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The problem with Iran: can the U.S. and the U.N. stop Iran from building nuclear weapons?

It was a scene right out of a Hollywood blockbuster: A nuclear engineer driving to work in Tehran, Iran's capital, was assassinated by a motorcyclist who sped by and put a magnetized bomb on the scientist's car before disappearing into rush-hour traffic.

Iran blamed the United States and Israel for the January 11 attack--the fifth assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist since 2007.

The incident capped off a remarkable two weeks. In December, Iran threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuz--a vital waterway for the world's oil supply leading out of the Persian Gulf (see map, pp. 14-15). The U.S. vowed to keep it open, saying that it would use military force if necessary. Then an Iranian court handed down a death sentence to a 28-year-old U.S. citizen Iran accused of spying--a charge that the U.S. denies.



These events might appear unrelated, but underlying them all is the international community's belief that Iran is getting closer to building a nuclear weapon. Both the U.S. and Israel have said that they will not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran.

"This is about the lowest point for relations in 30 years," says Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University in New York. "I think we're approaching a tacit [unspoken] state of war."

Roots of the Conflict

It has been 33 years since Iran's 1979 revolution (see chronology, pp. 12-13). Radical Muslims, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (koh-MAY-nee), overthrew Iran's monarchy and imposed strict Islamic rule on what had been a good friend of the U.S. The two nations have been at odds ever since. In the past decade, tensions over Iran's nuclear program and its defiance of the United Nations have been on the rise.

Today, Iran is still an Islamic republic, with a religious figure, Ayatollah AH Khamenei (KAH-muh-nee), as Supreme Leader of government as well as religion. The nation's public face is more often President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (mah-MOOD ah-MAH-dih-nee-ZHAHD). He claims that Iran's nuclear program is for generating energy, not bombs. In November, however, U.N. weapons inspectors concluded that Iran is carrying out activities "relevant to the development of a nuclear device."

Tough Sanctions

In an effort to stop Iran from getting the bomb, the U.N., the U.S., and many other countries have imposed a series of economic sanctions, including the freezing of Iranian assets--suspending Iran's access to its money in foreign banks. So far, the sanctions haven't changed Iran's nuclear strategy, though they have hurt the country's economy, which is close to collapse.

The country's unemployment rate is now estimated at 25 percent. The most recent round of U.S. and European sanctions may block Iran's ability to sell its oil. That would be devastating, says Abbas Milani, the director of Iranian studies at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

"Iran is very dependent on oil and gas revenues," says Milani. Oil and gas "account for 60 to 85 percent of the government's revenue. If they have no oil or gas revenue coming in, they are in big trouble."

Internal strife has added to Iran's woes. The government interprets political dissent as opposition to Islam and suppresses it. Violators can be jailed and held in solitary confinement or killed.

Iran does hold elections, but real power is wielded not by the elected Parliament or the President, but by the country's mullahs (religious leaders), who enforce rigid social restrictions. For instance, mingling between men and women is banned. Iran's morality police can fine or arrest women for not having a proper head scarf or for wearing "un-Islamic" clothing such as sandals, or wearing nail polish. Under Islamic law, alcohol is also banned.

Ahmadinejad was elected President in 2005. He sparked international condemnation by saying that the Holocaust never happened and that the Jewish state of Israel is illegitimate.

But discontent was brewing. It spilled over in 2009, when Ahmadinejad was re-elected. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest what they saw as rigged election results.

The government responded with a brutal crackdown. As many as 150 Iranians were killed, and more than 4,000 were arrested. A young woman named Neda Agha-Soltan, shot by police on a Tehran street, became a symbol of the protesters plight when a cellphone video of I her death was broadcast around the world on the Internet.

Bush & Obama

Dealing with Iran has been one of President Barack Obama's toughest foreign-policy challenges, as it was for his predecessor, George W. Bush. When Obama offered direct talks, Iran did not respond. So the Obama administration began imposing sanctions to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear program, while making it clear that all options, including military force, remain on the table.

The situation is further complicated by U.S. worries that Israel might take matters into its own hands and attack Iran's nuclear facilities. That's what Israel did when it bombed nuclear reactors in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007.

Iran's nuclear program already seems to be under a different kind of attack. In 2009, a computer worm known as Stuxnet set back the country's ability to make nuclear weapons by several years. Analysts believe that the U.S. and/or Israel was behind the cyber-attack. The assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists--which may be the work of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency--also appear to be aimed at slowing Iran's progress toward developing a bomb.

In January, however, Iran offered to restart negotiations over its nuclear program. Is it sincere-- or just playing for time? No one knows. But Gary Sick finds the offer a reason to be optimistic.

