U.S. and Iranian Strategic Competition: The Sanctions game: Energy, Arms Control, and Regime Change
October 6, 2011
US competition with Iran has become the equivalent of a game of three-dimensional chess, but a game where each side can modify at least some of the rules with each move. It is also a game that has been going on for some three decades. It is clear that it is also a game that is unlikely to be ended by better dialog and mutual understanding, and that Iran’s version of “democracy” is unlikely to change the way it is played in the foreseeable future.
The Burke Chair at CSIS is preparing a detailed analysis of the history and character of this competition as part of a project supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation. This has led to the preparation of a new draft report entitled The Sanctions Game: Energy, Arms Control, and Regime Change, which is now available on the CSIS web site at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/111006_Iran_Sanctions.pdf.
This report finds that the US and Iran compete in three key civil areas—energy, arms control, and regime change. Both sides harbor both legitimate and exaggerated grievances that have reinforced a long, historic, and mutual distrust, which now affects every aspect of US-Iranian competition. While most of the competition in these areas plays out in political and diplomatic circles, mainly in the form of US-led efforts at imposing international sanctions and Iranian attempts to counter them, this competition cannot be separated from its military dynamics. In fact, Iran’s search for nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, military buildup in the Gulf, overt threats towards Israel, and ties to Syria and extremists in the Levant are all key reasons for US efforts to counter with sanctions and to encourage regime change in Iran.
These patterns of civil and military competition play out on a country-by-country basis and differ by sub-region. There are, however, broad patterns in civil competition between the US and Iran that helps shape what has become a much broader and constantly mutating game of three-dimensional chess.
Sanctions and Diplomacy
US and international sanctions and related diplomatic efforts have become key tools across the entire US-Iranian spectrum of competition. Their history is long and fraught with complexities, and their effect so far is uncertain and controversial. But any analysis of the patterns in this competition does show they have had an impact on Iran—one greatly compounded by the economic policies and mistakes of its regime.
Iran’s energy resources, and the potential attractiveness of investment in those resources, are key tools in Iran’s efforts to avoid containment and sanctions, increase its revenue, and win leverage and influence over other states. Iran seeks to exploit the fact that it is one of the world’s three largest holders of proven conventional oil and natural gas reserves. It claims to have over 137 billion barrels of oil reserves, and the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) notes that Iran is OPEC’s second-largest crude oil producer and exporter after Saudi Arabia. Iran’s energy sector, however, suffers from systemic problems with its infrastructure, capacity, and access to effective distribution channels. Tehran is highly dependent on foreign investment in order to develop, extract, and refine many of its natural resources which makes it highly vulnerable to sanctions and external constraint.
The US and Iran also compete in arms control. The US and its allies make use of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the inspection and reporting role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), arms control treaties like the CWC, and conventions affecting the transfer of missiles with ranges above 300 kilometers (MTCR) to try to halt Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear armed missiles and other weapons of mass destruction. Iran counters by calling for a weapons mass destruction free zone in the Middle East that focuses attention on Israel and by denying and concealing activities that openly violate its arms control commitments.
While the Congress has funded such efforts, and the US has created a series of programs that aid Iran’s external and internal opposition, the US role in seeking regime change in Iran is sometimes exaggerated, as much by Iran’s regime as Iranian and US advocates of regime change. The fact remains, however, that the Iranian regime has made itself increasingly vulnerable to such US efforts and they can hardly be ignored.
This competition takes place at levels ranging from the national to the IAEA and the UN. The patterns in this competition have become extremely complex and it is tempting to focus separately on each of aspects of the civil competition that have been outlined above. In practice, however, the patterns of interaction between each form of competition have acquired a cyclical consistency that seems likely to go on indefinitely into the future. As Iran moves forward in areas that could give it nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, the United States will most likely react with diplomacy, sanctions, arms control initiatives, and efforts to strengthen US and Southern Gulf military forces and deterrent capabilities.
Managing the interlocking relationships between China, Russia, Turkey, and Iran is a vital component of effective US policy in this area. The Chinese and Russians are both primarily concerned with advancing their own interests, and they each maintain robust commercial ties with Iran, are ambivalent about strong US regional influence, and have veto power at the UN Security Council. These factors make them essential players in US-Iranian Competition. Turkey, similarly, is an ambitious regional power with growing ties to Iran. The Turkish-Iranian relationship is important for Washington to manage because of Turkey’s growing regional clout and its proximity to American ground forces in Northern Iraq.
It is increasingly doubtful, however, that sanctions and negotiations will change Iran’s behavior, that sanctions can be expanded to cripple Iran’s energy sectors, or that arms control options will become anything other than an extension of diplomatic warfare. There are no political or diplomatic options that can force Iran to change. At the same time, one should not ignore the reality that Iran’s internal politics offer real hope that a more moderate and pragmatic regime may eventually emerge. Patience, sanctions, and diplomacy do offer hope of buying time in allowing such change. Military deterrence and containment can be partners to such efforts, but it is obvious that any use of force presents major risks that could not only lead to far more dangerous forms of US and Iranian competition, but create an open-ended set of new risks to global energy supplies and the global economy.
Comments on this draft will be extremely helpful and should be sent to email@example.com.
Other Burke Chair Reports on Iran and Gulf Security can be found here: