SALT LAKE CITY — I asked a visiting editor from Azerbaijan a few days ago what his countrymen's principal concerns were. One of the most significant, he said, was that the US might use Azerbaijan as a base for the US to invade neighboring Iran.
While that might seem fanciful, given that the US military is already overextended in Iraq, Iran certainly seems likely to be high on the foreign policy agenda of whoever is the next US president.
Iran seems intent on developing nuclear weapons capacity despite strong objections from the US, a string of European nations, and the UN's International Atomic Energy AgeJncy (IAEA). Iran argues it is entitled to develop nuclear technology for civilian purposes. The objectors fear that the real aim is military. They have surfaced a plan to sell nuclear fuel to Iran, and offer a lucrative trade deal, as incentives to stop enriching uranium from which it could build a nuclear weapon. Last week, Iran snubbed them, announcing it would not abandon its program.
The international concern is not only that Iran might build nuclear weapons for its own military arsenal, but that those weapons might fall into the hands of international terrorists. The US State Department has listed Iran as "the most active state sponsor of terrorism," openly providing funds, training, and weapons to Hizbullah and Hamas. Though Iran has had a mixed relationship with Al Qaeda, the 9/11 commission raised questions about its contacts with Osama bin Laden and whether Iran has provided sanctuary to several senior Al Qaeda officials, albeit under the claim that they are held in custody.
In a new book, "Nuclear Terrorism," Graham Allison, a leading American expert on the subject, says there are "more than 200 addresses around the world from which terrorists could acquire a nuclear weapon or the fissile material from which one could be made."
To try to discourage Iran from pursuing nuclear weaponry, the next president will confront various options. One is to rely on an internal upheaval in Iran to install a more moderate government. There is widespread discontent, particularly among the young, with the theocratic regime of the mullahs. But student demonstrations have been ineffective and the regime shows little sign of cracking.
Externally, the People's Mujahedeen of Iran has staged attacks against the regime but it is listed by the US as a terrorist organization, and some 3,800 of its fighters are being held in US custody in a camp northeast of Baghdad. An investigation by US officials has reportedly found no basis to charge them with violations of American law, and some members of Congress are arguing that they should be freed to put pressure on the Iranian government.
Then there is the option of direct military action by the US. It would be tough for the next president to gain US public support for this following the conclusion that the Iraq war was launched on the basis of an imminent threat that turned out to be not imminent. An alternative would be military action by the Israelis, who have long considered Iran to be more dangerous for them than Iraq. But this would require US logistic and political support.
In the semidiplomatic sphere, there is the prospect of UN sanctions if the IAEA is unable to persuade Iran to desist from its nuclear ambitions. But the UN's sanctions against Iraq leaked like a sieve, and a regime that has proved as duplicitous as Iran's would have little trouble in circumventing them.
This leaves negotiation. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has urged negotiations that would emphasize areas of mutual interest. It is hard to see how sweeping these areas could be. A Council on Foreign Relations task force dismisses a "grand bargain" that would settle all outstanding conflicts. But it does recommend "engagement" on selective issues.
Other experts argue that, beset in the west by substantial US forces in Iraq, and in the east by substantial US forces in Afghanistan, Iran does have legitimate security concerns that could be met by building a new regional security network in the Gulf region.
Still other experts, like the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center's Henry Sokolski, say Iran is too far along for "bombing or bribing" to halt its nuclear ambitions. So the answer is for existing nuclear powers, like Russia, to stop helping Iran's civilian nuclear program in ways that could also benefit its military nuclear program. This, he admits, would be difficult to pull off.
As will any of the options on Iran confronting the next US president.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.