"The last thing Obama wants is another war in the Middle East," he says. "Iran realizes it needs to get itself out of this trouble, and there is serious talk about negotiations. Everyone involved has come right up to the brink and peered down into the abyss--and decided that's really not the way to go."

--Patricia Smith


Iran and Its Neighbors: A Volatile Region

The Middle East, which has 52 percent of known oil reserves, may be the most unstable region in the world.

Iran has less oil than its neighbors do, but its size and location give it power. Iran recently threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz--and the oil shipments that fuel much of the world's economy. U.S. officials called such an action a "red line" that would provoke a military response.

Iran's suspected efforts to develop nuclear weapons pose a threat to its neighbors, especially the Jewish state of Israel, but also Arab countries friendly with the U.S., like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.











* Iran Profile:

* Kids From Iran:

* Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (biography):

"If they have no oil or gas revenue coming in, they are in big trouble."

Think About It

1. Why are U.S.-lran relations so tense?

2. What might each country do to lessen the conflict?


This U.S. ally sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence. There is talk that Israel might try to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities in the coming months.


After eight years of conflict, the U.S. withdrew its last combat forces in December. Iraq's fragile democracy is threatened by religious and ethnic strife.


About 2,000 U.S. troops are stationed in Saudi Arabia. The country has up to 25 percent of the world's oil reserves.



STRAIT OF HORMUZ About 20 percent of the world's oil is shipped through here. Iran has threatened to blockade the Strait.


The U.S. and its allies have been at war in Afghanistan since 001. About 90,000 U.S. troops are currently there. Most are slated to leave by the end of 2014.

CLICK HERE IN OUR DIGITAL ISSUE for a video about Iran


AREA: 630,575 sq mi (slightly larger than Alaska)

POPULATION: 78 million (U.S.: 312 million)

PER CAPITA GDP: $12,200 (U.S.: $48,100)

RELIGIONS: Shia Islam, 89%; Sunni Islam, 9%; other, 2%

LANGUAGES: Farsi (Persian) (*), Turkic, Kurdish, others

LITERACY: Males, 84%; females, 70% (U.S.: 99/99)

LIFE EXPECTANCY: Males, 68; females, 71 (U.S.: 75/80)

* NOTE: Geographically, Iran is part of the Middle East and, like most of the region, it is an Islamic nation, but its people are largely Persians, not Arabs-

RELATED ARTICLE: Words to know

* Ayatollah [n]: title of the highest-ranking religious leader in Shia Islam

* revenue [n]: income produced by a business or resource

* sanction [n]: severe economic restrictions used by one government to punish another


1941 American Ally

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi succeeds his father as Shah (King) of Iran and becomes a U.S. ally in World War II and the Cold War. He modernizes Iran but becomes increasingly dictatorial

1979 Islamic Revolution

Iranians' discontent with the Shah's rule erupts into strikes and protests. The Shah flees to the West. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (above) takes power, and Iran becomes a strictly religious Islamic republic.

1979 Hostage Crisis

In November, Iranian militants seize the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and take more than 60 Americans hostage. They are held captive for 444 days.

2005 President Ahmadinejad

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad becomes President and enforces strict Islamic rule. He also says that the Jewish state of Israel is a "stain" on Islam that must be erased.

2009 Government Crackdown

Ahmadinejad is reelected in June, but Iranians take to the streets claiming that the vote was rigged. The protests are dubbed the "Twitter revolution" for the demonstrators' use of social networking.

2011-12 Rising Tensions

Iran threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world's oil supply is shipped. The flow of oil to the West is protected by thousands of U.S. military personnel based in regional allies such as Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, and on aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, like the one shown above.

* Objectives

* Understand that Iran is a country with which the U.S. has had more than three decades of conflict.

* Identify recent events in Iran's history and how they may have affected relations with the U.S.

* Backstory

* After Saudi Arabia, Iran is the second-largest (in land area) nation in the Middle East.

* Unlike in most Middle Eastern countries, only 2 percent of Iran's people are Arab. The majority (61 percent) are Persian,

* One reason for Iran's hostility toward the U.S. is American support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), during which some 500,000 Iranians were killed.

* Rapid Review

* Why do the U.S. and other countries oppose Iran's nuclear program? (They believe that Iran, which is run by a dictator, is developing nuclear weaponry.)

* How have the U.N. and U.S. tried to punish Iran? (by imposing economic sanctions)

* What 1979 incident in Tehran damaged Iran-U.S. relations? (Iranian militants seized the U.S. embassy and held Americans hostage.)

* To the Brink

The term brinkmanship was used during the Cold War to describe events such as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, in which countries pushed events to the brink, or verge, of disaster before pulling back. Ask students: What examples of brinkmanship can you find in this story? In recent history? Why would such a tactic be used
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Title Annotation:WORLD STUDIES
Author:Smith, Patricia
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Mar 19, 2012
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