Us Strategic Competition With Iran: Energy, Economics, Sanctions, And The Nuclear Issue

American and Iranian tensions over Iran’s nuclear programs are part of a broad pattern of competition between the two countries. However, Iran’s nuclear program is only one of many interrelated areas in which Washington and Tehran struggle for influence. Energy, economics, trade, and sanctions all interact with the nuclear issue, and with one another, to form one axis of US-Iranian competition. This axis is intersected by a series of bilateral and multilateral issues, interests, and institutions—from energy security and nonproliferation, to arms sales and economic investment, to the IAEA and the UN. Strategic competition between the US and Iran incorporates all of these issues into a broader cycle of preemptive and reactive competition.

The Burke chair has written a report that focuses on these issues in detail.  “US Strategic Competition with Iran: Energy, Economics, Sanctions, and the Nuclear Issue” can be downloaded from the CSIS website at:

This report is part of a series on US strategic competition with Iran, which can be found at:

Over the past several decades, a pattern has developed in this aspect of US and Iranian competition. As Iran moves forward in areas that could give it nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, the United States reacts with diplomacy, sanctions, and efforts to strengthen US and Southern Gulf forces and deterrent capabilities. Tehran frequently acknowledges Washington’s diplomatic efforts and appears to respond to them, but delays ensue and even if promises are made, progress is not. Iran continues to pursue its nuclear program without full compliance with IAEA safeguards, without negotiating tangible agreements with either the US or other members of the P5+1, and with little practical regard to UN sanctions.

Moreover, Iran has sought to counter American and UN sanctions by leveraging its international economic position through its energy exports. This, in turn, helps Iran undermine multilateral support for sanctions. Tehran can offer economic opportunities to nations which skirt or weaken sanctions because other countries voluntarily suspend ties with the Islamic Republic. This effort has had an important impact on China, Russia, and other states who support the sanctions process. It has delayed and weakened UN efforts, limited the impact of the P5+1 negotiating process, and had a wider impact on other states, including key players like Turkey.

Iran’s tactics of delay, denial, and move forward have forced American policymakers to either take a more confrontational approach to nations outside its sanctions regime—sometimes pushing them further towards cooperation with Iran—or to accept a weakening of sanction and pressures on Iran. At the same time, they have led the US to repeatedly make it clear that while it prefers a negotiated solution, it is keeping military options on the table. They also have led the US to increase pressure on other states, to use the UN sanctions process, and to limit all major arms sales and all nuclear and missile-related technology transfers to Iran. Iran has responded by steadily building up its conventionally armed long-range missile capabilities, its capabilities to conduct asymmetric warfare in the Gulf, and its capabilities to respond to any US (or Israeli) attack on Iran; by expanding its ties with Syria and with hostile states as far away as Venezuela; and by using its ties to non-state actors as a potential threat. The end result is that there are no clear boundaries to this aspect of US and Iranian competition: they affect a broad range of diplomacy, competition within the UN framework, sanctions and related economic and arms transfer efforts, energy exports and investment opportunities in Iran, and a wide range of competition in military options.

The interaction between Iran’s nuclear programs and US sanctions efforts is the most direct and visible aspect of this competition and as the US continues to employ both carrots and sticks to try to alter Iranian behavior, the pattern continues. Tehran’s gradual progress, however, calls into question the efficacy of the American approach. Sanctions and diplomacy have successfully slowed Iran’s nuclear development. US actions have not changed Tehran’s strategic calculus or the shape of its nuclear and missile efforts.

The US and its allies face Iranian interests that go far beyond any concern with using nuclear power to generate electricity. Many experts agree that Iranian national security interests are built upon two central pillars.  Firstly, the Islamic Republic seeks to protect itself from foreign—principally American—interference and attack. Secondly, Tehran attempts to exert military, political, economic, and religious influence commensurate with its ambitions to be a great (regional) power, and major player in world politics. Iran has pursued these objectives by developing its nuclear and missile capabilities, strengthening existing economic ties and its energy sector, undermining US regional influence, and attempting to circumvent US and UN sanctions.

In contrast, the United States aims to bolster its regional allies, contain Iranian influence, and build a global consensus against Iran’s ambiguous nuclear intentions. The US has done so by influencing the regional military balance, reorienting missile defenses, and isolating Iran from energy, financial, and commercial markets through sanctions.

What remains unclear, however, is whether and how Tehran’s nuclear programs fit into its grand strategic framework, and whether such a framework even exists. The record to date suggests that Tehran does not have some master plan for developing nuclear and missile capabilities, but evolves programs in ways that are driven by combination of ideological, religious, and opportunistic politics and policy. Its leadership focuses on constantly shifting domestic and foreign policy issues. Moreover, while Iran’s actions are driven by broad national security goals, Iran’s decisions at any given time may be affected by individual personalities or bureaucratic institutions.

Jordan D’Amato