HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East: Sanctions, Threats not the Answer

Iran maintains that its nuclear activities are peaceful.

One of the most prominent international issues in the Middle East today centers around the Iranian nuclear program. Since the early 2000’s the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has reported violations of its Safeguard Agreement and, more recently in November of 2011, that Iran has been conducting research into the development of a nuclear weapons capability. This has compelled the United Nations (UN) to impose a number of sanctions on Iran and has also prompted threats of military action from Israel. While nobody would argue that nuclear proliferation is a positive thing, the way in which the international community has gone about trying to stop Iran’s nuclear development should be critically reviewed to determine if it is really the best strategy.

To understand the mentality of Iran and its motivations for presumably undertaking nuclear research with the aim of weaponization it is necessary to briefly describe the “nuclear climate” of the region. Both Pakistan and India are confirmed to have nuclear weapons capability while Israel is strongly suspected of having such capability. This means that Iran has a country directly bordering it, and two countries about 500 miles away that have the capability to conduct a nuclear attack. Of particular importance is Israel. Israel maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity” which means it will neither confirm nor deny that it possesses nuclear weapons capability. There is strong evidence, however, that they do possess such capability and there have been statements by official sources from the American National Resources Defense Council as well as former US President Jimmy Carter that Israel possesses between 75 to 200 nuclear weapons. This is important because Israel has been one of the most vocal opponents to Iran’s nuclear activities and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has recently stated that he is ready to order a military strike against Iran if the sanctions do not work. It is ironic that Israel should be so critical of Iran for its violations of the Non-Proliferation Agreement when it is one of the few nuclear powers in the region and is not a signatory of that very agreement.

The Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is ready to order a strike on Iran.

The main strategy employed by the international community to try to stop Iran’s nuclear development has been economic sanctions. The US has imposed sanctions on Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, while the UN and others have increased sanctions related to its nuclear activities dramatically since around 2006. The sanctions would ideally put pressure on the Iranian government to comply with demands to stop its nuclear program due to the economic stress placed on the country. The sanctions have been effective at crippling the economy but this has not prompted any response from the Iranian government. What they are creating is an increasingly dire situation for the people of Iran who have no ability to influence the actions of their government. This has become particularly dire in the case of medical supplies. While the sanctions specifically exempt humanitarian and medical goods the sanctions on Iranian banks have made it near impossible for the people to pay to import them. Add to that the almost 80 percent drop in the value of Iran’s currency against the dollar and it is clear that the country is in economic shambles. Rather than quell the desire for increased military power in Iran, these sanctions are creating a situation ripe for radical actions.

The motives behind the actions by the international community in the effort to halt Iran’s nuclear development programs are good in spirit, but the way in which they have been realized should be reconsidered. Iran, like any nation, has the need to secure itself against its perceived threat level. The actions taken so far have only confirmed the hostilities, both economic and military, that are facing Iran. Rather than promote peace and non-proliferation, this is compelling Iran to continue along its path towards nuclear weapons. The strategy that should be considered is one that will compel the Iranians to halt their nuclear operations by showing them that they are not necessary. This can be done by prompting other nuclear countries in the region, particularly Israel, to adopt policies of nuclear transparency and disarmament. The idea that a country can be convinced to stop its development of a weapon when hostile countries not 500 miles away possess those very weapons is ridiculous. The way to reduce the threat of nuclear disaster in the Middle East, or anywhere else in the world, is for all countries to prove their desire for peace by transparently disarming themselves of weapons of mass destruction. Only then can a true peace be realized.

-Chris Costes


Reference Articles:

Israeli Military Action:
Iran Drug Shortage:



  1. I agree completely with your last paragraph Chris. Why would Iran back down their nuclear program when neighboring countries have nuclear weapons? Iran will never back down as long as anyone else has them. I think it is safe to say that Iran would not use such weapons against anyone, unless fired upon first. So in that case, perhaps a peace agreement from using the weapons could be made. I just believe it is unfair to think that several other countries can have nuclear weapons, yet everyone expects Iran to stop all nuclear research.

