Nothing in American foreign policy is more controversial than President Obama’s efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program. In April 2015, after a marathon negotiating session in Lausanne, Switzerland, the debate entered a new phase when the United States and its negotiating partners (the so-called P5+1) and Iran announced a breakthrough. The Obama administration and its supporters claim that the agreement will severely restrict the Iranian nuclear program for at least a decade. In their more optimistic moments, they go even further, arguing that the deal will lead to an historic reconciliation between the United States and the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, the framework’s detractors depict it as an abject capitulation that has weakened the United States and its regional allies.

Whether you side with the Obama administration or its critics, the deal is colored by your understanding of the Iranian threat. One school of thought argues that the Islamic Republic is essentially a defensive power whose days are numbered. In these, its twilight years, it can easily be contained. If the United States and its ally, Israel, will simply avoid rash military action, so the thinking goes, then they will certainly prevail over Iran in the long run. Alternatively, a second school of thought sees Iran as an offensive power. Harboring hegemonic regional ambitions hell-bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon, Iran poses a serious danger to regional order, not to mention American primacy. Countries threatened by the Iranian nuclear program, so this school claims, will inevitably acquire their own arsenals. The Persian Gulf, which contains two-thirds of global oil reserves, will become the focal point of a multi-sided nuclear standoff.

After a brief survey of the historical background, this seminar will investigate the Iran debate in depth and will conclude, on the last day and a half, with a war game.

Images courtesy U.S. Department of State |  Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs

Mike Doran on the Nuclear Deal with Iran


Michael Doran

Michael Doran, an expert in U.S. policy toward the Middle East, radical Islam, and the Arab- Israeli conflict, is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. He has also held a number of senior U.S. government posts related to Middle East policy and strategic communication.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session



Discussion Questions:

  1. How would you distinguish the nature of the Iranian nuclear threat?
  2. What distinguishes a national interest from a vital national interest?
  3. Is Iran an implacable enemy of the United States?
  4. Evaluate: “There is no need for the United States to be inordinately concerned about the nuclear program of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”



Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the purpose of Iran’s nuclear program?
  2. What was the best deal that the United States could have realistically expected to get from Iran?
  3. Discuss: “A bad deal is better than no deal.”
  4. Does Iran seek “regional hegemony”?
  5. Discuss: “Iran may not a perfect partner of the United States, but it is the least worst one.”



Discussion Questions:

  1. Describe ISIS’s strategy and goals.
  2. How is ISIS pursuing its goals, and how does that differ from the terrorism strategy employed by al-Qaeda?
  3. What role is Iran playing in the conflict with ISIS? Describe its strategy and goals.
  4. How does Iranian involvement in Iraq complicate the US response to the ISIS threat?
  5. How compatible are Iranian and American interests in the Middle East?

During the last hour of class on Thursday you will be presented with a scenario depicting the United States in a nuclear crisis with Iran. The class will divide into two groups—hawks and doves. Both groups will be called upon to defend their positions before the President in a model National Security Council meeting on Friday.

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