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.

Iran's objectives for weaponizing (were they to do so) --becoming a stronger regional force and deterring a conventional military attack--would be better addressed diplomatically. Unlike a military strike, deft diplomacy could move Tehran to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Association. While this would allow Iranian enrichment activity to continue, it is the best way to ensure Iran does not arm. In other words, destroying nuclear facilities would address the symptoms while worsening the underlying disease. In order to prevent Iran from weaponizing, U.S. policymakers will need to address Tehran's motives.

In addition to normalizing economic relations, Washington could reintegrate Iran into the international community, push for Iran's entrance into the World Trade Organization, and provide security support to compensate for the lost deterrence capability. More meetings with Iran won't generate a good campaign slogan for Obama, but bargaining has worked.

In 2003, Libya opened up its nuclear program to IAEA inspectors in exchange for full reintegration into the international community and normalization of economic relations. NATO intervention following the 2011 Libyan uprising, and subsequent ousting of Qadaffi, might not have been possible had Tripoli succeeded in weaponizing. Several other countries, including South Africa and Brazil, gave up their programs peacefully with a mix of incentives and international pressure. There is no guarantee, given the current rift between sitting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei as well as the lessons Tehran's leadership likely drew from Qaddafi's abandonment of Libya's weapons program, that Iranians would be receptive. But we will never know until we try.

Unfortunately, it is an election year, and pandering to Tehran will not sit well with the electorate. An olive branch would be perceived as a tacit admission from the Obama administration that the U.S. position is weak. Concessions from Obama, especially contrasted with the sound and fury coming from the Republicans, would probably not do good things for his reelection campaign.

The question for the White House now is not what will work, but what is politically viable. Bargaining probably has the best shot at convincing the leadership in Tehran to open up their program to inspectors, but it is politically impossible given the election. Active deterrents will likely be the only politically viable options until 2013. But that's not a good reason for a military strike, which could have devastating repercussions and would likely be ineffective in permanently stopping the program. Sanctions are supported by both Democrats and Republicans and are far less risky than an air strike.

There are a lot of reasons to worry about Iran. But, at the end of the day, that won't make a military strike more effective. In this case, the ends will not justify the means.