  2. jkipp3 says:

    Maybe a safe approach would be to allow Iran to develop a nuclear program, as long as all components of such a program are made completely transparent to UN leaders. It seems that Iran will eventually become a nuclear threat in spite of any sanctions imposed. What is the point of fostering bad blood now?

    – James Kipp

  3. mjuren3 says:

    I agree with Chris’s opinion as well. The actions of the international community, far from giving Iran an incentive to halt their development of a nuclear program, have only made them more desperate to get their hands on nuclear weaponry. This makes sense when you consider that from their perspective it appears that the whole world might attack them at any time just for being suspected of having a nuclear weapon. Also I do not believe that economic sanctions are ever a good idea as a nuclear weapons deterrent. What ends up happening is that you create an even more unstable situation, both economically and politically, in which the ones who suffer the most are innocent people. Besides, even if economic sanctions are in place, if a government is dead set on obtaining nuclear weapons, they will use the limited resources available to them on creating one. A perfect example of this is North Korea, which I frankly am quite confused on why they are not at the forefront of international attention in this matter. This is a country who is not considered to be a “rational actor”, a nation against which every possible sanction has been made, whose people are truly suffering as a result, and yet according to sources they already have a small stockpile of nuclear weapons, have already openly conducted two nuclear tests, and in a news story that broke yesterday have said that, “We do not hide that the various satellites and long-range rockets we will continue to launch, as well as the high-level nuclear test we will proceed with, are aimed at our arch-enemy, the United States.” So if North Korea is any example, we need to change our strategy and quickly with Iran.

  4. akranc3 says:

    I agree with the economic sanctions being a bit absurd. An 80% decrease in your currency’s worth is huge. As for Iran wanting to protect itself from possible threats from other armed nations, I don’t think they would ever have the capabilities to create an effective bomb. Their nuclear plans are most likely a knock-off of old Chinese plans, which are based off of old Soviet plans, which were designed during and after WWII by captured German scientists.

  5. shaimsn says:

    Chris, it is not ironic that Israel is so critical of Iran’s actions regarding nuclear power. Let me show you why:

    Iran’s Presidennt Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has reiterated continuously his desire to wipe Israel off the map.

    I think this is why the international community has judged Iran that much. I understand what you say about over-looking a nation’s willingness to develop nuclear power. But it is clearly different if we are talking about a nation leaded by a group of people who desire to “wipe off” another nation from the globe.

    Wouldn’t you be alarmed if North Korea was developing nuclear power and openly said that it wants to wipe off the US off the map?

    – Shai M

  6. I think I agree with James. Possessing nuclear weapons doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be used, and I think the world is becoming less and less Western dominated. We can no longer bully countries into doing what we want. The pressing concern, however, is the treatment of citizens. A government with authoritarian tendencies or an extremist ideology and nuclear capabilities is a dangerous combination.

  7. I certainly agree with what Chris says. The economic sanction is only harming ordinary citizens, not the governors who want to gain more power in not only middle east area but also the world political system. As we know, that the state with stronger military power (or, in another words, more advanced technology) will have stronger influence over world political system. Although some people think that economic has exceed military power to become the determinant of world powers, I still think that states with stronger military power would have more advantages when participate in global events. Therefore, Iran’s nuclear plan is aiming not only for improving self-defensing ability, but also for improving its political position. However, the citizens do not care a lot about what Iran’s political position is while they do not even have enough medicine because of the sanction. Therefore, I think there is no a best way to deal with it since it involves too many states. Maybe the better way to solve this problem is to leave it alone by all the other states, and reach peace agreement within involved states.
    Shitian Liu

  8. flambert3 says:

    It would be nice to not have to worry about a potential World War III where half the globe is in nuclear fall out afterwards but I doubt that countries will decommission all there weapons. The reason many have these is for protection to say “if you do it i will to” brandishing without intent to use just another thing to think about. Even if all countries agreed there is no way there would be that much trust to put down this advantage and be assured that radicals and politically rivaled countries would not truly do this. Everyone would be say they did but really all be the same and in fact make it more tense if any action was suspected by a rival country. Although it would be nice I don’t see it happening

