Good strategy requires the identification of an achievable objective that can be obtained at a reasonable cost. President Obama and his senior officials have done exactly that with respect to Iran. President Obama has repeatedly said that America’s overriding strategic objective is to “prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” This is a clear strategic objective that with honest effort on both sides is reasonably attainable through diplomatic means.
President Obama in his recent address to the United Nations reiterated his strategic goal of prevention, endorsed Iran’s right to a civilian nuclear program, and sought to reassure Iranian leaders that regime change was not the goal of U.S. policy. Meanwhile, recently elected Iranian President Rouhani has pledged to provide additional transparency in order to reassure the international community that Iranian nuclear programs and technologies are indeed purely civilian in nature. In these public statements both leaders have thus sketched the broad outlines of a mutually acceptable deal. Iran secures international acceptance of a limited civilian nuclear program in exchange for enhanced inspections that ensure these activities are not diverted to military purposes. Formulating a detailed step-by-step plan for easing sanctions tied to specific Iranian actions is the next critical step in filling out this strategic diplomatic option.
Diplomacy is the most realistic strategic option for achieving President Obama’s stated goal of prevention. As the case of North Korea demonstrates, economic sanctions and international political isolation will not prevent a determined country from developing nuclear weapons. Moreover, the history of sanctions suggests that the international political will to enforce serious sanctions will erode over time. This will be particularly true in the case of Iran given its vast oil reserves and world’s insatiable appetite for petroleum. Consequently, American leaders are right to fully explore and exploit this diplomatic opportunity while sanctions are having what may well be their peak impact on the decisionmaking of senior Iranian officials.
Meanwhile, military strikes conducted by either the United States or Israel are not likely to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear weapons club. Iran’s civilian nuclear expertise and knowledge is substantial and can’t simply be bombed or assassinated out of existence. Its nuclear facilities are widely dispersed, heavily protected, and in some cases built deep underground so as to minimize exposure to air attacks. These factors lead military analysts to conclude that even sustained American military airstrikes are at best likely to achieve a 1-4 year delay in Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon. Additionally, military action will also likely strengthen recruitment of radicals to the ranks of Al-Qa’ida by playing into its strategic narrative that the United States is at war with Islam. Furthermore, these attacks would only solidify the position of hardliners in Tehran as they exploit intense feelings of Iranian nationalism during a time of crisis while bolstering their argument that Iran needs a nuclear weapon to deter further attacks.
Nonetheless, not everyone is content with President Obama’s strategic objective of prevention. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, for instance, has advocated the more expansive strategic objective of denying Iran any domestic capability to enrich uranium. A recent letter from 76 U.S. senators urges the President to prevent Iran from achieving an amorphous and ultimately unverifiable “nuclear weapons capability”. Still others have insisted that issues with Iran will only be resolved through whole-sale regime change in Iran.
By changing the aim of US policy, however, any one of these alternative strategic goals would require a comprehensive change to the current American strategic approach emphasizing diplomacy. More dangerously, moving the strategic goal posts on Iran now would almost certainly doom a diplomatic approach to failure before it has been genuinely tested. This will leave US policymakers with ever less attractive strategic options for resolving suspicions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. BolanThe author is a Professor of National Security Affairs at The U.S. Army War College. The views presented are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government.