We're Having the Wrong Conversation About Iran

The debate so far has focused on air strikes, but the real option we should be discussing is diplomacy.

Khamenei Feb6 p.jpg

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during Friday prayers at Tehran University / Reuters

In a string of recent articles, we've been given many a reason to strike Iran. Considering there is no indisputable evidence Iran is building a nuclear weapon, it seems the logic for not attacking  is, at the moment, stronger. But the use of force against Iran, or any country for that matter, at some point can become worthwhile; if the ends justify the means. For all our discussion over the past few weeks over the means -- a strike on Iran -- what is missing in the discussion is the end.

Our ultimate goal is ensuring that Iran does not weaponize. If a military strike won't accomplish that, it should not happen. We have a better option: diplomacy. It is more likely to succeed because it could offer a permanent solution and because it could address the causes of Iran's nuclear program rather than just the threat itself. But, if diplomacy is to work, there is one major hurdle: the American electorate.

The U.S. could succeed in significantly damaging or destroying known Iranian nuclear sites with an airstrike. Estimates are that this would set the Iranian program back two to three years. However, the turmoil that would likely erupt in the region as the result of such a strike poses the question, is three years worth it?

A strike could reinforce the hardliners' push to weaponize--a path to which the Tehran has not yet committed. In 2009, the Bookings Institute simulated potential Iranian responses to an air strike. Some of Iran's responses include attacking military outposts in Afghanistan, attacking supplies transported from Kuwait through southern Iraq, and launching missiles at oil installations in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province.

Although policy leaders in both the U.S. and Israel want to keep "all options on the table," a chorus of well-respected generals has warned about the tumult that would ensue were the U.S. to strike Iran. Striking known facilities is not a permanent solution -- we can bomb the facilities, but not the knowledge and technical expertise required to rebuild them. Buying three years, but thereby obliterating any potential for diplomacy, is not a compelling end.

Washington's calculations have been driven, in no small part, by successive administrations' insistence that continued Iranian enrichment activity is unacceptable. Unfortunately, Iran has crossed the nuclear capable threshold. Nuclear capability is often defined as reaching enrichment levels of 20 percent, and per the IAEA and numerous other reports, Tehran has achieved these levels. As a nuclear capable state, Iran possesses the technical expertise and materials to move quickly to create a weapon, though how quickly is not clear.

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Madison Schramm is a program associate in the David Rockefeller Studies Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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