Both the Gulf War II (Option 1) and Collapsing Iran (Option 2) options would demonstrate strong US commitment to uphold the NPT and zero tolerance for nuclear weapons. A successful military campaign against Tehran would dispel any doubt worldwide about US resolve, US power and the ability of rogue states to defy the international community indefinitely. Option 1 would be especially powerful as it would show that despite lingering discontent about the invasion of Iraq, the West is willing to work together on and tackle serious threats. Collapsing Iran would also potentially break the country into several pieces or instigate regime change ending it both a regional power and threat. However, there are risks inherent in any military option. Building a coalition, as in Option 1 could be very difficult given mistrust of US intentions and an unwillingness to engage in military action after Iraq. The fact China would be difficult to convince and Russia near impossible make building a solid coalition harder and a UNSC mandate unlikely. But of the two options, Option 1 would incur the lowest political costs and have more legitimacy both abroad and potentially with Iranians themselves.
Containment (Option 3) would need to walk a fine line between inflicting the highest possible costs on Iran without igniting war. There is considerable leverage to be had over Iran, especially its energy sector, but energy is a double edged sword. While the current financial crisis has significantly lowered the price of oil, taking Iran’s oil and gas offline would raise prices and a lack of spare capacity means it would be difficult to offset potentially drastic price jumps. Containment could harden Iranian resolve and push them towards an all or none mindset leaving only war or acceptance as options. While Iran may eventually cave in, or its regime change, containment still risks isolating Iran without eliminating its nuclear program. It would also exacerbate its security concerns reinforcing the need for nuclear weapons. Yet, the two military options would do the same.
Options 1, 2 and 3 would also not address Iran’s aspirations as a regional power nor for prestige.
A Grand Bargain (Option 4), would address the combination of Iranian motivations for nuclear weapons as part of a larger agreement between the US and Iran. By recognizing the government, establishing ties and not using military force, Iran’s security concerns should be alleviated while it would simultaneously save face,having stood up against the West and come out with something, albeit not nuclear weapons. A Grand Bargain could accomplish all US objectives were both parties truly committed to it. Yet, diplomacy has not worked with some countries such North Korea and containment, coercion and sanctions have worked with others like Libya.
Option 4 also risks legitimizing the ruling regime and turning Iranian public opinion against the West. Even if the US negotiated in good faith, Iran may still decide to acquire nuclear weapons and use the process as political cover to achieve its goals. This could seriously undermine the West’s credibility and military deterrent as well as leave an aggressive nuclear armed Iranian regime. This option risks all or none, either successful elimination of the program or Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons. Options 1 and 2 could substantially cripple the program, setting it back many years but not prevent its future reconstitution. Containment could swing either way and offers a flexible policy but uncertain timeline for success.
Recommendation: Option 4 a “Grand Bargain” is recommended.