The Iranian nuclear program poses one of the most pressing national security challenges confronting the United States today. After years of increasing economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure -- backed by the threat of force -- under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the United States and the international community have still not achieved an acceptable outcome that prevents Iran from using its existing nuclear program for achieving a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, Iran is dangerously approaching the threshold of a nuclear weapon capability as its centrifuges continue to produce a growing stockpile of enriched uranium that could be converted into material for a nuclear bomb. We have reached the point where all options -- economic, political, diplomatic, and military -- must be carefully examined and substantively debated in the public domain.
The purpose of this article is not to advocate a particular course of action, but to contribute to the public debate by setting out the full range of plausible approaches to resolving the confrontation between the international community and the Iranian regime over its nuclear program -- a program that virtually the entire international community believes is a vehicle for achieving an advanced nuclear-weapons capability if not a nuclear bomb itself. Eight options are described below -- from negotiations through use of force to containment -- along with potential benefits and costs in each case.
These should be viewed as a set of "nested" options that could lead sequentially from one to another. They should be seen not in two dimensions, with the task being to pick one of the options from among the list, but in three, as a family of options through which the policy of the United States and the international community could move over time depending on the success or failure of prior options -- and the choices made by the Iranian regime.
Why conduct a review of Iran
Partly because of the American experience in Iraq. The U.S. military action there was not, as many suggest, either a war of choice or a war of preemption. It was, rather, a war of last resort. After 12 years of diplomacy, 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions, increasingly targeted economic sanctions, multiple international inspection efforts, no-fly zones over both northern and southern Iraq, the selective use of U.S. military force in 1998, and Saddam Hussein's rejection of a final opportunity to leave Iraq and avoid war, the United States and the international community were out of options. The choice was either to capitulate to Saddam Hussein's defiance of the demands of the international community or to make good on the "serious consequences" promised by the United Nations for such defiance. The United States and its international partners on Iraq chose the latter course.
Many people have argued that before making this fateful decision, U.S. policymakers should have stepped back and conducted one last searching examination of possible alternative courses of action. If that is the case, then it is now time -- and perhaps almost past time -- to make such an effort with respect to Iran. For there is a better than even chance that sometime next year the United States and its international partners will find themselves similarly out of options -- and face the choice of either military action against Iran or accepting an Iran with a clear path to a nuclear weapon. So if there are alternatives to these two grim choices, now is the time to find them -- as well as to think through carefully the military options available.
The problems posed by the Iranian regime
The international community in general, and the United States in particular, has a broader set of grievances and concerns regarding the behavior of the Iranian regime. They would like to see an Iran that:
1. Does not pursue weapons of mass destruction of any kind;
2. Does not support terrorists;
3. Does not intervene in the internal affairs of its neighbors;
4. Respects rather than infringes upon the freedom and human rights of the Iranian people; and
5. Respects the right of the Iranian people to chart their own future through democratic means.
The United States needs a comprehensive strategy for seeking to advance these objectives. This paper, however, will focus primarily on the eight major options for dealing with the immediate confrontation over the Iranian regime's nuclear program. This is only "primarily" the focus for two reasons: First, because among the considerations in evaluating each of the options described below will be the extent to which it could contribute to or detract from the achievement of these broader objectives. And second, because there are measures that the United States and the international community are to some extent already taking -- and could significantly expand -- that would both enhance the prospects of resolving successfully the confrontation over the nuclear issue and, at the same time, make progress on these other issues more likely.
These measures include:
1. Strengthening our diplomatic, economic, security, and military ties with friends and allies in the region;
2. Accelerating the fall and departure of the Assad regime and its replacement with a cross- sectarian regime that can both unify Syria and will be less friendly with and beholden to the Iranian regime;
3. Weakening -- to the extent we can -- the ties between the Iranian regime and China and Russia;
4. Pushing back hard against any Iranian attempts to expand its influence in the Gulf, Afghanistan, or Iraq and its support of international terror and terrorists;
5. Continuing sanctions that have set back the Iranian economy and government revenues; and
6. Making clear to the Iranian people that the United States and the international community have no quarrel with them, that their current economic hardships and international isolation are the result of the policies of the Iranian regime, that a change in those policies will bring dramatic benefits, and that, should that occur, the whole world will welcome Iran with open arms as a respected member of the international community.