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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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.