Overflowing with distrust, deception, and ulterior motives, America and Iran’s tumultuous saga has the makings of a made-for-TV, B-rated movie. The twists, turns, and over-the-top drama are a guilty pleasure for movie viewers just as news junkies cannot get enough of the endless dramatics between the United States and Iran. The world wants to, but cannot, turn off news programs or put down the morning paper that details the latest explosion in America-Iran relations. Unlike the inconsequential and all-too-often mindless plots of television movies, the America-Iran narrative is relative, revolving around two of the world’s most dangerous and sensitive topics: nuclear weapons and state sovereignty.
Act I: Nuclear Weapons
While the United States’ ‘Atoms for Peace’ program helped Iran start its nuclear program in 1957, the country’s nuclear development became a source of contention after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Despite nearly twenty years of nuclear partnership, the 1979 overthrow of the Shah’s regime and instating of an Islamic government obliterated the two countries’ longstanding friendship and eventually the United States’ desire to aid Iran in achieving its nuclear ambitions. Although a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), whose goal is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and promote peaceful use of nuclear energy, and decrease the size of its nuclear program after its 1979 regime change, the newly established Islamic Republic continued, albeit slowly, its nuclear program.
Despite severing diplomatic ties with Iran, the American government continued to impose its views and will on the direction of Iran’s nuclear program. As the United States cut off enriched uranium supplies, Iran sought alternate benefactors. With assistance from other countries, the Islamic Republic of Iran revved up its nuclear program in the 1980’s. The United States quickly and strongly vocalized its concerns about potential negative effects of Iran’s seemingly unstable and extremist government possessing a dangerous technology.
While acceptable for an American ally to possess nuclear capability, an adversary was a different story. Since the break in American-Iran relations, sanctions have been a key, but controversial, feature of American policy toward Iran. Although most unilateral American sanctions do not directly target Iran’s nuclear program, legislation aims to indirectly influence Iran’s nuclear activities. Sanctions began with President Carter, among which was his ban on the import of Iranian oil to the United States in Proclamation 4702. Proclamation 4702 was issued after the 1979 hostage crisis in the American Embassy in Tehran.
As Iran’s activities threatened America and her allies’ security, America validated sanctions as an effective countermeasure. After the 1983 bombing of United States Marine peacekeepers in Lebanon, President Ronald Reagan declared Iran a state sponsor of terrorism and subsequently imposed restrictions on Iran, including opposition to World Bank loans to the Islamic Republic. As Iran’s support for terrorist activities increased and the country’s nuclear ambitions grew, the United States imposed harsher sanctions. During the Clinton Administration, the 1992 Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act sanctioned people and entities that assisted Iran’s weapon development and/or acquisition of “chemical, biological, nuclear, or destabilizing numbers and types of advanced conventional weapons.” On June 29, 2005, President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 1382, freezing the assets of firms and individuals proliferating weapons of mass destruction. Since assuming office in 2009, President Barack Obama has tightened economic sanctions against Iran. Attempting to strangle Iran’s economy, these sanctions arguably seek to divert Iranian leadership from pouring resources into nuclear activities and instead force the government to focus financial and human resources on economic re-invigoration.
With nuclear talks proving unproductive, sanctions continue to be at the forefront of American policy to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. Despite Iran’s consistent claim that its nuclear program is peaceful, the United States’ actions are influenced by Iran’s threatening international activities, including state-sponsored terrorism and hostile rhetoric toward America and her allies. Whereas the United States views its efforts as essential to preventing a potential nuclear conflict, opponents of American actions argue that Iran cannot be categorized as an international security threat solely based on its different views and unwillingness to comply with international demands on its affairs.
