Since 2002, the possibility of armed conflict between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran has been a constant refrain in the complex and contentious relationship between the two states. Threats of military force and overt calls for an attack on Iran by the United States or its allies have reverberated throughout US-Iranian relations and has become a factor in Iran’s domestic politics.
Between January and June 2011, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran interviewed 35 Iranian human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, student activists, writers, cultural leaders and members of the political opposition in order to document the perspectives of people inside the country, and particularly of the reform-oriented members of civil society, about the possibility of armed conflict with Iran. The Campaign identified these interlocutors on the basis of their intellectual independence, broad knowledge of Iranian society, and their capacity for differentiated judgments about the consequences of a military strike. Many of these individuals have faced censorship, harassment, arrest and imprisonment for their work. They represent some of the most accomplished and prominent members of Iranian civil society, and as respected household names, command considerable influence over the thinking of a sizeable share of the population.
Particularly in view of the relative isolation of Iran from the outside world over past decades, which has prevented all but a handful of Western analysts from having first-hand contact with local experts, these voices, which have been largely absent from debates in Western capitals, offer important insights and analysis about the probable consequences of such a conflict for Iran, and for the future of Iran’s relationship with the United States and its allies.
Military force against the Islamic Republic has been considered as a means to deter or eliminate Iran’s putative development of nuclear weapons, and the threat they would presumably pose to Israel, Saudi Arabia and other US allies; to protect the regional interests of the United States and its allies; and to precipitate “regime change,” that would in theory accomplish both these objectives. Calls for military action against Iran are also often colored with admonishment about the government’s abusive human rights policies and practices. The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq made the possibility of military action against Iran seem more tangible, especially considering President George W. Bush branded the country part of an “Axis of Evil.”
While the likelihood of a strike on Iran has subsequently receded, numerous influential political figures and policy experts continue to advocate for an attack, as questions about the Islamic Republic’s rationale for its nuclear development activities and its regional ambitions have continued. Possible military action against Iran has remained prominently “on the table” as official US policy. At the same time, some influential figures have also warned that an attack would backfire, failing to fully disable Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and leading to larger regional conflagrations. Some of the more ardent advocates justify military action with the worsening human rights situation in the country, particularly the protests and repression following the 2009 presidential election, suggesting that the Iranian people would welcome foreign intervention and join in an effort to change the government.