    -Frederick Lambert

  9. drippykins says:

    Perhaps the reason the actions taken by the international community fail to work is simply because the Iranian government and President Ahmadinejad don’t care. That’s the simple reality of what’s basically an authoritarian regime running off an extremist view of Islam. Iran’s motives and concerns are too heavily influenced by the stubborn mindset of President Ahmadinejad and the wealthy and religious elite. Iran’s focus hasn’t been the well-being of its citizens for years. They want nuclear capabilities and it’s clear they have intentions to use them. The people in charge over there are willing to suffer sanctions and any foreign criticisms until they achieve their goals. Just look at North Korea.

    The logic of ‘my neighbors have nuclear weapons, therefore I need them to protect myself’ is merely an excuse for a country like Iran to develop weapons for uncertain and hostile purposes. Think about what it will mean for Iran’s regime if they are able to harness nuclear weapons. Fear is the easiest tool to manipulate in order to maintain the security of a regime.

    Nevertheless, I agree that the economic sanctions themselves are rather ineffective. The problem is how many other means of peaceful punishments can you use? Peace talks are great, but the tension between Iran and Israel is so high it would be a miracle if they agreed to anything significant. What Iran needs is political reform from within.

    – Mike Greathouse

  10. religion317 says:

    Thanks Chris for a powerful and extremely well written post, and to the rest for the thoughtful comments and news and video clips. Though this is not an IA class, this is interesting to think about in light of Mary’s post on the Arab Spring. Gaddafi’s Libya was pursuing nuclear weapons up until roughly 2003. Would the US have become involved in the Libyan uprisings and the fall of Ghaddafi if he was felt to be close to a nuclear weapon? What lesson you you think Iran takes from this? If we look at this in the context of the modern history of Iran, Iranian leaders have a history of being deposed by Western powers. What role does historical memory play in the decision making of the Iranian leadership? That having been said, Shai’s point is a valid one. North Korea has not threatened destruction of any one nation, Iran has. And to a community that has suffered these threats before, has been persecuted and massacred. One can certainly understand the Israeli leadership’s stance on Iran. Much to discuss in class.

  11. njones47 says:

    Iran is in a very precarious situation. To the United States, we see no reason that Iran or any other could want to develop nuclear weapons in a peaceful manner. It’s hard to imagine knowing that other countries have nuclear weapons and everyone trusting them not to use the weapons. It’s a really scary situation for the Middle East, because there’s not necessarily a correct answer. Nobody can blame Iran for wanting to be able to defend itself, but nobody can blame other countries for wanting less nuclear weapons in the world.

  12. kledbetter6 says:

    While I agree that Iran’s threats towards Israel are concerning, economically crippling a nation is something that history has shown often has terrible ramifications. I agree with Chris in that the economic sanctions against Iran “are creating a situation ripe for radical actions.” After WWI, the Treaty of Versailles led to the the economic collapse of Germany. Clemenceau, in particular, had intended to get revenge on Germany and keep them down for at least 100 years. During the Weimar Republic period, money was burned rather than spent, and inflation happened over the course of a day. In these conditions, Hitler came to power. Radicalism tends to thrive in desperate situations. Do we really want to create such a situation in Iran? And what other alternatives are there, since the leader of the country is openly threatening to destroy another?

  13. nathenj65 says:

    I enjoyed a good amount of these points and agreed with them as well. Especially in you last paragraph in discussing why the nation of iran would be willing to stop the weapons program in climate like that. However, I do believe it was the best choice of action when they first enacted the plan due to the fact that they were more concerned about a world war then they were on the impact that it would have on said country. I do agree that at this point there is probably a much better solution that could probably be created that would allow for some of the economical strife that the country is feeling to be lessesend and to insure that this money was not going to their research. There would have to be some sort of agreement that would go out that in return for helping there economy they in return would have to be more transparant on where the money was going to ensure the reason why these first started would have not come to fruitition.

