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U.S. Strategy Towards Iran

President Bush is likely to face in the not too distant future a “bleak binary choice” regarding Iran that juxtaposes two fundamental options that have profound geostrategic consequences. The first of these is to launch a military operation against Iran's perceived nuclear capacity, and the other is to acquiesce and adjust to Iran's eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons. These are the two framing options in the debate -- but concerned members of the foreign policy establishment are racing to construct a "credible" third option.

This Sept. 14 New America Foundation conference was held in association with the Hauser Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the US and the World Initiative, and kicked off a set of new programs designed to focus on U.S. strategy towards Iran.

A synopsis of the event is included below, and video is available at right.

Conference Synopsis

Contributed by Robert VerBruggen, Editorial Fellow, The National Interest

The New America Foundation’s event “Thinking Through the Unthinkables -- Beyond a Binary Choice?” took aim at the notion that the United States’ Iran options were limited. However, the participants themselves were virtually unanimous in the view that a “Grand Bargain” -- agreeing to normalize relations with Iran in return for the country ending its nuclear program -- was the best plan.

“I think the gradual route is doomed,” said Flynt Leverett, director of the New America Foundation’s Geopolitics of Energy Initiative. “We’ve tried it before without success. It all has to be resolved in one package.”

The speakers, numbering more than a dozen, presented few downsides to this approach. Several panelists wrote off one potential problem, Bush’s attitude that changing course and negotiating with a hostile, authoritarian regime could make the United States appear weak, as an irrational fear of the administration. Other speakers conceded, however, that the Iranian government may not want any part of a “Grand Bargain.” Indeed, the Iranians themselves prefer to stay the course, since they have yet to pay a price for the nuclear program on the international stage.

The United States hasn’t stepped up to the negotiating table, and “Europeans are like barking dogs -- you kick them and they run away,” said George Perkovich, vice president of Global Security & Economic Development at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Perkovich argued that the United States needs to get involved diplomatically, enlisting the help of Russia, so the Iranian government faces consequences for its actions.

In promoting their ideas, panelists analyzed the cases for military action, acquiescence, economic sanctions, regime change through subversion and allowing Iran to keep itself on the verge of nuclear capability. They approached the issue with the limited goal of avoiding armed conflict, for the most part setting aside concerns for democratization and proliferation.

Bomb Them or Contain Them?

No one at the event advocated military action, but all cautioned that a nuclear Iran could threaten U.S. interests. Moderator Steven Clemons, director of the foundation’s American Strategy Program, said he invited Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, but Kristol was unable to attend.

“Preventive strikes are the most unwise option,” said Christopher Preble, director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. “It would delay, not eliminate, the nuclear program. Also, there are numerous sites near population centers, which would mean hundreds of thousands of casualties.”

Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a former chief of staff for the State Department, said an invasion wasn’t even feasible. With troops deployed in two countries already, “there isn’t any ground force left.” Iran is as strong and emboldened as ever, with its two biggest enemies, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, out of power.

Strikes could also gin up anti-American sentiment, with profound consequences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers in the former country depend on vulnerable fuel supplies shipped through Shi’a territory, and pipeline sabotage could force American troops into retreat, said Juan Cole, a Middle East history professor at the University of Michigan.

But the panelists warned of the potential consequences of a nuclear Iran. Deterrence would prevent Iran from attacking the U.S. or another state, as it did with “genocidal maniacs” like Stalin and Mao, Preble said, adding that some analysts believe nuclear weapons can stabilize a country. But there is a very real possibility of weapons falling into terrorist hands -- in the recent Israel-Lebanon conflict, many suspected Iranian support for Hezbollah -- or of Iran using the nuclear option as blackmail. The development could also encourage neighboring countries to seek nukes for self-defense.

Economic Sanctions

The West’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil has made economic sanctions, a tactic of debatable value in any circumstance, unfeasible. Iran possesses the equivalent of 301 billion barrels of oil in crude oil and natural gas. The number is the second-highest in the world, topped only by Saudi Arabia’s 302 billion, Leverett said. Even if the major importers of Iran’s oil agreed to impose sanctions with the United States, previous revenue could help Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hold out.

Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada) offered energy independence as a way to side-step this issue in the long run. More than 60 percent of the United States’ oil comes from outside the country, and if this number were reduced, Iran’s surplus would dwindle. The Iranian leadership could no longer “thumb its nose” at the international community.

Peace Through Subversion

Covert action against the Iranian regime may offer many benefits, such as non-violence and democratic transition, yet several panelists warned against such a clandestine approach. The principle argument was that outside interference would further instill hard-line nationalism in moderates, a group already declining in response to the Iraq invasion. “The effect would be far from regime change. It would consolidate the regime,” said participant George Soros, chairman of the Open Society Institute.

Reid, however, encouraged support for Iran’s reformers. He pointed out that 60 percent of Iran’s population is younger than twenty, and the country has the highest rates of Internet access in the Middle East.

An Almost-Nuclear Iran

One of the event’s most nuanced proposals was to let Iran pursue its nuclear program, though not to completion. Nikolas Gvosdev, editor of The National Interest, compared the plan to Japan’s current situation: The Asian country is non-nuclear, but if it so decided, it could have a bomb in about six months. Iranians might agree to this arrangement, provided they could get nuclear power from other countries, said freelance journalist Hooman Madj, who advised and interpreted for former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami during a recent trip.



Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill
400 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC, 20001
See map: Google Maps


  • Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV)
    U.S. Senate Minority Leader
  • Steven Clemons
    Director, American Strategy Program, New America Foundation
  • Flynt Leverett
    Senior Fellow, New America Foundation
  • Larry Wilkerson
    Former Chief of Staff, State Department, 2002-2005
  • David Sanger
    Chief White House Correspondent, The New York Times
  • George Soros
    Founder and Chairman, Open Society Institute; Chairman, Soros Fund Management LLC
  • Charles Kupchan
    Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations
  • Afshin Molavi
    Fellow, New America Foundation
  • Steven Kull
    Director, Program on International Policy Attitudes; Editor, WorldPublicOpinion.org
  • Nikolas K. Gvosdev
    Editor of The National Interest and a Senior Fellow in Strategic Studies at The Nixon Center
  • Daniel Levy
    Senior Fellow, New America Foundation
  • Christopher A. Preble
    Director of Foreign Policy Studies, Cato Institute
  • Dafna Linzer
    National Security Correspondent, The Washington Post
  • Juan Cole
    Professor of Middle East and South Asian History, University of Michigan
  • George Perkovich
    Vice-President for Studies -- Global Security and Economic Development, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Guy Dinmore
    Diplomatic Correspondent and Washington Bureau Chief, The Financial Times
  • Karim Sadjadpour
    Analyst, International Crisis Group
  • Hooman Majd
    Freelance Writer with The New Yorker and The New York Times
  • Priscilla Lewis
    Deputy Director, American Strategy Program