Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The United States and Iran: Reassessing a Failed Foreign Policy

By Nate JaraPublished November 9, 2014

The United States seems convinced that preventing the Islamic Republic of Iran from developing a nuclear weapon is critical to preserving stability and American strategic interests in the Middle East. However, its efforts to do so have failed much more than one might be inclined to think.
By Nate Jara, 11/09/14

Iran and its desire to attain a nuclear arsenal has been a thorn in the side of the United States for quite some time. Despite hefty sanctions by the United States and a number of it allies, the Islamic Republic is no less stable than it was at the turn of the millennium. Iran's nuclear energy infrastructure improves daily, and its bustling university system has made Iran one of the region's newest centers for technology and innovation; all in the face of a coordinated sanctions program that has only succeeded in inconveniencing the Iranian economy, rather than crippling it. 

Regardless of one's views on the credibility of claims made by many American politicians, pundits, and experts about the threat Iran poses to stability in Middle East, it is clear that the United States has failed in its mission to deter an Iranian nuclear program, as well as its broader mission of undermining Iran's growth into a regional power. While it is certainly true that Iran does not currently possess a functional nuclear arsenal, concluding that this is a result of a successful American foreign policy is flawed for a number of reasons, but namely two. 

First, North Korea has already shown the world that a state can build a nuclear arsenal while suffering from much harsher sanctions than the one Iran is currently subject to. This seems to suggest that Iran's decision not to (openly) pursue a nuclear arsenal cannot be summed up as a lack of means. If anything, the fact that the current regime under President Rouhani has been significantly more transparent in submitting to stricter IAEA regulations and inspections points more towards a showing of good faith. 

Could the change of heart be chalked up to American deterrence? Possibly, but the Iranians know as well as anyone else in the international community that the United States is setting a red line it cannot enforce when it says military strikes are not off the table if it means denying the Iranians a nuclear program. A pre-emptive strike within the borders of a sovereign state would be grossly illegal and suffer from harsh international criticism. 

Second, and more importantly, the idea of a "breakout capability" makes the distinction between states that possess functional arsenals and states that do not significantly less meaningful. "Breakout capability" refers to a state that has the capacity to rapidly produce a nuclear weapon if it were to choose to do so but decides not to commit fully to constructing the weapon. Most estimations seem to place the time between Iran deciding to construct a WMD and having a functional weapon at 2 to 3 months. Iran already possesses a wealth of enriched uranium due to its nuclear energy program, so if Iran were hypothetically set on constructing a nuclear weapon, the hard part is already done. 

The ease with which Iran could transition into fully committing to constructing a nuclear weapon seems to suggest that the American strategy of deterring and undermining Iranian nuclear ambitions through sabotage, espionage, and economic coercion has failed dramatically. Though there is certainly room to argue that a nuclear Iran does not pose the severe threat to the Middle East that many seem to be convinced it does, Washington does not seem to be ready to have that conversation yet. If that's the case, and the potential of a nuclear Iran still presents a threat to both American national security and strategic interests in the region, then the United States needs to seriously rethink its strategy for preventing Iran's development of a nuclear program.