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Between a Star and a Hard Place: America’s Role in the Israeli-Iranian Conflict

Escalating tensions between Israel and Iran have created an environment suited for a preemptive strike. Most Israeli officials have taken the hard stance—that Iranian nuclear intentions are violent. Continued denial of access to development sites and general Iranian noncompliance contribute legitimacy to Israeli fears.

The United States remains a powerful—and important—actor caught in the middle of the conflict. Without conclusive evidence of the existence Iranian nuclear weapons American policy in the situation must be one of diplomacy and non-aggression. The real and potential costs of a preemptive strike are extreme under current circumstances. The United States cannot shy away from punishing Israel should the nation ignore international pressures and launch a unilateral attack; however, all efforts must continue and sanctions maintained until Iran complies with United Nations  (UN) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) policy, which would guarantee full and open searches of its development and military sites.

On Thursday, March 8, the Iranian Ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, stated that his country “is ready to re-engage with [the] IAEA.” This comes as a major improvement in relations after  Iran barred the agency’s inspectors from inspecting a military base at Parchin on February 24. Despite this recent statement by Soltanieh, Iranian cooperation is severely lacking. Yukiya Amano, director-general of the IAEA, stated, “Iran is not telling us everything,” hinting at undeclared and unknown Iranian nuclear development sites during an interview on Wednesday, March 7.

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano briefs international press and media during the last day of the Board of Governors meeting.

Continued Iranian nuclear development and non-cooperation call for some level of international action. The economic sanctions currently in place are adequate to this end and should remain in place until further inspections occur without disruption. The sanctions have cut harshly into Iranian oil exports, which compose 80% of total Iranian international business. Sanctions have also disrupted relations between Iran and its few close allies. China, for example, is leaning towards maintaining American relations rather than defending Iran, despite its reliance on Iranian oil and Iranian threats of closing the Strait of Hormuz.

Repercussions on the global economy cannot be overstated. Energy economist James Hamilton said in reference to the 1973 OPEC embargo, the Iranian Revolution of 1978, the 1980 Iran-Iraq War, and the 1990 Persian Gulf War: “these events took out 4%-7% of net world productions and were associated with oil price increases of 25%-70%.” Iran produces 4.9% of the world’s total oil, however threats of closing the Strait of Hormuz are much more significant. Over 20% of World supply is carried through this passage. The effects a closure on the global economy would be significant.  Struggling European countries with small oil reserves and a substantial reliance upon Iranian oil will have the greatest difficulties affording the rising prices that should be expected.

However, Israeli fears cannot be dismissed. Iranian secrecy and anti-Israeli sentiment is very real—and a matter of concern. Since 1979 Iran has not recognized Israel’s existence and has supported groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. While claims that Ahmadinejad has explicit plans to “wipe Israel off the map” are not completely true, the tension between these states must not be ignored. It must be recognized that Israel has legitimacy in fears of vulnerability. Defensive action, however, cannot take the form of a preemptive attack. American policy must make all efforts to accomplish this goal, including real threats to Israel, such as economic sanctions or denial of aid should Israel ignore international pressures and make an attack on Iranian soil.

Without conclusive evidence of Iranian nuclear weapons, military action must not be taken by Israel or the United States. Current American military policy should be restrictive, not expansive. With an expensive and widespread presence in the Middle East, further investment in regional warfare is the last thing at which American policy should aim. Furthermore, a military conflict with Iran would be more economically and physically exhausting than any other Middle Eastern conflict to date.

Malcolm Chalmers, UK director of defense policy studies at the Royal United Services Institute, argues that Iranian response policy is unknown and cannot be expected to be “rational.” An Israeli strike on nuclear sites, he says, could quickly escalate into a full regional war. Sites underground, even beneath mountains, add more strategic difficulty to an Israeli preemptive strike, reducing the chances of initial success. Furthermore, Iranian military capabilities cannot be underestimated. With a total military force close to 4,000,000 troops the Iranian military outranks American military totals (close to 3,000,000). And the Russian made Sukhoi-Su 25, used by the Iranian Air Force, outperforms the American and Israeli mainstay F-15 Eagle in 90% of tests.

American foreign policy in the swelling Iranian-Israeli struggle must aim at diplomacy, a non-violent solution. While Israeli fears are valid to a certain degree, the costs of intervention in the region are severe. Pressure must remain on Iran until the IAEA is given open access to Iranian nuclear sites and can draft full, uninterrupted reports. The global kickback from economic sanctions on Iran and the potential closure of the Strait of Hormuz are costs that may not be avoidable; they might be necessary to reach a peaceful conclusion to the current Iranian-Israel conflict.



–  Ari Salas

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