Once Again, Iran Rattles its Saber

The hollow sounds of a rattled saber are nothing new in the world of international diplomacy, but one has to wonder how many times Iran will rattle theirs before the threats become more than just passionate rhetoric.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a fresh round of threats directed at the United States in the wake of last week’s discovery that Iran sought to assassinate a Saudi Arabian diplomat on American soil.  “If U.S. officials have some delusions, (they must) know that any unsuitable act, whether political or security, will meet a resolute response from the Iranian nation,” Iranian state TV quoted Khamenei as saying days after news of the assassination plot broke.

While calls for a military response to the brazen Iranian plot have been summarily dismissed by the White House, the administration does plan on using the allegations as leverage with other countries that have been reticent in approving harsher U.N. sanctions (particularly Russia and China).  President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have both stated that the United States will seek the harshest sanctions yet.  Further sanctions directed against Iran may not be far behind as reports begin to surface showing that the United Nations Atomic Agency is set to publish fresh intelligence data highlighting Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

With both the United States and Iran holding presidential elections over the next year and a half it seems unlikely that either side will soften their positions or tone down their discourse.  Despite the threat of U.N. sanctions and, in the most extreme circumstances, military action, Iran does hold a trump card of its own—the Strait of Hormuz.  This narrow body of water, bordered by Iran, is one of the most strategically important water ways in the world with nearly 20% of the world’s oil shipments passing through it on an annual basis.

The troubling prospect of Iranian interference in the Strait was recently broached in 2008 when Ali Mohammed Jafari, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, stated that any American or Israeli military attacks would be met with a blockade of the Strait by the Iranian Navy and Revolutionary Guard.  The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University noted that such a move by Iran could be economically devastating to international commerce and would irrevocably escalate tensions in the region.

With these considerations in mind, how far can we afford to push Iran?  Should we be worried about Iranian naval blockades in the Strait of Hormuz or military action against American and Israeli interests in the area?  Are U.N. sanctions anything more than a public slap on the wrist for Iran?  At what point does the international community consider military action against Iran in lieu of sanctions?

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  1. Whether Iran does in fact pose a legitimate threat to the international community is debatable. If the United States was successful in avoiding direct military conflict with what was a superpower – the Soviet Union (which the U.S. knew actually had nuclear weapons) – we should be able to thwart military conflict with Iran. Even if military action is warranted, the United States is broke and our troops are spread too thin as it is. Given the current fiscal crisis, the U.S. is in no position to invest billions of more dollars in another war. On a more sentimental note, I don’t think the loved ones of the troops fighting in Iraq want to see these young men and women finally reach their home doorstep only to have to turn right back around and head to battle yet again.

  2. Although it is debatable whether sanctions are an effective tool in constraining or altering the actions of nations, there is ample evidence in favor of the argument that sanctions simply do not work and that they are nothing more than a mere “public slap on the wrist.” In many instances, sanctions are a precursor to military action, and in some instances, other countries just ignore or effectively undercut them. Additionally, in some cases where economic sanctions are utilized in order to force governments to change their behavior, the very same sanctions create the opposite effect. Julie Browne of New York University wrote a paper on the effects of economic sanctions and concluded that sanctions may lead oppressive governments to increase repression in order to smother political opposition. Professor Adam Roberts, a research fellow at Oxford University, says “There are very few cases where you can definitely identify sanctions as having had a success, except sometimes in combination with other factors.” The United States has also issued sanctions against Iran for years, and the behavior of the Iranian government has yet to change. Lastly, evidence shows that sanctions against Iran have had a substantial effect on Iran’s economy and infrastructure while the political effect is extremely minimal. So, I really cannot see the United Nations sanctions having any effect on Iran’s course of action.

    For Julie Browne’s paper see: https://files.nyu.edu/jab636/public/SanctionsRepression.pdf

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