No Good Options on Iran

When it comes to making sense of the options on Iran, the frustrating thing is that none of them are likely to work. That leads to debates where everyone very smartly rebuts the opposing viewpoint, only to defend an equally unsatisfactory proposition. I accept that actually getting meaningful sanctions applied — that is, overcoming Russian and Chinese obstructionism — is a longshot. I also concede that sanctions might not succeed in changing Tehran’s political calculus regarding its nuclear program.

But most people who advance those two arguments tend to use them to justify one of three approaches: accept a nuclear Iran, with all the strategic ambiguity that entails; pursue broad engagement beyond the nuclear issue; attack Iran’s nuclear installations militarily.

Another frustrating thing about this debate is that, while there are reasons to oppose each of these options, the alarmist scenarios raised in opposition to them are largely overblown. Iran, whether armed with a nuclear weapon or in possession of the latent capacity to arm itself with one, is not an end-of-the-world outcome. It is, however, a potentially destabilizing one, with loads of deferred risk. Those who argue that nuclear deterrence would work against Tehran tend to base that calculation on an Israel-Iran standoff. But a nuclear Iran could also lead to a regional arms race, creating a crisscrossing network of nuclear targets, all within very short delivery times of each other (i.e., limited time to make the correct response decision). That’s a far cry from the bipolar and long-distance deterrence of the Cold War. And deterrence works two ways, of course, meaning that a nuclear Iran would also have an insurance policy against any severe reprisals for regional adventurism.

Broad engagement with Iran, meanwhile, would certainly not weaken our ability to assess their behavior at any point in the future and adjust our posture accordingly. It could be based on clear benchmarks and mutual commitments to build trust, including similar mechanisms applied to the nuclear program, thereby limiting the potential for Tehran to simply use broader talks to stall and “run out the clock” (something it has already largely accomplished). But nothing about the recent events in Iran suggest that such an approach is likely to sway the current regime. Even if the emergence of the Iranian opposition is an encouraging trend calling for longterm strategic patience, the ease with which it has been contained is not. And because Iran has resolutely withheld any gesture recognizing the shift in U.S. posture under the Obama administration, the political costs of such a move in the aftermath of the Iranian elections might be prohibitive for President Barack Obama, especially in light of the rethink currently on display in Afghanistan.

Finally, although there would be costs to resorting to military force, quite simply, the kind of operation required would play to our military strengths, while avoiding the kind of occupation that has bogged us down in both Iraq and Afghanistan. As for the Iranian ability to respond to an attack, I’m increasingly convinced that it’s been largely exagerrated. But an attack could only target Iran’s nuclear facilities, and even then, it would offer no guarantee of successfully destroying them. And the real target in Iran is no longer a physical one. It is the technological capacity and political will to develop nuclear weapons. The former would survive any attack, and the latter would certainly be redoubled by one. In the meantime, our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, though no longer as vulnerable to Iranian interference as they were in 2006, would still be exposed.

So where does that leave me? On most days, for lack of a better alternative, I fall into what Kevin Sullivan calls the “halfhearted and quasi-invested bunch at best”calling for stiffer sanctions. On others, I wish that Obama had the courage to adopt the Leverett-Mann school of stubborn engagement, even though I don’t hold out much prospect for success. And I admit that on others, I’m no longer so adamantly opposed to a military strike, on the condition that every possible diplomatic effort is attempted and found to fail.

But the truth is, there are strong and compelling reasons to be skeptical about the chances for success of all three approaches. Quite simply, Iran has a stronger negotiating position, because the status quo benefits them, and there are no positive alternatives to the status quo.

More World Politics Review