Although Syria’s civil war is dominating front pages around the world, a debate is still raging in Washington, Tel Aviv and other capitals about how to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Policy makers and academics are all grappling with the same set of questions about Iran: Is Iran rational? Can Iran be deterred? What are Iran’s nuclear ambitions: Will it be satisfied with having a “break-out” capability or is it determined to build and deploy a nuclear arsenal? How effective are sanctions? What is the feasibility of a military attack to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program? What are the risks of such an attack? What would be the political and strategic consequences of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons?
Three schools of thought have emerged, which have different answers to these questions. I call these schools (for the lack of more elegant terms) the Bombers, the Coercers and the Containers. These labels are not meant to be flip, but to crystalize the core assumptions and policy prescriptions of the most prominent voices in the current debate on Iran.
The first group is the Bombers. The Bombers believe that only a military strike will end Iran’s nuclear program and that a military strike is better sooner rather than later. They are convinced that Iran is dead-set on building nuclear weapons, that it is ominously close to acquiring these weapons, and that a nuclear-armed Iran will pose a greater danger to the Middle East. The Bombers believe that sanctions are ineffective and Iran is simply using negotiations to buy more time. Their red lines for triggering a strike are usually subjective assessments such as “point of no return” or “zone of immunity.” Bombers also tend to minimize the risks of Iranian retaliation or escalation into a regional conflict.
The second group is the Coercers. The Coercers believe that a diplomatic strategy combining carrots and sticks can keep Iran from going nuclear. In this group’s view, Iran’s actions are governed by rational cost-benefit calculations and that the Supreme Leader has not yet decided to build nuclear weapons. The Coercers differ on their optimal diplomatic approach—whether to go for a “grand bargain” or start small and work up—but they share a belief in the value of negotiations, the utility of sanctions and the appeal of positive inducements to convince Iran’s leaders to give up their nuclear-weapon ambitions. They don’t rule out the use of force, but they view it as an absolute last resort. The Coercers tend to have more tangible red lines than the Bombers: for example, kicking out International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors or diverting enriched uranium from safeguards. They also tend to have more conditions that need to be met before the use of force would be authorized.
The third group, the Containers, believes a nuclear-armed Iran is inevitable and the proper strategic response is containment. Like the Bombers, they think that Iran is determined to build nuclear weapons. Also like the Bombers, they don’t believe that sanctions will be crippling enough or the positive inducements will be juicy enough to change Tehran’s calculus. Unlike the Bombers, the Containers do not view the Iranian regime as irrational, reckless or suicidal. Containers like to point out an inherent contradiction in the Bomber’s logic: Iran will act recklessly if it gets the bomb but it will act with restraint if we attack it first.
Containers differ from Bombers and Coercers in two important ways. First, Containers view the risks of military action as much higher than the benefits. Containers are even more skeptical than Coercers about the ability of air strikes to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program for a significant length of time without excessive collateral damage. The Israeli attack on the Iraqi reactor in 1981 and the Syrian reactor in 2007 are not viewed as good precedents, because in both cases the target was a single facility that had been supplied by another country and could not be rebuilt with indigenous resources. In contrast, Iran’s nuclear program is spread over dozens of sites and Iran has a strong domestic scientific and technical base it could use to rebuild the program.
The second important difference is that Containers, unlike Coercers and Bombers, don’t view Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons as having catastrophic consequences necessitating a preventive war. Containers argue that nuclear weapons are good only for deterrence, not coercion. If the United States’ 1,800 deployed nuclear weapons don’t give the United States the power to coerce Iran now, why should a handful of nuclear weapons give Iran the ability to coerce us in the future?
Containing Iran will require the cooperation of its neighbors—cooperation that will be much harder to obtain after a preventive strike. Containers anticipate that Middle East states seeking protection against Iran will look to the United States for security assurances and conventional military support; in other words they will balance with the US against Iran. This will make it difficult for Iran to translate its nuclear weapons into tangible benefits beyond its borders.
So what does this debate mean for U.S. foreign policy and our strategy towards Iran? Regardless of which school of thought you belong to, there are three policies that the United States can pursue that will strengthen its position in the ongoing negotiations with Iran.
First, for coercion to work, Iran needs to fear that the sanctions will get worse if the negotiations with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) don’t make progress soon. This requires the Obama Administration to begin working with Congress and the rest of the P5+1 on the shape of the next round of sanctions. At the same time, the United States should make it clear that it supports lifting sanctions and offering positive inducements if Iran complies with the demands of the P5+1.
Second, the United States also needs Iran to continue worrying that the United States may launch a military strike if Iran tries to break out and build nuclear weapons. Despite the pivot and the sequester, the United States needs to prioritize the readiness of its military forces in the Middle East over those in Asia.
Third, for containment to work, the United States needs the support of its allies in the Persian Gulf and broader Middle East. This is no time to cut military assistance or economic aid to our allies in the region.
There are, however, unavoidable trade-offs between these three different strategies. Military threats strengthen the diplomatic leverage of the P5+1 until war is seen as inevitable by Iran—in which case the threats become counterproductive. Building up the conventional military strength of Iran’s neighbors is good for containment and minimizing the risks of Iranian retaliation if military force is used preventively.
But a buildup would feed Iranian insecurity and decrease the likely success of coercion. The use of force, especially if unilateral, will make it harder to build a regional coalition to contain Iran or sustain the current sanctions regime which is the heart of the coercive diplomacy strategy.
Sponsoring regime change in Iran only makes sense if one views the current regime in Tehran as irrational and undeterrable. In contrast, pursuing regime change undermines coercion: if Tehran thinks the United States just wants to overthrow it they will not agree to limit their nuclear program. Regime change makes even less sense as part of containment strategy: do we really want to destabilize a nuclear-armed state?
Like many foreign-policy challenges facing the United States—from Syria to North Korea—there are no good options for dealing with Iran. Understanding what the options are, including their assumptions and trade-offs, is the first step to making an informed choice.
Gregory D. Koblentz is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an associate professor at George Mason University.