While there is a broad consensus in the West that Iran should be dissuaded from pursuing its nuclear weapons program, no clear strategy has emerged for attaining that goal.
During the Bush era, critics had a field day. Rather than snarl at Iran from afar and place it in the "axis of evil" – as the administration did – would it not be better, the critics suggested, to engage Tehran's leaders?
The Bush policy did not produce the desired result. Iran's nuclear program continued.
But the European Union initiative toward Iran did not do any better. Starting in 2003, the EU, with US encouragement, engaged with Tehran to find a diplomatic solution, but all the EU had to show for its effort was precious time lost.
Now, the Obama administration is trying a new tack. Several overtures to Iran have been made in recent months, and more may be in the offing. Will they succeed in halting Iran's enrichment efforts?
Perhaps. But what if Tehran rebuffs the American overture or, more likely, strings Washington along with well-practiced feints that seem to offer encouragement but add up to nothing more than a ploy to keep America guessing – and, yes, hoping?
After six years, the Europeans could write the textbook on Iranian negotiating strategy. As one European involved in the talks commented privately, "We should have remembered that the Iranians were refining the game of chess while we were barely out of our caves."
So if the current policy fails, what next?
Putting the question off indefinitely is not an option. There will come a moment when Iran has indisputably crossed the nuclear threshold. Then it will be too late.
As the case of North Korea illustrates, once an unpredictable regime goes nuclear, all bets are off. The North Koreans believe they hold the cards, and play accordingly. No doubt the Iranians have learned from their example.
The policy options for dealing with Iran are neither pretty nor risk-free.
One approach is to accept the inevitability of an Iranian nuclear bomb, but apply cold-war deterrence theory to contain it. In other words, tell the Iranians that any use of a nuclear weapon will trigger a nuclear reply and then rely on the rational behavior of Iranians to avoid their own potential destruction.
But an Iranian bomb would have catastrophic consequences. It could trigger a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world, where fear of Iran runs wide and deep. It might also lead to the sharing of technology with dangerous Iranian allies, from Hezbollah to Venezuela. And as long as Iran is headed by religious messianists, their theology could lead them to defy rational behavior – for example, by fulfilling their oft-voiced fantasy of a world without Israel. In any case, simply possessing the atomic know-how creates endless possibilities for Iran to employ nuclear blackmail.
A second strategy is to isolate Iran by imposing punishing multilateral sanctions, especially on its energy sector; preventing its leaders from traveling and conducting business as usual; considering a naval blockade; and hoping that the Iranian people will react by demanding a change in national policy. But this would require the cooperation of countries that to date have not always been helpful. Some European nations, including Austria and Switzerland, maintain strong ties with Iran. Russia and China continue to serve their economic and energy interests, claiming that isolating Iran may not yield the desired results. Several Gulf nations have profitable links with Iran. And countries such as India and Turkey have welcomed Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
A third option is to strike Iran's nuclear facilities. But is a successful military attack feasible? And even if it was, what would be the cost in terms of global reaction, energy prices, and Iranian retaliation, whether against US troops in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, against Israel, or at targets farther afield? In 1992 and 1994, Iran showed its global reach by sponsoring terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires that killed more than 110 people.
In sum, should the current US diplomatic approach come up short, the policy choices will not be easy. But worst of all would be the conclusion that we must accept Iran into the nuclear club, since the price of any next step would be too high.
Rather, the United States should make clear to Iran's key partners – including Russia, China, the European Union, India, and the United Arab Emirates – that it counts on their support for sanctions with real teeth. This will require exceptionally robust and deft American diplomacy. And yes, as a very last resort, Washington must keep the military option on the table, making clear that – one way or another – Iran, with its fanatical regime, will not be permitted to cross the nuclear threshold.
None of this is especially palatable. But the prospect of a nuclear Iran is even less so.
David Harris is the executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). From 2000 to 2002, he was a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.