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Iran's Nuclear Program: The Next President's Options

Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008

NEW YORK -- Both candidates for President of the United States agree that Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology is a serious threat to national security, but neither has presented a serious strategy for dealing with the problem on the campaign trail. One seems to think he can talk Iran out of its nuclear program without specifying what he'd say to change the equation. The other summed up his strategy by inserting a few bombs into an old Beach Boys song.

Campaign rhetoric rarely becomes policy, especially in foreign affairs, and the Iranian question is no exception. Certainly Barack Obama will not simply sit down with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without laying out the consequences if the talks failed, nor would John McCain hum along to the sound of bombs falling on Natanz without trying to talk to Iran first. But the question remains: what will Washington do about Tehran's nuclear program after the elections?

The closer you look at the issue, the more complicated it appears.

The candidates seem far apart on the question of negotiating with the Iranian government. Obama (and now President Bush) argues that a more robust diplomatic strategy is needed. Obama has said this could include direct talks with Ahmadinejad, if conditions were right. McCain likes to stress that the U.S. has many backchannel lines of communication with the Iranian government already. He says he would keep those open but always emphasizes the need for more sanctions and the creation of a new coalition, his much derided "League of Democracies," that could go around the U.N. Security Council to enforce the sanctions.

But despite the differences in rhetoric between the two candidates, constraints on their policy options will likely lead them to similar diplomatic strategies. To begin with, even if the new president wanted to jumpstart a new round of aggressive negotiations, it would be hard for him to convince his Iranian counterpart to follow suit. Iran's electoral campaign will start to heat up shortly after the polls close in the U.S., making diplomatic progress difficult until after Iran's presidential elections in June.

Even after the elections, it may not be clear who is making policy in Iran. Ali Ansari, a professor of Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews, argues that the growth of the supreme leader's office in the past few years indicates that power in Iran is swinging away from the president. "The Leader is taking on the role of a monarch," he said at a recent Council on Foreign Relations symposium on Iran.

Another complication for Washington is that Iranian policy requires much more than just a resolution to the nuclear problem. Iranian interests collide with America's in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and the Caucasus. More broadly, the two countries compete for the support of the Arab street across the Middle East. "The problem is that we are used to arms control with the Soviet Union," Ashton Carter of Harvard's Kennedy School told the CFR symposium. With the Soviets, both sides agreed that talks should be limited to nuclear issues and that everything else would remain the same. Ignoring the other issues in talks with Iran doesn't seem to be a viable option.

Iraq and Afghanistan provide opportunities for agreement that could be used as confidence-building measures before dealing with the more complicated question of Iran's nuclear program. But sequencing negotiations this way may also provide Iran with enough time to advance its nuclear program to the point where it could quickly break out of its civilian constraints and pursue a weapon. Widening the discussions to include all of the differences between Iran and the U.S., however, seems to be a recipe for paralysis.

The Bush administration has tried to contain the other Iranian issues through policies designed to isolate Iran in the region. This, according to Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, has been a failure and the next president would do well to abandon it. "The problem is that there is no regional consensus on Iran," Takeyh told the CFR symposium. Instead of seeking to isolate Iran, Nasr and Takeyh argue that Washington should promote policies that would integrate Iran into the region.

Of course, no discussion of Iran's nuclear program would be complete without mention of the military options available to Washington. Experts agree that taking out Iran's nuclear facilities would not resolve the problem, but could delay Iran's progress. At the CFR symposium, Gary Samore and Ashton Carter agreed that a U.S. air strike would likely only delay Iranian progress by a few years. An air strike then would only be successful if it allows time for something else to happen during those few years.

According to this analysis, after the bombs fell, the U.S. would essentially be back where it started, trying to either talk Iran out of pursuing a nuclear program or resetting its military presence in the region to contain a nuclear-armed Iran. Both options would be complicated by a U.S. attack, though, because it would likely drive Russia and China away from cooperation, turn a generation of Iranians against America, and push the Iranian nuclear program underground.

Of course, the discussion about America's options could turn out to be moot if Ashton Carter is right in his assessment of the choices faced by Israel, for whom the downside risk of a military strike is much lower than it would be for the United States. Already less tolerant of a nuclear-armed Iran, Israel is also less concerned about potential blowback from an air strike on a country that is, after all, seen as a hostile power by most of the region. At the CFR symposium, Carter put the odds of an Israeli attack on Iran's Natanz facility in the period between November and January (that is, after the U.S. elections and before the swearing in of the new president) at 50-50. If this is true, then the Iranian problem for the next president will be, well, more complicated to say the least.

Adam Wolfe is a freelance writer based in New York. He blogs regularly at On Political Risk.

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