Containing and deterring.., p.8
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       Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran, p.8

           American Enterprise Institute Foreign and Defense Policy Studies
 
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The Polarity Question

  For all of Iran’s frightening potential nuclear, conventional, and irregular military capacities and its great potential oil wealth, the bilateral balance of power between the United States and Iran pits the world’s sole superpower against, at best, an aspiring regional hegemon. Even within its immediate region, Iran’s quest for dominance in modern times has been offset by Iraq—either singly or as the champion of Arab states along the Persian Gulf—and by Israel. From outside, Iran has been subject not only to US but also British, Russian, and Central Asian interventions. Historically, Iran is a surrounded state; it faces potential adversaries at every point of the compass. If the United States succeeds in building lasting partnerships with Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran will find itself with very few appealing geostrategic options. Indeed, we can already see this dynamic at work in Iran’s attempts to cultivate great-power sponsors: first China, then Russia, but also, with limited success, India. As Washington Institute for Near East Policy scholars Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt have observed:

  Iran is in a fundamentally weak position that has been temporarily masked by a combination of circumstances favorable to the Islamic Republic. Iran’s revolutionaries were riding high in 2006 with oil prices up, friendly forces doing well from Lebanon to Iraq, the United States bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and domestic opponents scattered. But the longer the nuclear crisis continues, the more apparent Iran’s profound problems will become to the country’s leaders.41

  Deterrence also requires considering how the Islamic Republic stands within the constellation of Muslim states, for the mullahs in Iran lead a regime that has one eye on the earthly order but a second eye on heaven. A fully nuanced discussion of the role of faith and religion in motivating Iranian behavior is beyond the scope of this paper, but religious ideology shapes Iranian decision making and must inform any US attempt to deter Iran. Iran styles itself as the leader of Shia communities against repression from the majority Sunnis and their governments. The Iranian city of Qom and the more prominent Iraqi city of Najaf have long contended for primacy among Shia Muslims. To the degree that there is a modern Shia awakening, the Iranian religious leadership must try to shape this popular movement to its purposes.42

  At the same time, the Muslim world and Arab states in particular are entering a period of profound political change. The Arab Spring creates both challenges and opportunities for Tehran, and there is no consensus among experts about the effect. But Marc Lynch accurately sums the underlying power dynamics:

  There is little sign of any regional bandwagoning with Iran today among either regimes or newly empowered publics. Indeed, Iran’s push for a nuclear weapon and regional influence has alarmed the regimes of the Gulf. Arab regimes have chosen to balance against Iran rather than join it in a challenge to U.S. policy, and are deeply fearful of Iranian power. They have moved closer to the United States and to Israel out of fear of Iranian power, and have been increasingly active in their efforts against Iran. They have also intensified their military relations with the United States, including massive arms purchases and military cooperation. These leaders fear that American engagement with Iran will come at their expense, and are as worried about abandonment as they are to exposure to Iranian retaliation.43

  The net effect of changes across the region is to introduce uncertainty about the balance of power for all actors, not just Iran but also the United States and the Arab regimes of the region. Since deterrence involves a multisided assessment of risks and rewards, the effect of the Arab Spring is to multiply the opportunities for miscalculation.

 
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