Prepare for a Nuclear Iran

There are no other viable options. We must focus on deterrence and ensure Tehran can’t share its technology with others.

Everyone wants a silver bullet to resolve America's policy dilemmas in dealing with Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Unfortunately, none of the popular candidates-engagement, military action, sanctions or regime change-seems sufficiently likely to succeed to be the basis of prudent government policy when vital U.S. national interests are at stake. Instead of hoping for a silver bullet that will make the problem go away, or at least push it down the road, policy makers should start to develop a serious plan to manage the most likely future: an unreformed and nuclear-capable Iran.

The United States has tried and failed many times at engagement with Iran. The attempts have generally been necessary and appropriate, but as Tehran continues to move forward with its nuclear program, there is little time left to try to work with a government that seems more focused on running out the clock than genuine negotiation. Iran's complex domestic politics made talks difficult even when the regime was relatively stable; last fall, the country's weakened government was perversely under attack by reformist leaders for negotiating with Washington over fuel for a research reactor.

At the other end of the spectrum, military action appears both unlikely and, if undertaken, unlikely to succeed. The Obama administration, including the Pentagon, appear loathe to launch air strikes against Iran that could potentially inflame not only Iraq and Afghanistan, but much of the region without even considering the impact on domestic energy prices during a global recession. Israel, upon which many advocates of an attack seem to pin their hopes, faces even greater obstacles, including limitations on the range of its aircraft, geography requiring flights over Arab states, and blowback in the Islamic world and (because of energy prices) possibly the United States as well. And if one of the two actually does attack Iranian nuclear facilities, the strikes will at best delay the program while sparking outrage at the attacker and potentially buttressing a fractured political system.

Tighter economic sanctions, usually seen as a way to apply pressure short of military action, are also quite unlikely. China displayed for all the world its view of consultations with other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany on new sanctions by sending a low-level diplomat to recent talks in New York. Russia is similarly unlikely to support the "crippling" sanctions that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seeks, fearing an unstable Iran or a pro-Western Iran more than a nuclear Iran. Even the European Union is unable to unite behind strict sanctions, largely as a result of differing economic interests inside the group.

Recognizing the odds against engagement, military action, and sanctions, and encouraged by Iran's internal turmoil, many argue that a strategy of regime change-overt, covert, or both-is the only remaining policy option. Unfortunately, it is also an illusion. Iran's regime is clearly weakened and may indeed collapse at some point. No one knows when, however, or what system would emerge afterwards. No one really knows how to bring down Iran's regime, how the Iranian people might react to outside efforts toward that end, or what the Iranian government would do to protect itself domestically or take the fight to the enemy internationally. And no one knows what might happen to Iran's nuclear scientists, technology, and materials in the process. Regime change as a strategy is a desperate gamble.

Rather than counting on one or another long-shot solution to the Iran problem, Washington should quickly develop a real strategy to manage Iran, including a nuclear-capable or even a nuclear-armed Iran. Such a strategy would have three core components: deterring Iran from using nuclear weapons, ensuring that a potentially nuclear Iran would not be emboldened in relations with its neighbors, and preventing Iran from sharing nuclear technology with others. Operationally, this would mean publicly reaffirming America's extended nuclear-deterrence relationship with its allies, working to build a regional security system, and strengthening counterproliferation systems such as the Proliferation Security Initiative. The multinational anti-piracy fleet already operating in the Indian Ocean could be a starting point in developing some of these activities.

Taking these steps openly now is essential to prepare for a possible nuclear Iran, but it would also have two other important advantages. First, the United States would be in a stronger position in dealing with China, Russia, and others on Iran. If Beijing and Moscow do not want sanctions or military action, and they are uncomfortable with the idea of a nuclear-capable or nuclear-armed Iran, they should come to the table to discuss practical solutions in the region, where many are deeply troubled. Second, and more important, it would demonstrate to Iran's leaders and people that having nuclear weapons will not necessarily increase their nation's security or its international standing. This may or may not change minds in Tehran, but could at least deflate an issue the regime has used to rally domestic support.

Some might charge that developing a strategy like this is "accepting" a nuclear Iran because it recognizes a nuclear Iran, or at least a nuclear-capable Iran, as a likely outcome of current trends. It is in fact exactly the opposite: a sensible strategy that will allow America not to accept a nuclear Iran if one should emerge despite our best efforts. If we do not follow this course or another credible plan, when the time comes we will have no choice but to accept a nuclear Iran.


Paul J. Saunders is Executive Director of The Nixon Center and Associate Publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.