  14. sstephenson3 says:

    When it comes to this subject, by which I mean the denial of weapons capability to a Middle East country like Iran, the understanding has to be thus: the UN can make things more difficult for Iran with sanctions but, if they really want that capability, there is little that can be done to stop them in the long run. In short, they will eventually have access to higher grade weaponry, by which I mean nuclear weapons and such, and they will most likely get it, not through an independent production, but bought from western powers. We can sit here and pretend that we can keep these people isolated and that will solve the problem, but that seems rather foolish. Instead, we should be prepared for what to do once they have this capability, as well as how to react to and defend ourselves from the consequences of that eventuality.

  15. nholdaway3 says:

    Everyone can see that the economic sanctions are not stopping Iran from developing nuclear capabilities, but what other option does the United Nations have? They have tried to inspect Iran’s facilities to confirm the validity of Iran’s statement to only use the uranium for power plants but each time they have been rebuffed. Israel had done everything short of invading Iran to stop them from developing nuclear capabilities yet still they continue.

  16. jbholleman says:

    To solve the poor conditions of the people living in the country and the nuclear threat, how about drop most sanctions and let them build their nuclear program openly. However if there is even as much as a peep of the attacking another country, the UN or US goes in and shuts them down. This would allow Iran to raise their standard of living and get more into the modern age. With an informed populous, it is less likely that their governing bodies would do anything drastic.

    -Jeffrey Holleman

  17. mitch7991 says:

    I’m a little sympathetic with Iran’s situation. Without nuclear weapons, they’re sitting ducks to attacks from the nuclear countries surrounding them. Therefore, it’s definitely understandable that they would like to upgrade their military forces in this way to pursue their own security. Whether or not this is their true motive is obscure. The United Nations has a very visible hand in the situation. But their motives are also questionable. The proclaimed theme is peace, but let’s not undermine the very apparent and strong political power they have in the nation.

  18. Ben Townsend says:

    The fact that the UN fails to condemn dialogue based on speeches as sickeningly nationalist as those delivered in recent years by both Ahmedinejad and Netanyahu, we can be confident that international consensus will fail to resolve the conflict. The future of the situation will be affected, if not determined, by the social instability instigated in Iran by their economic marginalization, and the decrease of Israel’s international support in response to their military extremism and sustained violation of international law in Gaza.

  19. tnatoli3 says:

    I had two opposite reactions while reading this blog. First, it is hard to deny that a country should be able to develop nuclear weapons if they have the capability to and their nearby enemies have these weapons that can instantly win a dispute. However, nuclear weaponry is a scary subject. The more of these that exist, the more probable it is for a country to have a knee-jerk reaction and set off a chain of events that causes a nuclear war. I like to think, being an American, that we would have cooler heads than some countries when debating firing these weapons, but at the same time we have been the only ones to actually use them when we bombed Japan. It is unfortunate for the people in Iran to have to deal with their government letting them crumble, but it is tough to blame Iran for wanting the weaponry or the UN which is trying to prevent these weapons from being created.

  20. mcharles6 says:

    I understand your points, and you make several good ones. However, I am not sure I believe that Israel is at fault. Like you said, it makes no sense for Iran to halt its nuclear development program while other nations so close to it already have nuclear weapons or will not disclose any information about the status of their nuclear development. But, could it not be viewed the same way from Israel’s perspective? It does not make any sense for Israel to be transparent with their nuclear program because they are not a part of NPT and are not required to do so, and because there are countries so close to them, that openly and radically oppose them, that have nuclear weapons. The entire situation is simply arms racing. No state is willing to sacrifice its nuclear weapons program because nuclear weapons equal power, and power equals security. Therefore, giving up the nuclear program means giving up security. By giving up some of its security, a state by default raises the security level of another state, an opposing state, in the case of the Middle East.

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