US Options on Iran

By Hooshang Amirahmadi

With the American presidential elections settled, space has opened for progress on the Iranian nuclear issue and broader US-Iran relations. However, the policy options on the table for the United States range from the disastrous to the auspicious. Each of the paths, from full-scale war to diplomatic engagement, rest on different assumptions about the regime in Tehran and its behavior. Although engaging Iran presents many challenges, it is the best path for the Obama administration. While an imperative exists for engagement, the US policy is at risk of going astray by emphasizing sectarian Sunni-Shia conflicts and siding with radical Islamists, repeating the pitfalls of Afghanistan in the 1980s. 

The most catastrophic choice, argued for by neoconservatives, is a military attack on Iran. This policy rests on the assumptions that sanctions will never work, that the Iranian regime is menacingly pursuing a nuclear weapon, and that a nuclear-armed Iran would be uncontainable and dangerous. Although some claim that a ‘targeted’ strike on Iran's nuclear facilities could be limited in scope and would not create a broader war, this can prove to be a myth. It is clear that any military intervention by the United States or Israel would be retaliated by Iran’s diverse asymmetric arsenal in the region. This policy will fail because it will not prevent Iran from building a nuclear capability if it intends to do so. Iran’s nuclear facilities are spread across a huge geography, fortified underground, and are shielded by human and defense forces. Beyond that, it will lead to catastrophic consequences including casualties on both sides, destabilization of the Strait of Hormuz, skyrocketing oil prices, a surge in anti-Americanism, and complications in the pending withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The second approach, espoused by hawkish Democrats and Republicans as well as their Iranian oppositional allies, is to use sanctions and pressure to foster regime change. This view is based on the arguments that the Islamic Republic is not capable of reform, is corrupt, and that there is no hope to work with it. Indeed, they argue that the problem is the regime’s nature not its nuclear program. Therefore, destroying the nuclear facilities and infrastructure is not sufficient to meet American goals. According to this approach, it is best to destabilize and overthrow the regime by creating economic and diplomatic pressure as well as galvanizing minority ethnic groups and the opposition. However, the historical record suggests that achieving regime change via this course is very unlikely. The case of Iraq demonstrates that in the absence of the war, Saddam’s regime could have survived for many more years even under strict international sanctions. Ironically, isolationism and sanctions often increase the staying power of anti-American regimes, as they can use ‘American meddling’ as a scapegoat for their domestic problems.

The third path, which has been undertaken by the Obama administration since 2008, focuses on using sanctions as a tool to bring the regime to the bargaining table. The basis for this 'dual track' policy, which previously emphasized carrots and sticks but has now become purely sticks, is the belief that pressure works with Iranian leaders and that it is still possible to mend relations with Tehran. This group is divided between those who argue for blanket sanctions on the Iranian economy and those who argue for so‑called ‘targeted sanctions,’ ‘smart sanctions,’ or ‘discriminate sanctions.’ This policy will fail because it underestimates Iran’s national pride and the Islamic ethos of resistance to Western pressure.

Fourth, there is the containment option argued for by former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, which recommends treating the Islamic Republic much like the Soviet Union. This policy presupposes that Iran is steadfastly pursuing a nuclear capability and that neither war nor sanctions can stop this fait accompli. Proponents argue the best approach is to avoid war by building an international coalition against Iran and to limit its power by cutting its relations with Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Assad dictatorship. This analogy is inapplicable to Iran. Containment may have helped destroy the Soviet Union, but the main cause was the communist system’s inherent contradiction and static nature. The system failed to provide the people with their growing aspirations for a better life, while at the same time the Soviet Empire expanded globally, incorporating people and geography by force. In contrast, Iran is a nation state of diverse ethnic groups in a voluntary union, and is a relatively small capitalist country without global ambitions.

The final path, which has been espoused by the American Iranian Council for more than two decades, elaborated in my White Paper for the AIC, is to engage Iran in a meaningful and sustained dialogue to build mutual confidence and trust. This engagement could include discussions on a range of regional issues where they share common ground from Afghanistan, to Iraq, to drug trafficking. Importantly, the two nations must engage with mutual respect and within a win‑win framework, requiring courageous compromises.  This is certainly more productive than a policy that emphasizes war, sanctions, and destabilization, which has so far produced nothing but more spinning centrifuges. 

Opponents of this approach have maintained that engagement leading to diplomatic ties, economic interactions, and the like will indeed legitimize the regime and will strengthen its staying power. The historic experience in the last two hundred years refutes this argument as it indicates that while sanctions and isolation fatten undemocratic states, trade and diplomacy melt them. Indeed, the experience also indicates that anti-American governments that have no diplomatic ties with the US have a stronger staying power than those without such relations. What the opponents also do not recognize is the fact that the more the Islamic Republic is de-legitimized, the harder it becomes for Washington to engage Tehran, leading to a complete breakdown of communication, leaving the conflict unresolved. From my perspective, a US policy that emphasizes gradual establishment of relations within a framework of trade and diplomacy would work better. 

This article is part of Insider & Insight, a new AIC program aimed at providing different perspectives and analyses on key developments in US-Iran relations. The commentary and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official position of American Iranian Council.