Terms of Engagement

The Nuclear Options

Barack Obama's Iran policy is frustrating, slow-moving, and fraught with uncertainty. But have you taken a look at the alternatives?


President Barack Obama arrived in office determined to make a sharp break with George W. Bush’s policy on nuclear nonproliferation. Obama and his team believed that the only way they could get allies to support a tough line against countries like Iran or North Korea that were seeking to acquire nuclear weapons was to comply with the United States’ own obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to reduce its nuclear stockpile. One of Obama’s leading nonproliferation experts admitted to me in the early days of the administration that this sounded very much like "an article of faith" adopted by untested idealists. "These are propositions that have to be demonstrated," he said. "The administration will be going to these countries to say, ‘We’re doing our part; now you have to do your part.’"

You could read the report on Iran’s nuclear program released this week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to say, "Proposition refuted." Certainly Obama’s critics have. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Mitt Romney writes that thanks to "the administration’s extraordinary record of failure," Iran is "making rapid headway toward its goal of obtaining nuclear weapons." In fact, the report dwells almost entirely on events that happened long before Obama took office and essentially offers an official imprimatur to the widespread view that Iran has been seeking for years to develop a nuclear warhead and is continuing to do so. Neither Bush nor Obama has stopped Iran from pursuing a goal to which Iranian leaders are single-mindedly dedicated — nor could they have. But Obama’s strategy has thrown a spanner into Iran’s nuclear works. On balance, the proposition survives.

Iran is still enriching uranium and is now estimated to have enough to produce four bombs. Enriching uranium to the level required for a weapon is the hardest part of the nuclear process; the advances in hardware uncovered by the IAEA only confirm the belief that Iran is going to the immense trouble of developing an enrichment capacity in order to be able to build a bomb. But according to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security, the number of centrifuges spinning at the Natanz fuel enrichment plant peaked at 9,000 in November 2009 and has since fallen. What’s more, the average productivity of each centrifuge has fallen over the past year. And Iran may no longer be able to build more centrifuges. There are various reasons for these problems: the Stuxnet virus, which crippled Iran’s productive capacity; poor centrifuge design; metal fatigue; and the shortage of key materials owing to U.N. sanctions passed in 2010.    

Obama doesn’t get credit for metal fatigue, but he probably does for Stuxnet, which appears to have been a joint Israeli-American venture. In fact, Obama’s Iran policy is less rule-abiding, and more sophisticated, than the administration lets on and its critics allow. But it would be a mistake to think that it’s only the dark arts that matter. Obama’s initial efforts to engage Iran through diplomacy went nowhere, but allowed U.S. officials to argue inside the United Nations and the IAEA board of governors that they had made a good-faith effort to end the isolation that the Bush administration had imposed on Iran. The president’s embrace of nuclear abolitionism and his strong push for an arms-reduction treaty with the Russians countered the argument, common throughout the developing world, that the United States was a nuclear hypocrite — that it was violating the same international rules that it was insisting that Iran observe. The combination of engagement and NPT-compliance has helped Obama persuade Russia, China, and other states to pass tough sanctions in the U.N. Security Council.

I asked Nicholas Burns, the career diplomat who handled the Iran file as undersecretary of state in Bush’s second term, how he assessed Obama’s strategy. Burns argues that both Bush and Obama pursued a "two-track" policy of carrots and sticks, but says that Obama "has been very effective in gaining the upper hand in terms of public opinion over [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and the rest of the Iranian leadership." Iran’s president played up his anti-Americanism to achieve heroic status in Bush’s last years. Now he is almost wholly isolated. Burns describes the Obama strategy, with something like professional admiration, as "very artful."

I can hear Romney sputtering, "Who cares if Ahmadinejad has no friends if Iran is still enriching uranium?" The goal, after all, is not to be artful but to stop Iran from producing a bomb. But isolating the Iranian leadership, like slowing down the centrifuges, is a means of buying time. And time does not have to be on Iran’s side, though it has been so far. David Albright, founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, compares the struggle against Iran to that against apartheid South Africa: a long-term campaign of isolation.

Administration officials say that their strategy is working because diplomacy has stripped away the Iranians’ global standing, while sanctions have begun to cripple their economy. The White House responded to my request for comment by pointing me to a Washington Post story that quotes Ahmadinejad defending his economic record before Iran’s parliament by complaining that "our banks cannot make international transactions anymore." The U.S. goal is to make Iran pay a high enough price for its nuclear program — while at the same time holding out the possibility, however remote, of a diplomatic rapprochement — that the leadership will ultimately agree on some face-saving solution that allows Iran to pretend that all it was seeking all along was access to nuclear fuel for civilian purposes. Ahmadinejad may even have been making such a bid in his recent offer to stop enriching uranium in exchange for guaranteed access to a supply of 20 percent enriched uranium from abroad. It would hardly be unprecedented: In the past, leaders in South Korea, Argentina, and elsewhere have abandoned nuclear programs in the face of pressure.

Or maybe Ahmadinejad was messing with the West, as he has in the past. Iran is not South Korea; it is both a rising regional power and a revolutionary state, and its leadership, whatever it says, seems to be united in viewing a nuclear weapons capacity as an ideological and geopolitical necessity. Iran may be more like the Pakistan of the 1970s, whose people were prepared to "eat grass," as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously said, to get the bomb. Neither carrots nor sticks may induce the Iranians to abandon their quest. If that’s so, then nothing save war, or at least the credible threat of war, will work. Obama, of course, has not foreclosed that option, but Romney vows that as president he would "prepare for war."

So those are our choices: a frustrating, second-best policy of playing by the rules in order to gather and preserve a coalition, gradually raising the pressure, buying time, and putting off the day of reckoning in the hopes that something will change and the Iranians will decide they’d rather not eat grass — or prepare for war. But you can’t threaten a war unless you’re willing to launch one; and an aerial assault on Iran, whether carried out by the United States or Israel, would provoke a spasm of revenge attacks against America, and wreck the country’s standing in much of the Islamic world and above all among the pro-American people of Iran — all to the end of damaging, not destroying, Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. It would purchase delay at an unimaginable cost. And it would guarantee that the Iranians would eat grass to build a bomb.

Compared to that, a second-best policy looks pretty artful.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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