Iran Threatens Nuclear Boats, But Obama Should Sign Sanctions Anyways


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Wreckage from Syrian Civil War, in which Iran has played a major role
Photo Credit: 
By Christiaan Triebert (Flickr: Azaz, Syria) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

President Obama has a momentous decision to make with an extension of sanctions over Iran sitting on his desk. While Obama was initially expected to sign the sanctions without much fuss, but Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has demanded that the administration block them. According to Rouhani, the extension of these sanctions would violate the nuclear accords signed between the P5+ 1 (UN Security Council + Germany) and Iran. Problem is, the sanctions in question are entirely separate from the sanctions involved in the nuclear accords.

Now, Iran is threatening to build nuclear powered boats if the United States goes forward with sanctions. To be clear, the “nuclear” technology involved in these boats has nothing to do with weapons capabilities, but instead use nuclear power as a fuel source. Nuclear powered boats have extremely long range and don’t have to be refueled. Any work done on said boats would have to confine to the already signed nuclear accords.

The Obama administration is weighing Iran’s nuclear boat ambitions, and nuclear powered boats would represent an increase of Iran’s military capabilities. Regardless, the Obama administration should push forward and sign the sanctions. If Obama fails to do so, it could give Iran a free hand to destabilize the region even more.

Sanctions Have Nothing to do with Nukes

While Iran’s alleged nuclear program has been the most prominent issue in the international media over the past few years, regional conflicts in the Middle East have been unfolding on various other fronts. Iran is the world’s premier “Shia” power, home to nearly 80 million people, about as many as the entirety of the Arabian peninsula. Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies, meanwhile, are primarily Sunni Muslim. These two sides are now caught in an intense battle for control of the region.

Currently, Iran is engaged in a variety of proxy wars with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-Arab powers. In Syria, Iraqi-Iranian Shia militias have been fighting for the Assad regime, and in Yemen, Shia-Houthi rebels are battling against the Sunni-government and a Saudi-led coalition of Arab powers. The Houthis likely wouldn’t even exist without Iranian support and arms, and the Assad regime may have fallen without Iranian support.

These various regional conflicts and Iran’s efforts to supply and train Shia militias have resulted in separate sanctions on Iran. These sanctions are different from, and not quite as severe as the sanctions installed as a result the country’s nuclear program. Now, Iran wants to leverage its nuclear agreement to try to force the United States to drop other sanctions.

This would be a huge mistake. While Iran’s nuclear program would represent a grave threat to the region and the even the world, its interference in regional conflicts actually presents a more substantial short-term threat. Further, simply because Iran agrees to correct one “wrong” -its nuclear program- that doesn’t give the country a free license to commit other “wrongs”.

History of Sunni-Shia Conflict Goes Back Hundreds of Years

The conflict between Sunni and Shia goes back to the early years after the death of the Prophet Mohammad, and centers around who had the right to succeed the Prophet as the leader of Islam. Whoever succeeded the prophet would have had the biggest voice in determining the will and meaning of the Quran and also the life and times of Mohammad himself. Shia and Sunni Muslims diverged in their views and resulting in a rift that has now been growing for hundreds of years.

Saudi Arabia and a coalition of allied Arab nations have been jousting with Iran for influence across the Middle East and South West Asia. The conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, among others, would be impossible to understand without acknowledging the Shia-Sunni conflict.

While Iran is primarily Shia and the Arabian peninsula is primarily Sunni, the populations coexist and intermingle across the region. Syria is about 13% Shia and 74% Sunni, Yemen is about 45% Shia and 53% Sunni, Iraq is about 51% Shia and and 42% Sunni (with many of those belong to the Kurds, a separate group and separate issue). Many of these countries are now the center of the most intense conflicts.

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