Iran creates instability in the Middle East, as they are a right-wing theocracy with little tolerance for those unlike themselves. The problem is furthered by the fact Iran sees to be the pre-eminent power in the region and part of that effort includes a desire to obtain nuclear weapons. The question the United States must consider -- should we seek to stop Iran from developing nuclear capabilities?
In a word: yes. Is that decision hypocritical? Maybe, but the truth remains that the less nations equipped with a nuclear arsenal, the safer the world will be. Critics would argue the United States can't be trusted with its arsenal since it remains the only nation to use a nuclear device in war.
If American policy dictates preventing Iran from obtaining weapons of mass destruction, what ends does our nation have to achieve its goals?
The preferred (and more commonly used) method of dealing with a foreign policy threat such as this is to implement economic sanctions against Iran. However, this method often proves to punish ordinary citizens of a nation, who suffer without modern amenities while political leaders face little hardship.
Examine the case of North Korea. Despite almost the entire international community isolating North Korea, their government committed itself to building a nuclear weapon (and succeeded). Their success came at the cost of starvation and impoverished conditions of the North Korean people. Economic sanctions appear to not act as an effective deterrent.
Thus far, Iranian government has demonstrated an equally frightening disregard for the welfare of their people. That attitude was personified in the summer of 2009, when citizens took to the streets to protest fraudulent elections. If violence is an option in quelling dissent of the people, what effect can economic sanctions hope to have?
Moreover, Iran's reaction to economic sanctions has been to lash out -- as they have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow body of water that restricts access from the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean. According to various media sources, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates nearly 15 million barrels of oil travel through the strait on a daily basis. The strait is a vital shipping pathway to multiple nations.
It would seem Iran has no intention of being quietly isolated in the same manner North Korea has been. They also hold a natural resource (oil) and allies who need it (Russia, in particular). North Korea lacked any such help or bargaining chip.
Aside from economic sanctions, diplomacy and (varying degrees of) military intervention remain as the only other major options to achieve American policy objectives. Diplomacy is not a realistic option since Iran has plainly stated their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only and refuse to consider shutting down their program.
Covert action by the United States is a possibility and may already be taking place. Iran's nuclear facility suffered a setback in 2010 from an attack via a computer virus. Also, key Iranian scientists have been killed under mysterious circumstances. This means of halting Iran's nuclear progress helps delay the inevitable.
America's response to Iran's threat on the Strait of Hormuz leads to the possibility of an overt military response. The United States has moved its 5th Naval Fleet closer to the strait as a gesture to Iran. And the military analysis is clear: Iran's navy and air force is no match for the United States.
Another consideration for the United States is Iran's volatility toward Israel, a staunch American ally. Though we cannot offer Israel unlimited support, they ought to weigh heavily into our decision making process.
A military response is a possibility, but a frightening one with the potential for disaster. The American loss of life would most likely not be significant, but the fallout from any aggression toward Iran would be met with resentment in the world, and the nation cannot afford to lose any more prestige in international affairs. The situation is even more delicate, considering our history with Iran.
During the early 1950s, the CIA helped replace the prime minister of Iran with a pro-American figure who allowed the exploitation of oil resources for the next three decades. The anger of outside influence boiled over into a revolution in 1979, and relations between the United States and Iran have been strained since. Tension only increased when the United States aided Iraq in the First Persian Gulf War (1980-1988) against Iran.
So, what actions should the United States take in dealing with Iran?
First, any solution must involve a multilateral approach. Involving a wide array of nations in confronting Iran is necessary to send the appropriate message that their nuclear ambition and closing of key waterways will not be tolerated.
In pressuring Iran, the cooperation of the nations comprising the Arab League is essential. Members of the Arab League have geographic, religious and cultural connections to Iran that weigh more heavily than those of Western nations. Additionally, other Middle Eastern nations will be anxious to quell Iran's ambitions. America should specifically recruit Saudi Arabia for assistance, since they are currently the stabilizing force in the region (and it doesn't hurt that Iran's failed attempt at assassinating a Saudi official on American soil probably ruffled some feathers).
The significance of the Arab League is increased by the unlikely intervention by the United Nations. Current UN Security Council member nations Russia and China have already expressed no interest in further action against Iran.
The United States will also need to be patient. Give Iran plenty of time to do nothing. Their threat to close Hormuz is most likely to be considered as 'saber-rattling'. Iran would be hesitant to risk a war with the United States over a waterway that intelligence reports Iran could only block for a few weeks. Couple this with the fact that disruption of oil transports would affect a large number of nations, and it amounts to Iran not having the guts to follow through with their threat.
The United States must also refuse to let themselves be drawn into anything that resembles a ground war. The American public will not support any military action that would recommit ground forces (especially so quickly after leaving Iraq) and the nation literally cannot afford another prolonged war. Be prepared to use naval and air power to pry open Hormuz (if necessary) and potentially protect oil transports.
Let Israel defend itself. While providing materiel and other supplies, we have no obligation to fight a war on their behalf. Israel is well armed, including possession of a nuclear arsenal. The United States has never intervened on the side of Israel in any of its armed conflicts since 1947. However, we did side against them in the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956.
The situation in dealing with the Strait of Hormuz will blow over, but the larger priority of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear capability requires action, but my final words of advice are simple: proceed with caution.