Policy Implications of a Nuclear Iran for the United States

posted on March 12, 2012 in Politics and Society, Security/Intelligence

Young Professionals in Foreign Policy’s Middle East Discussion Group (MEDG) held its monthly discussion in February on what a nuclear-armed Iran would mean for the United States. MEDG is comprised of academics, government officials, think tank policy writers, and private sector representatives with a combined specialty in Egypt, Israel, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. The MEDG members are young professionals working in the Washington, D.C. area, of ages 22-35 on average. The views expressed here are a composite summary of the monthly discussion series.

The question of Iran is one brought back into the spotlight as 14,000-plus delegates meet here in DC for the 2012 American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) policy conference. Iran’s nuclear program raised a number of questions among our group of young professionals – will Israel proactively attack Iran to set back its nuclear program and when is this likely? Would and should the United States be drawn into the attack and in what capacity?

In the first part of our discussion, MEDG members acknowledged that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. The U.S. State Department classifies Iran as the most active state sponsor of terrorism and funds, trains, and provides weapons to groups in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Syria including Hezbollah and Hamas. There have been more U.S. deaths connected to Iran than Al-Qaeda and there are broader nuclear proliferation risks associated with Iran gaining nuclear capability.

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in Washington for the AIPAC conference, he will meet with President Obama to discuss the road forward with respect to Iran. Recently, Israel has threatened airstrikes to bomb key weapon facilities in Iran. News reports state that Israel and the United States disagree on the timeline for when Iran will likely have a functioning nuclear bomb and thus when a strike to prevent that accumulation is necessary. MEDG tackled the public debate over whether the threat by Israel was just smoke and mirrors. We too were divided in our answers. The disagreement hinged on whether a strike by Israel could achieve its intended goals or whether it would ignite a costly war within the Middle East. Some members noted that Israel is more effective with covert operations and a threat of attack is simply a scare tactic as the well-circulated article by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy lays out. Still another member asserted that Wikileaks affirmed that the U.S. and Israel maintain a coherent strategy to prevent Iran’s accumulation of weapons of mass destruction and things were moving according to plan.

From the perspective of the Iranian people, one voice in the MEDG noted that Iranians want their government to have nuclear weapons and the threat of an Israeli attack will only bring the people closer together. The Iranian government has built its identity around anti-Americanism. The question was posed in our discussion group how Iran can thus pit Israel and the United States against each other and exploit the 2012 presidential elections. Many in our group agreed that keeping the U.S. and Israel divided works in Iran’s favor and again would buy it more time to develop weapons. Most also agreed that Iran would be foolish to make any rash moves during a U.S. election year. President Obama, if he did so correctly, could use Iran to strengthen his presidential campaign.

The MEDG asserted that the United States will undoubtedly be pulled into any attack that Israel precipitates on Iran. As a close friend and ally, the United States would have to intercede. In a report released February 15 by the Pew Research Center, 58% of Americans say it’s important to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capability and 51% of American said the United States should remain neutral if Israel makes the first move. Nevertheless, our group of young professionals working in foreign policy concluded the discussion with the worry that Israel may soon attack, and the United States could be drawn into another war in the Middle East with potentially catastrophic implications.