Whispers of an agreement between Washington and Tehran are coalescing into something more substantial. While the fine details remain shrouded in mystery, the broad outline suggests that Tehran will receive financial incentives and a dissolution of laxly imposed U.S. sanctions on oil exports. In return, Tehran would halt uranium enrichment beyond 60 percent, which is just short of weapons-grade.
This potential arrangement constitutes a desperate bid by the United States and its allies to stymie the Islamic Republic’s nuclear progression, prompting the crucial question: can Tehran be prevented from becoming a nuclear power?
There are five potential scenarios in which the Islamic Republic would not possess a nuclear bomb—mainly either because the regime no longer exists or because it has agreed to dismantle the nuclear program.
The first scenario entails a decision by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to refrain from developing a bomb for religious or moral reasons. Tehran often cites an elusive nuclear fatwa as proof of its disinterest in nuclear weapons. Consistently, U.S. intelligence agencies report that Tehran has not yet decided to build a nuclear bomb.
This scenario, however, appears extremely unlikely. Tehran’s current uranium enrichment levels have no civilian purpose, suggesting Iran seeks a bomb. Moreover, even if a nuclear fatwa exists, its validity can be revoked at any moment. Khamenei has not weathered nearly two decades of severe sanctions merely to produce nuclear electricity. He regards the nuclear umbrella as a final insurance policy for the regime’s survival.
The second scenario is predicated on coaxing Khamenei with financial and political incentives to forsake the pursuit of nuclear weapons. This approach has long been, and remains, the West’s favored strategy. Advocates of this method point to the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as its paramount achievement. However, it should be transparent to all, including the agreement’s supporters, that the accord failed to stifle Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. At best, it merely postponed the problem. The problem with delaying tactics is they invariably reach an endpoint.
Despite offering Tehran an attractive package of political and economic incentives, the Biden administration has been unsuccessful in persuading Tehran to recommit to the nuclear deal. Biden’s failure to enforce sanctions and unite allies against Tehran has emboldened the regime and diminished Washington’s leverage. As the nuclear deal demonstrated, financial and political rewards seem unlikely to convince Tehran to surrender its nuclear aspirations and dismantle the program.
The third scenario could arise if a potent mix of political, economic, diplomatic, covert, and military pressure threatens the regime’s survival, forcing it to abandon its nuclear program to prevent collapse. The United States has intermittently adopted this strategy, often in conjunction with financial and political incentives to the regime. Yet the pressure campaign has never been comprehensive or absolute, focusing mainly on economic and diplomatic pressure and covert ops without even fully utilizing these instruments.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, the United States has squandered much of its diplomatic and economic influence over Tehran by failing to uphold sanctions and by alienating regional allies. Instead, Tehran has managed to improve its relations with countries in the Persian Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia. The regime’s mismanagement of the economy and its gamble in supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine still offer a fertile ground to pursue a pressure strategy, but critics can argue that Tehran’s nuclear progress and Washington’s loss of leverage cast a shadow of doubt on whether enough pressure can be produced in the short term to force Khamenei to retreat.
The fourth scenario entails the collapse of the Iranian regime. The regime’s various structural deficiencies have rendered it unstable. Its foreign interventionism invites the risk of war and foreign invasion, while its incompetence and authoritarianism render it vulnerable to revolution and, assuming increased internal factional competition for limited resources, coups d’état. The regime’s collapse would solve the nuclear issue, provided the succeeding political order is not anti-American.
The problem with this scenario, aside from its lack of timeliness in derailing Khamenei’s nuclear ambitions, is the significant cost and potential consequences of a regime collapse. Revolutions are unpredictable and challenging to orchestrate, coups d’état typically lack high success rates, and there is little appetite in the West for inciting regime change in Iran via military invasion, particularly after two decades of being engaged in Afghanistan and neighboring Iraq. Moreover, the collapse of Iran’s political regime could be enormously destabilizing for the region, and the succeeding government may not necessarily be aligned with U.S. or allied interests. It is for this reason that Washington and its allies have demonstrated little interest in capitalizing on Tehran’s weaknesses.
The fifth and final scenario envisages a military strike targeting Tehran’s nuclear program. If successful, such a strike could delay the program’s development for years.
Critics, however, argue that these strikes would not fully eliminate the program. They contend that, in the aftermath, Tehran would cease cooperation and resume and accelerate its efforts toward developing a nuclear bomb. At the same time, it would retaliate against adversaries with missile attacks and terrorist operations. This would mean that a single military strike would not be enough over time.
In the long run, the best strategy is to put maximum pressure on the regime and provide maximum support to the Iranian people to bring down the regime. In the short run, reviving the maximum pressure while preparing for a military strike as a last resort remains the only realistic option.
Dr. Saeed Ghasseminejad is a senior Iran and financial economics advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), specializing in Iran’s economy and financial markets, sanctions, and illicit finance. Follow him on Twitter @SGhasseminejad.