Obama's Iran Options: Talk, Threaten or Attack

Ahead of new talks next month in Moscow, Obama's options on Iran are shrinking.

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Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari walks with the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton upon her arrival at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq. Negotiators from the U.S. and five other world powers sat down with a team of Iranian diplomats to try to hammer out specific goals in the years-long impasse over Tehran's nuclear program.

Talks between Iran and six of the world's most powerful nations ended Tuesday without a deal on Tehran's nuclear program, but the two sides agreed to meet next month in Moscow.

Iranian officials balked at Western powers' insistence that it suspend domestic uranium enrichment, but Catherine Ashton, European Union foreign policy chief, says "there is some common ground," according to wire reports from Baghdad. Iranian officials say the Western proposal was "unbalanced," and insisted Iran has a right under an international nuclear treaty to enrich its own uranium, according to wire reports.

As the two sides retreat to neutral corners, national security experts say President Barack Obama has several options—but none of them very good.

[Photo Gallery: NATO Summit in Chicago.]

Keep Talking. Sure, Tehran agreed to a third batch of talks next month in Moscow. But national security experts of all political stripes agree Tehran is open to talks for at least one reason: To buy time. By agreeing to a few days of talks, Iran can hide nuclear materials as it prepares to allow IAEA inspectors into the country, continue work on its nuclear arms, and use the coming talks as leverage to ward off sanctions.

"Iran's chief goals at the Baghdad talks are to buy time for its nuclear efforts, establish the legitimacy of its uranium enrichment program, and gain a respite from international sanctions that are inflicting increasing damage on Iran's economy," says James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation. "U.S. sanctions on Iran's central bank are set to take full effect on June 28, and an embargo on Iranian oil by the European Union, which accounts for approximately one-fifth of Iran's oil exports, will come into full force on July 1."

Threaten. Some U.S. and Israeli hawks say the lone way to pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear ambitions is by having Washington and Tel Aviv to ramp up threats of a preemptive strike. The thinking is Tehran, fearful of a military strike, would cave and prove to U.N. officials that they have scrapped their nuclear program.

But this option, too, is flawed.

"Such talk helps boost oil prices, which gives the Iranian government further resources," according to a report by Jonathan Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Constantly threatening war, but not delivering one, creates its own dilemma, undermining the credibility of the threat itself."

Some U.S. lawmakers, however, appear increasingly tired of diplomatic talks and vague threats.

On Thursday, three senators introduced a resolution that, if approved, would put the Senate on the record as opposing any U.S. policy to contain a nuclear-armed Iran.

"I am very dubious that the negotiations in Baghdad and any agreement with IAEA will bear fruit," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a statement. "The Iranians need to know without any doubt that the policy of the United States is clear and certain. We will not try to contain a nuclear capable Iran; we will prevent the Iranian regime from ever acquiring a nuclear capability. Joining Graham as sponsors are Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey.

A previous version of the measure secured 78 votes in the 100-member upper chamber.

Attack. If President Obama and his war cabinet huddle before the Moscow meetings, and conclude Iran is blowing smoke, they could order an attack. Or, they could look the other way and let Tel Aviv launch its own strike.

But either of those options seems unlikely, experts say.

"The last thing the president wants is an attack before the election in November—especially an Israeli attack," says Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Still, it might be possible to take out Iranian facilities where the obstinate regime is believed to be producing nuclear centrifuges, Dubowitz says.

"The centrifuge-production facilities are the key choke points for the broader program," Dubowitz says. "If Israelis know where they are and do bomb them, a strike like that could set the program back 10 years. And I think the Israelis have a pretty good idea where they are. Those facilities would be central to any military plan."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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  • Corrected 5/24/12: A previous version of this article misidentified Jonathan Alterman.