They say an animal is most dangerous when cornered. Whether that holds true for Iran has yet to be seen. But with mounting pressure from the international community, increasing western sanctions and waves of revolution across the Arab world, Iran certainly must be feeling the squeeze. In response, its military has flexed some muscle in recent days, carrying out war games and naval exercises in the Persian Gulf and even threatening to cut off a fifth of the world’s oil supply by closing the Strait of Hormuz.
But it’s the nukes that have most of the world on edge. Iran’s nuclear capabilities have taken center stage in recent months, following a report by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, claiming the country “has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device.” This past weekend, Iran, clearly undeterred by mounting international sanctions, revealed a second major uranium enrichment site near the city of Qom.
It’s all enough to catch anyone’s attention. More and more, Iran seems backed into a corner, crippled by Western economic sanctions and lacking the military prowess to actually pose a legitimate, long-term threat to the Strait of Hormuz. But as Iran runs out of options, international anxiety only seems to increase, and part of that anxiety might actually stem from the uncertainty of the upcoming U.S. elections.
Foreign policy certainly has not taken center stage this election season, but if there’s one aspect of international affairs that every presidential candidate is more than willing to address, it’s Iran. Each remaining 2012 contender has proposed his own plan for Iran, ranging from preemptive military strikes to a completely hands-off approach, and everything in between.
President Barack Obama took office with a much-criticized plan to engage Iran in diplomatic negotiations without preconditions. His idealism soon faded, however, as the fraudulent 2009 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sparked widespread civilian protests, followed swiftly by a violent government crackdown. Obama remained relatively quiet at first, but as the violence continued and as Iran pushed ever closer to nuclear capabilities, diplomacy began to seem more and more futile. The president turned to a series of tough economic sanctions, including a recent push to isolate the Central Bank of Iran as well as impose an E.U. embargo on Iranian oil. While these series of new sanctions have thrown Iran’s economy into turmoil, President Obama has not excluded the possibility of military action, although he remains determined to first exhaust every diplomatic option available.
Newt Gingrich has also pledged to keep military action as a last resort, although the cutoff point for that decision remains unclear. Gingrich stresses the importance of replacing the Iranian regime rather than simply destroying nuclear facilities, but he has also stated, “If we get to a point where the military believes that they are truly on the verge of getting a nuclear weapon, I would be prepared to use military force.” While Gingrich seems understandably reluctant to wage all-out war on Iran, he has instead pushed for what he calls “maximum covert operations,” intended to irreparably damage and eventually replace the Iranian regime. Gingrich calls for a fund to support the government opposition groups, and he suggests a plan to covertly target Iranian nuclear scientists for assassination as well as wage cyber-warfare to seriously disrupt the regime’s technological capabilities.
Jon Hunstman seems more open to the option of military force, mainly because he doubts the effectiveness of economic sanctions in deterring Iran’s nuclear aspirations. As a former U.S. ambassador to China, Hunstman is well aware of the rising superpower’s unwillingness to commit to full economic sanctions on Iran. While countries such as China and Russia have agreed to some sanctions, they have been reluctant to completely sever their trade connections. Hunstman realizes the value of sanctions, but he has expressed serious doubts about their effectiveness if “the Chinese aren’t going to play ball, and the Russians aren’t going to play ball.” Instead, the former Obama official has suggested the possibility of a preemptive military strike to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities. The threat of military force may seem unusual coming from one of the more moderate candidates, but Hunstman has repeatedly stressed, “If you can’t live with a nuclear Iran, then you’ve got to keep all options on the table, and I think that’s...where we’re headed, realistically.”
Rick Santorum has essentially combined the military strategies of both Gingrich and Huntsman, calling for coordination with Israel for a preemptive strike on Iran, and even suggesting, much like Gingrich, that Iranian nuclear scientists should be considered terrorists and targets for assassination. He also encourages strong sanctions and support for a regime change, but the fear of a nuclear Iran makes the military option a necessary one for Santorum.
Ron Paul, meanwhile, has taken perhaps the most unique stance in terms of foreign policy. He sees the Iranian threat as over-exaggerated and compares the hype to the fear of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Although Paul acknowledges the utility of diplomatic negotiations with Iran, he strongly opposes any military intervention and even sees economic sanctions as going a step too far. Unsurprisingly, he has also dismissed the notion of supporting Israel in a potential strike on Iran, saying, “We need to get out of [Israel’s] way. ...I think they’re quite capable of taking care of themselves.” Paul’s hands-off approach stands in stark contrast to the strategies of his opponents. Even the current administration authorized the deployment of thousands of U.S. troops to Israel on Jan. 6, a move intended to prepare the region for any military engagement with Iran.
Despite their heated rivalry, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry actually share a common bond, both in their plan for Iran and in their criticism of Obama’s response to the issue. Both Romney and Perry have repeatedly stressed the importance of supporting opposition groups in Iran and ultimately forcing a regime change, and they have blamed the Obama Administration for not seizing the opportunity to support protestors during the 2009 election aftermath. Romney has also called for “crippling sanctions” as a first course of action, and Perry supported a U.S. sanction of the Iranian Central Bank. Of course, neither candidate has taken military intervention off the table, but much of the rhetoric coming from Romney and Perry seems mostly concerned with what Obama should have done, rather than what they would do.
As the world watches Iran flex its muscles and bare its fangs, many may fear that we’ve cornered a vicious animal and have pushed it to its breaking point. But the situation isn’t quite so dire. Iran’s economy is in turmoil, thanks to widespread sanctions, and its current military options are limited at best; this animal isn’t as dangerous as we might imagine. But as Iran backs further into its corner, it may be the 2012 U.S. election – and the choices made by the next administration – that will ultimately determine if Iran turns to desperation or negotiation for an escape.