2.1 The Issue
Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the United States and Iran have frequently found each other on opposing sides of issues in the Middle East. The United States aspires to an unchallenged position of influence in the region in order to protect a variety of strategic interests, while Iran aspires to be a dominant power in the region in order to pursue its often-competing strategic interests. The United States has long been concerned about Iran’s nuclear program and its efforts to construct a nuclear weapon in violation of international agreements. However, the nuclear situation in Iran is difficult to separate from other problems troubling the region, such as Iran’s influence in upending regional governments, its ties to armed groups, and its growing ballistic missile program. In recent years, Iran has sponsored militant groups that have acted as loyal proxies, furthering its interests in the Middle East without Iran’s direct involvement.
Iran has an elaborate nuclear infrastructure. It operates nuclear enrichment plants, centrifuge production facilities, and uranium mines that, with enough material and time, can produce weapons-grade fuel to build a nuclear bomb. At the same time, Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which seeks to limit nuclear arms development by monitoring compliance through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In the past, the IAEA has had concerns about access to Iranian facilities, especially during the 1990s, as Iran began purchasing nuclear technologies on the black market while withholding information from the IAEA. But in 2015, Iran agreed to a landmark nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that involved permanent members of the UN Security Council (the United States, China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom) and Germany. The deal was a major step in limiting Iran’s nuclear capacity.
After President Joe Biden took office in 2021, both the United States and Iran signaled interest in restoring compliance with the nuclear deal. However, both countries disagreed over how to enter the deal, resulting in multiple rounds of negotiations. A worsening conflict with Iran could have significant consequences for the United States, including the risk of U.S. troops in the Middle East being targeted and an escalation of proxy warfare in the region. Some experts fear violent escalation could even result in war.