Diplomacy Best Option in Dealing with Iran's Nuclear Aims


When considering whether to use military action (which I take to mean air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities) to hinder Iran's nuclear program, it's important to first step back and ask what such an attack could achieve. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen both said that a bombing campaign would set Iran's program by back three years at most. Current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a recent briefing that he "certainly shares" those assessments.

The advocates of military action insist that air strikes might "shock" the Iranian government into a more pliable stance on its nuclear program, even convince them to abandon it. But it is far more likely that an attack would only harden the Iranian regime's resolve toward obtaining a nuclear a weapon—a decision that U.S. intelligence agencies believe the Iranians have not yet made—while triggering a host of other extremely negative consequences.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

U.S. strikes could unite the Iranian people around the regime at a time when it is facing considerable popular discontent over its mismanagement of the economy and human rights abuses. According to an Iranian woman recently interviewed by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, military action "will unite the regime, and it will also force many to unite behind a regime they don't even support." To use an historical example, Iraq's invasion of Iran in 1980 came at a time when the Iranian government was in danger of collapsing over its failures to make good on its revolutionary promises. As is often the case, a foreign invasion provided an unpopular government a rallying point and a lifeline. Military action now could similarly offer the Iranian regime a means to overcome its current crisis of legitimacy.

Military action would likely result in the crushing of Iran's pro-democracy Green movement. Iranian human rights lawyer and activist Shirin Ebadi, who was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, has said an attack "would give the government an excuse to kill all of its political opponents, as was done during the Iran-Iraq war." Military action "is the worst option," Ebadi insisted. "You should not think about it."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the turmoil in the Middle East.]

U.S. military action could spark reprisals against the United States and its allies by Iranian military assets and proxies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza, and elsewhere. As happened after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it would likely result in a wave of anti-Americanism in the Middle East, at a crucial moment of transition in the region. An attack would also cause oil prices to skyrocket, slowing the U.S.'s economic recovery, exacerbating the global economic crisis, and fracturing the international coalition that President Obama has worked so hard to forge.

Iran represents a thorny problem for the United States and its allies. It's tempting, and perhaps comforting, to imagine that the United States can solve this problem through the use of its awesome military forces, but it cannot. The costs of military action far outweigh the limited (at best) benefits.

Defining strength entirely in military terms, however, ignores what the last decade has shown about the effective, and ineffective, application of American power. The United States is at its strongest when it leads a robust and genuine international coalition toward achieving common goals. The United States possesses a considerable range of diplomatic tools, and President Obama has used those tools to both engage and pressure Iran. Beating the diplomacy drums may not be as satisfying to some as beating the war drums, but it remains the most effective way to protect the United States and strengthen international resolve toward changing Iran's behavior and constraining its nuclear development.

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  • Matthew Duss

    About Matthew Duss Director of Middle East Progress at the Center for American Progress

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