The Case for Containing a Nuclear Iran: Regime Change Is a Pipe Dream, and Military Action Is at Best a Stopgap Measure That Jeopardizes Regional Security and the Global Economy. but There Is a Way to Curb Tehran and Maintain the Peace

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Four years ago, when then-Senator Barack Obama was locked in a tough battle for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, he did something candidates for national office in the United States almost never do: He offered sense rather than sensationalism on Iran. Proclaiming in a primary debate his willingness to meet with Iran's reviled president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was not as radical as it seemed; indeed, every U.S. president since Iran's 1979 revolution has sought negotiations with Tehran. But in the context of a country still polarized by the Iraq War, Obama's offer sounded like a rookie mistake. His Democratic rival at the time, Hillary Clinton, described Obama's stance as "irresponsible and, frankly, naive," and his Republican opponents were considerably less generous. Under fire, Obama chose to double down rather than back down, highlighting his commitment to diplomacy as emblematic of his intention to reboot America's role in the world.

Today, Obama's embrace of engagement with Iran is a distant memory, one the administration itself would probably prefer not to revive. Washington's early diplomatic overtures toward Tehran failed to gain traction; even as U.S. officials pursued negotiations, the Islamic Republic's always byzantine, fractious politics became even more paralyzed and repressive. With Iran unwilling or unable to sustain a dialogue, the administration shifted its strategy, crafting an ambitious program of pressure in hopes of forcing Tehran to the table where inducements had failed. Over the subsequent two years, the administration has assembled the broadest international coalition and deployed the harshest array of economic sanctions that have ever been mobilized against Iran.

These would be major achievements were it not for the obvious discrepancy: Washington has not managed to halt Tehran's dogged march toward a nuclear-weapons capability. Sanctions have imposed tremendous costs on Iran, but buoyed by a dangerous combination of opportunism and paranoia, its leadership remains defiant. Instead of buckling under the pressure, Iranian leaders have promised to retaliate against American interests. U.S. officials maintain that negotiations remain the preferred path forward, but it is hard to imagine a constructive dialogue between Iran's revolutionary theocrats and the nation that has set out to collapse its economy.

Adding fuel to this crisis are two volatile and interrelated uncertainties: the U.S. political calendar and Israeli calculations. The contenders for the Republican nomination to challenge Obama in November have latched on to Iran as a symbol of what they see as the administration's failure and weakness in world affairs. Invoking analogies to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Republican candidates have sought to outdo their rivals' rhetoric on Iran. Their absolutism on Iran echoes the refrain emanating recently from Israel, where declarations of urgency on Iran are perennial but forebodings of a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities loom larger than ever today.

Washington is now imposing draconian measures explicitly intended to bring Tehran to its knees and implicitly aimed at undercutting the Republican critique and averting preemptive Israeli action. It is a precarious balancing act. American policy on Iran has increasingly become divorced from its ostensible objective--negotiations--and this policy drift risks miscalculation and an escalatory spiral that could have devastating consequences for U.S. security and the global economy. The simple, obvious reality--that Iran is a profound threat that nonetheless confounds any easy remedies even for the world's sole superpower--remains too politically unpalatable to acknowledge in an election year.

The Obama Record

Obama's advocacy for engagement during his first presidential campaign represented a significant investment of political capital for a candidate with limited national-security credentials, and as such it appears to have reflected the president's personal conviction that active diplomacy could generate new progress on an old problem. …


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