It is easy to call for a nuclear-free Iran from the standpoint of a country with one of the world’s largest arsenals of nuclear weapons. Although idealists cling to the belief that diplomatic efforts will yield positive results in the Iranian nuclear conundrum, it is arguable that the international community needs to reevaluate the real, not perceived, threats of a nuclear Iran. Iran acquiring nuclear capability could, as Kenneth Waltz, one of the founders of structural realism theory, argues, have a stabilizing effect. If after such evaluation, should it be decided that a nuclear Iran is detrimental to world stability and security and would not produce a stabilizing effect, American leadership may consider revising its strategy for dealing with an Iran bent on crossing the nuclear threshold. The ultimate question is what such a strategy would include, and not include, to ensure success.
Act II: State Sovereignty
The concept of state sovereignty (the supreme, independent authority of a centralized government over a geographic territory) is an accepted, but consistently tested, principle. Despite international recognition as a state and United Nations member status (admitted on October 24, 1945), the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of many countries whose sovereignty is consistently challenged. With a nuclear program viewed as threatening by some in the international community, some countries use technological surveillance to track Iran’s domestic activities. The United States conducts such reconnaissance.
Primarily launching its information-gathering efforts with drones from bases in Afghanistan, American efforts have come under scrutiny as encroachments on Iranian sovereignty. While there are no international agreements on the vertical extent of a country control over its airspace, American intelligence missions that have ended with Iran’s capture of US-operated drones have raised questions about the extent and validity of American operations.
In December 2011, a week after America reported a lost drone in Afghanistan, Iran captured an RQ-170 Sentinel spy drone. The aircraft was found 140 miles inside Iran’s border and believed, by the Iranian government, to be on a nuclear spy mission. Pictures of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), nicknamed the “Beast of Kandahar” after the city in Afghanistan from which it was launched, with top Iranian officers quickly circulated on the Internet. Harsh statements by Iranian leaders followed. Iranian lawmaker Mohammad Kossari said that further violations of Iranian sovereignty would provoke Iran to target American military bases worldwide.
Extreme rhetoric was countered by Iranian efforts to protect its sovereignty and punish those who violated it. On December 9, 2011, Iran filed a complaint with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in which Iran’s United Nation ambassador stated, “My government emphasizes that this blatant and unprovoked air violation by the United States government is tantamount to an act of hostility against the Islamic Republic of Iran in clear contravention of international law, in particular, the basic tenets of the United Nations Charter.” Days later, Iran denied the United States’ request for the drone’s return. Instead, Tehran responded with its intent to perform reverse engineering on the drone.
Unresolved controversy and anger over American intelligence missions with internationally questionable infringements on Iranian sovereignty resurfaced earlier this month. One year after the 2011 drone incident, Iran claimed to capture another American drone flying in Iranian airspace over the Persian Gulf. Iranian television broadcast what appeared to be a ScanEagle drone. The ScanEagle was displayed in front of a large map of the Persian Gulf with a banner in Farsi and English saying, “We shall trample on the U.S.”
The United States Government claimed all of its aircrafts accounted for, and Commander Jason Salata, a spokesman for the United States Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain stated, “The U.S. Navy has fully accounted for all unmanned air vehicles operating in the Middle East region.” Commenting on Iran’s claim to have captured an American drone operating in Iranian territory, he said, “Our operations in the Gulf are confined to internationally recognized waters and airspace.”
Like the plots of many made-for-television movies, the America-Iran dynamic is predictable. Viewers may regret wasting their time to watch the movie just like citizens of both countries may feel their tax dollars and politicians’ time are wasted trying to achieve seemingly unrealistic objectives. In the end, the results are the same, a combination of frustration and anger.
With more than a thirty-year backstory of distrust and deceptive activities by both sides, it is unlikely that American and Iranian leadership will be on an invite list for the other’s state function any time soon. However, as the world works to reconcile international security and stability issues revolving around nuclear weapons and state sovereignty, a course of action for effective interaction, without ulterior motives, needs to be implemented by both governments. The ultimate question is whether or not the two parties are capable of achieving positive results, or if they are determined to draw out their drama into a straight DVD trilogy.