Foreign Policy Blogs

Red Line: Iran, Israel and the Bomb


Foreign Policy Association’s 2013 “Great Decisions in Foreign Policy” on PBS, a series of half hour documentaries providing background information for and evaluation of leading contemporary issues, airs this March. The forthcoming series includes a segment on Iran’s controversial nuclear ambitions. “Red Line: Iran, Israel, and the Bomb” begins with the same powerful introduction as the other seven 2013 “Great Decisions” documentaries, “In a democracy agreement is not essential, but participation is.” Although people may not unanimously agree on America’s foreign policies, “Great Decisions” argues the imperativeness of being informed. The series’ short overviews of complex issues provide viewers with a basis to formulate opinions while aiming to spark desires for additional knowledge.

Provoking viewers to objectively analyze American foreign policy, question the roots of conflict,and examine effects of current policy and potential ramifications of other prospective solutions, the Iranian episode provides a solid foundation for understanding current international issues with Iran’s nuclear program. The episode also raises questions about the validity of concern over Iranian nuclear ambitions, while ultimately leaving viewers to formulate their own conclusions.

Beginning with a brief overview of the tumultuous relationship between the United States and Iran, starting with the overthrow of the Shah and installation of an Islamic regime in 1979, the opening chapter, “Bad Blood,” quickly turns to defining post-1979 Iran as a puppeteer of instability in the Middle East. Although providing factual information, it is curious why little attention is paid to the country’s responsibilities and prohibitions as a signatory of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (signed by Iran in 1968 and ratified by Iran in 1970). While important to understanding the greater ramifications of Iran crossing the nuclear threshold, information about the Islamic Republic of Iran’s training and funding of terrorist splinter groups throughout the Middle East, including Hezbollah, may be lost on audiences lacking a background in the subject matter. Ultimately, the first five minutes of the documentary surreptitiously raise questions about a nuclear Iran passing nuclear technologies, and potentially nuclear weapons, to terrorist organizations. While this is an important question to ask when posed in conjunction with inquiry of Iran as a rational actor, the quick foray provided by the film may be lost on some. When juxtaposed to Iran’s threatening verbiage to Israel, the United States, and other world powers, novice international scholars may be quick to assume that Iran acquiring nuclear capability will undoubtedly assure terrorists’ acquisition of nuclear weapons. Although it is not impossible for such a scenario to unfold, it is questionable that any state spending significant time, and human and monetary resources, to develop nuclear weapons would be quick to disseminate its newfound power to any group not fully under its control. Organizations may receive support and funding from the Iranian government, but that does not mean that the Iranian government fully controls their activities.

The introductory chapter of the episode continues, effectively detailing reasons for international distrust of Iran and its nuclear objectives. While the Iranian regime continuously claims its nuclear program’s goals are to provide energy and healthcare to its people, its aggressive actions and secrecy are just cause for doubt. Author and director of the Moral Courage Project at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, Irshad Manji, astutely concludes, “We have reason to be skeptical of claims that particularly nuclear technology will only be used for peaceful purposes. After all, authoritarian regimes, whether in Iran or elsewhere, are not known to be promoters of peace.” As previously argued, it may be unlikely for Iran to distribute nuclear technology and weapons to terrorist organizations, but it seems naïve to think Iran’s nuclear program purely peaceful given the government’s history of deception and aggression. The documentary effectively legitimizes this notion by highlighting Iran’s non-compliance, in full, of its contractual obligations under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and International Atomic Energy Agency Safeguards Agreement. While the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been granted access to several Iranian nuclear sites, the regime has not complied with IAEA requests to inspect other facilities with suspected nuclear activity, including the Parchin military site. Instead of granting access, Iran razed infrastructure and removed soil from the site. Such activities stir beliefs in the international community that Iran is trying to hide a nuclear facility working to produce nuclear weapons. Cumulatively, interviewees, including Director General of the IAEA Yukiya Amano, successfully frame the development of and continued international skepticism toward Iran.

Wrapping up the policy prescription setup, interviewees identify effects of current international pressures against Iran. “Pressure, pressure, and more pressure,” says Golnaz Esfandiari of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “The U.S. has imposed very tough sanctions on Iran.” Setting the stage for questions about the effectiveness of current American and international policies to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the documentary provides a thorough explanation of attempts to strangle Iran’s economy as a means of hindering the country’s ability to support a nuclear program. Oil, financial and other sanctions hurt Iranian business, but it is arguable that such endeavors hurt average Iranians more than the Iranian government.

The United States and European Union continue policies targeting Iran’s economy, and while effectively hurting Iran’s financial system, including the devaluation of the country’s currency, the Iranian regime has not changed its policies. Thus, despite international economic efforts achieving their immediate purpose, they have not achieved their ultimate goal of steering Iran’s policies. The documentary rightly concludes that the lacking ability of economic tools (sanctions) to steer Iranian activities constitutes failed policy.

In explaining why a nuclear Iran poses a worldwide threat, paying extensive attention to the existential crises posed to Israel and the downfall of current economic policies to affect change in Iran’s behavior, the documentary sets the stage for viewers to question appropriate and effective policies. This includes evaluating the probability of an Israeli preemptive strike. Despite continuous rhetoric from the Israeli government urging for military action, it is questionable, as the documentary explains, that traditional military tactics are sufficient to eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat. While destroying Iranian nuclear sites and suspected nuclear sites, has the immediate effect of delaying Iran’s nuclear program, it does not eliminate desire and/or know-how required to restart. Additionally, there is no guarantee that all nuclear sites can or would be eliminated, thus causing potential retaliation if/when Iran becomes nuclear.


Source: BBC

Furthermore, it is arguable that any military attack would lend credibility to Iranian claims of needing the capability to protect itself. In exploring the various options and current desires of different governments, the documentary effectively leads viewers to question the validity of traditional military operations and potential benefits of alternative tactics, including cyber warfare.

Ultimately, “Red Line: Iran, Israel, and the Bomb,” provides an easily digestible overview from which novices, students, and professionals may broaden their understanding of a leading issue in American foreign policy. Effectively prompting viewers to draw their own conclusions on the shape American foreign policy should take in the present, the documentary also sets the stage for a follow-up episode in which field leaders identify what the world, and world powers’ policies, with a nuclear Iran, might look like.

Great Decisions in Foreign Policy, Season 42 - Great Decisions in Foreign Policy



Allison Kushner

Allison Kushner received three undergraduate degrees from Boston University and a Master's degree in Middle Eastern Security and Diplomacy Studies from Tel Aviv University. She has spent time living and traveling throughout Europe, the Middle East, and China. A former political speechwriter, Allison has taught college level Political Science and International Relations in the U.S. and China. She continues to be engaged in public speaking activities at home and abroad.

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