them prisoners under deplorable conditions for fourteen months. The United States realized it now faced a virulently anti-western leadership in Iran determined to drive western influence from the region and spread its radical Islamic ideology.

Americans were stunned by Iran's dangerous action. The world waited to see how President Jimmy Carter would respond to this flagrant violation of international law and threat to America's influence in the Persian Gulf. He chose diplomacy and economic sanctions instead of more forceful action, such as a naval blockade of Iran's ports. But Tehran remained defiant, and the U.S. government appeared to the world as weak.

Critics charged that the president lacked courage, but supporters said the hostages could be killed if military action was ordered. A few months later, Carter attempted a military rescue mission, but the plan was flawed and was aborted while underway. Diplomatic relations with Tehran have remained broken for thirty years.

George W. Bush refused to engage Tehran in discussions about its nuclear program, but he encouraged Britain, France, Germany, and Russia to find ways to dissuade Tehran from building nuclear weapons. The U.N.'s Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was empowered to monitor Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran claims is for peaceful purposes only. Those diplomatic efforts have largely failed.

Early this year, President Obama offered to hold direct talks with Iran's representatives in an effort to improve relations. But last month Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, publicly rejected his overtures and warned Iranians against being "perverted" by talks with Washington. ("Iran's Khamenei Rejects U.S. Outreach: Obama Efforts Disdained," (Wash. Post, Nov. 4).

Israel is a major factor in any showdown that Washington and NATO may undertake with Iran. Several Israeli governments have dismissed European efforts to negotiate with Iran, citing Tehran's refusal to recognize Israel's right to be a state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's lieutenants have suggested that Israel may take military action on its own if Iran acquires nuclear weapons.

In this growing crisis, Barack Obama has three alternative choices for dealing with a defiant Iran:

  1. Impose severe economic sanctions. Washington and its NATO allies are ready to impose tougher sanctions on Tehran, but they haven't yet convinced Russia and China to support a U.N. resolution for this because both have extensive trade relations with Iran. Without their full support, economic sanctions will not be effective.
  2. Undermine the current government. The student-led protest movements that sprang up following Iran's rigged elections in June could be supported by large political and financial aid. But open western assistance would discredit the dissidents and strengthen, rather than weaken, the government's hold on power. Neither Washington nor European governments think the Iranian opposition is strong enough today to change the regime or its policies.
  3. Accept Iran as a nuclear power, with constraints. This policy may appeal to many Americans and Europeans because it would not risk war in the Middle East. Choosing this course would be politically risky for the president because it reverses thirty years of policy on isolating Iran. Moreover, it would be totally unacceptable to Israel which exercises substantial political influence in Washington.

An additional, but not likely, course for the president would be to use limited force, for example, naval interdiction of cargo ships to prevent Iran from acquiring strategic materials for building nuclear weapons. This risky operation could lead to armed clashes with Iran's naval forces, and condemnation by Russia and China and some NATO allies. War in the Middle East and a rapid surge in gas prices at the pump is not a course the president should contemplate unless the United States is directly threatened.

File last modified on Wednesday, 16-DEC-2009 10:59 AM EST

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