The Magazine

The Least Bad Iran Option

From the March 7, 2005 issue: The real choices we face in dealing with Tehran's nuclear program.

Mar 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 23 • By JEFFREY BERGNER
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DURING HIS RECENT TRIP TO Europe, President Bush sent mixed signals about U.S. policy with regard to Iran's development of nuclear weapons. At one point he dismissed the prospect of military action as ridiculous; immediately after, he emphasized all options were on the table; then at another point he suggested there might be "convergence" between U.S. and European views on how to address the problem. If the president seemed to be all over the lot, that may be because the policy choices with respect to Iran are complex, and none is without its drawbacks.

Currently we are pursuing a "good cop, bad cop" option. While France, Germany, and Great Britain negotiate directly with Iran, the United States stands to the side. Washington endorses the negotiations, supports the European trio, and hopes the negotiations might find an opening to end Iran's weapons program in a way that is verifiable. Indeed, there may even be a thought that the occasional American statement that "all options are on the table" will strengthen the European negotiating position.

What are the likely consequences of this scenario? First, the negotiations will fail. They will fail because, despite claims to the contrary, Iran is not seeking a peaceful nuclear energy program. Iran has no need of such a program, and its actions to date are not consistent with that end. Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability, and there is nothing the European trio can offer it to compensate for the perceived security benefits nuclear weapons would bring.

When the talks fail, what then? Will European negotiators acknowledge that negotiations were insufficient to deter Iran, and move toward economic or political sanctions? No, they won't: The negotiations are not a means to an end, they are the end itself.

We will then see the second consequence of this option: European governments will argue that only the United States can offer the security guarantees that might tempt Iran to end its program, and therefore America should not absent itself from the negotiations. Iran will point out that leaks about U.S. war planning, deployment of aerial drones, and alleged Special Forces activities all confirm its need for self-defense. It will be said, again, that America faces two kinds of adversaries--those with nuclear weapons that it does not invade, and those without nuclear weapons that it does invade. Under the "good cop, bad cop" option, Iran's weapons program continues, Western unity is strained, and Iran lays the blame on a party not even present at the negotiations. In all, not such an attractive option.

There are now calls for the United States to move to a second option, which we might call the "united front" option. Here the United States would join France, Germany, and Great Britain and engage directly with Iran. But what could Washington offer that the European trio could not? The United States maintains ground forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan and considerable naval assets nearby. Perhaps a security guarantee from the United States would assuage the anxieties of the Iranian government. But such a pledge would be completely unwise, given the many other issues--including support for terrorism, interference in Iraq, and the Iranian regime's human rights record--that animate U.S.-Iran relations.

Moreover, to assume that Iran's quest for nuclear weapons has to do with the current force posture of the United States in the region is to forget that Iran has been pursuing nuclear weapons for at least 18 years, since long before even the first Gulf War. And it is to ignore that Israel, Russia, and Pakistan all possess nuclear capabilities in the region. The consequence is that "united front" negotiations would also fail. What's more, since the United States, if it joined direct talks with Iran, would immediately become the senior negotiating partner, American diplomacy would be blamed for the failure.

What then? Would Europe be more willing to adopt follow-on sanctions against Iran as a result of a perceived failure of collective U.S. and European diplomacy than it is as a result of the failure of its own diplomacy? The question answers itself. The "united front" option would permit the continuation of Iran's nuclear program and foster disagreement over follow-on measures among the allies.

This suggests a third option, which we might call a "united front with pre-agreed follow-on measures." Under this option the United States and Europe would agree in advance on a set of consequences to ensue if negotiations failed to dislodge Iran from its position. For example, they might agree that if negotiations had not successfully concluded within six months, the United States and Europe would jointly press for economic sanctions against Iran in the U.N. Security Council.

It is difficult to believe that Europe would commit itself to such a course of action, especially if the United States were in a position to judge what amounted to a successful negotiating outcome. Europe might surmise that Russia or China or both would block action by the Security Council in any event. Thus, for the "united front with pre-agreed follow-on measures" option to be meaningful, Europe would have to commit itself in advance to join in sanctioning Iran with or without the blessing of the Security Council. This would require Europe to overturn its long-standing views on the U.N., and to do so in an instance where Europe alone would bear most of the new costs, as the United States already has sanctions in place against Iran.

So this third option turns out to be a pipe dream, predicated on the hope that Europe would ever adopt economic and/or political sanctions against Iran, over and against the procedures of the U.N., in response to a perceived failure of American diplomacy. While musing on this cascade of unlikely events, moreover, we might remind ourselves that there is no evidence that the imposition of joint U.S. and European economic sanctions against Iran would cause it to terminate its nuclear weapons program.

Is there no other option short of invasion? There is a "military strike" option, which would consist of a strike against all known and suspected Iranian nuclear weapons development facilities. In the wake of such a strike, the United States would no doubt be condemned for riding roughshod over European and world diplomacy and for taking Iranian lives. A military strike could also alienate a great swath of moderate, and especially younger, Iranians who are inclined to be friendly toward the United States and in whom we repose hope for the creation one day of a more decent, secular regime in Iran. Moderate Iranians may oppose clerical rule, but they do not necessarily oppose an Iran with nuclear capabilities. Losing the natural affection of these people would be a genuine setback.

A "military strike" option is thus fraught with risk for the United States from friend and foe. It does, though, have one critical difference from the other options examined here: If it were executed properly, it would eliminate or seriously retard Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Jeffrey Bergner is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are his own.