The USA-Iran nuclear standoff currently underway is a manifestation of the changing global strategic realities where one is witnessing the global superpower being challenged by a regional power in the making over its right to pursue a civil nuclear power energy program. As a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is permitted to pursue such a program for its energy purposes. This legality is not challenged by the United States.
The United States maintains that Iran’s nuclear program will ultimately lead towards production of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Iran on the contrary maintains that its nuclear program is solely directed towards nuclear power generation and that its religion forbids the production of weapons of mass destruction.
Here one comes to the classic strategic dilemma of discerning intentions versus capabilities. In terms of Iranian capabilities to produce nuclear weapons, informed agencies in the United States assess that Iran is nearly a decade away from coming up with a nuclear weapon. This assessment is based on the available evidence on Iran’s present nuclear facilities. The UN nuclear watchdog agency IAEA , also has yet to come up with a definitive judgment on this issue. The United States establishment, however, is of the judgment, that an Iranian nuclear program, ostensibly for civilian nuclear power generation would ultimately be headed towards production of nuclear weapons by Iran.
The last few weeks have seen the unleashing of a relentless campaign orchestrated by the United States through the EU-3 (European Union countries-France, Germany and UK) for holding a special meeting of the IAEA and passing a resolution for referral of the Iran nuclear issue to the United Nations Security Council for imposing sanctions on Iran should it decline to cease its uranium enrichment program. The resolution stands passed but held in abeyance till March by which time the IAEA is expected to submit its own report on the issue.
Russia and China which have strong political and strategic linkages with Iran have advised the route of caution against any hasty actions by USA and the EU-3, even though both countries have for the time being gone along with the resolution. They have advocated that a diplomatic solution should be given preference over sanctions or a military solution.
The United States however seems to be in a different mood; it considers Iran to be in breach of its commitments and thus calls for strong action from the international community. The United States however faces a credibility problem here when it made similar noises in the run-up to the Iraq War that Iraq was engaged in production of nuclear weapons. It was used as a pretext for regime change in Iraq. Till today no evidence has been provided by USA even after a military occupation of Iraq for the last two years. The international community therefore would logically be wary of any similar US designs on Iran. The United States has made no secret of its intense dislike of the political dispensation in Iran, ever since 1979. That was the year the Islamic Revolution displaced the American protégé, the Shah of Iran from his throne.
Policy options for the United States in the US-Iran nuclear standoff seem to be limited against Iran. Many of the lobbies in the United States pushing for the military option against Iran do not seem to be reading the writing on the wall. Iran is no pushover state like Iraq. In terms of conventional military power, Iran is the predominant military power in the Gulf Region. Iran can use the oil weapon devastatingly against USA and its allies and drive their economies against the wall. Its long range ballistic missile arsenal and its asymmetric warfare capabilities can extract a significant price from any US military strikes against it. More significantly, with or without Israeli participation in US military strikes, the security of Israel would be seriously endangered by Iranian missile strikes. The same would be the case of US troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The United States is overstretched in its military commitments extending from Iraq to Afghanistan and with virtually the entire Islamic world ranged against it. It would be strategically unwise for USA to add one more military quagmire to its complex military challenges.
In the current USA-Iran nuclear standoff, rhetoric is flying high from both sides and brinkmanship being pursued without caution. The United States has to exercise more restraint in its rhetoric as it may eventually paint itself into a corner from where for reasons of its national prestige, it perforce is left with no other option, but the military option.