The governments of Iran and the United States are at an impasse. Iran claims that it has a legitimate right to fund uranium enrichment programs at its facilities, as long as it is for producing nuclear fuel or some other peaceful purpose laid out in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States wants Iran to cease all uranium enrichment projects immediately, as it fears that Iran is attempting to enrich its uranium to the point that it is weapons-grade. This would give Iran bargaining power and add another player to the multipolar world of nuclear politics, thus weakening the United States position as a global hegemon.
Politicians in the United States are at this very moment deliberating the best course of action to take against Iran. The options on the table are: use diplomacy, work with the Iranian public, preventively strike Iran, impose more sanctions, authorize covert actions, or support opposition groups in Iran. Since Iran will always have the ability to resume its nuclear program, the option the United States chooses needs to ensure that Iran no longer feels that it needs to be a nuclear power. In order for Iran to turn an about-face and cease its nuclear projects, the United States must ensure that Iran feels secure. How the United States is going to do that is the question politicians must figure out.
Diplomacy will most likely not work, because trust between Washington and Tehran is almost nonexistent. This is because many still remember when President Rafsanjani said that he felt let down after the Lebanon hostage crisis was resolved under George H.W. Bush because he “showed goodwill first” and the “Americans broke their promises.” Diplomacy is also a bad policy to pursue because it would require the United States to refrain from using any of the other measures, like sanctions or covert operations, if negotiations were to be successful. Furthermore, if negotiations failed under this policy, the United States would have to start over with sanctions and covert operations, as it would have fallen behind while pursuing diplomatic solutions.
Public diplomacy poses the same problem that normal diplomacy does, in that engaging in public diplomacy would tie the United States hands, preventing it from using sanctions, preventive strikes, or covert operations. Addressing the Iranian public directly would also make Tehran feel even less in control, providing an even greater incentive for it to seek nuclear weapons.
Preventive strikes, covert actions, and sanctions merely delay Iran from going nuclear, and will only make them try harder after they rebuild their facilities. These options may also be considered acts of war. Georgetown Professor Colin Kahl wisely pointed out in his Foreign Affairs article on preventive strikes that “Iran’s likely expectation of a short war might encourage it to respond disproportionately early in the crisis.” This would likely increase U.S. and Israeli casualties in what may become World War III. Even if a war does not break out, sanctions take away political equality, which means a vulnerable Tehran may feel forced to close the Strait of Hormuz or take some other action that escalates the situation, taking away the option of diplomacy.
A successful regime change of any sort would be propitious for the United States, as the new leaders would be much more willing to negotiate with Washington. There are three different types of opposition movements that the United States could support in order to obtain this result. The United States could assist with a coup, back an insurgency, or support a legitimate people’s revolution. This support could come in the form of weapons, technological equipment, food, or money. The public opposition, primarily activists from the Green Movement, showed dissatisfaction with the current regime when they distributed leaflets saying “I won’t vote” during the March 2nd elections. Helping these dissidents could lead to regime change.
Furthermore, pressure created by sanctions should theoretically bring about social change, and U.S. sanctions seems to be working toward this goal in Iran, since “crippling inflation” and a decreasing GDP growth rate have made it so “confidence that the [current] regime could withstand international financial pressure… has sunk to an all-time low.” This could spur a people’s revolution or a coup, which the United States could support.
The United States may also want to back an insurgency in Iran. It is speculated that Israel’s secret service has “financed, trained and armed” the Mujahdeen-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian rebel group. The attacks attributed to this group have killed five nuclear scientists since 2007 and possibly destroyed a missile development site. If the U.S. provided additional support, regime change could be brought about via a proxy war.
There are downsides to supporting opposition groups, though. If they have contact or accept funding from the United States, they may lose legitimacy. The Shah was overthrown by the Islamic Republic due to a lack of legitimacy, stemming partly from his dealings with the West. Additionally, a major fear among critics of this option is that the current administration, if it fears an overthrow, may develop a “use them or lose them” mentality and unleash all of its firepower on Western targets in the Middle East. Despite these risks, I find this option to be the more efficient due to the benefits in the event of success.
If one believes in the tenants of realism, the reason Iran is seeking nuclear weapons must be to increase its security. The current administration in Iran feels threatened and its fears will not be allayed through diplomacy or sanctions. If the United States is comfortable with the possibility of a full scale war, then a preemptive strike or covert operation may be the correct measure to use to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capability in the short term. However, after reviewing the possibilities and their supporting evidence, covert operations, sanctions, and opposition support seem to be the best options if used in conjunction with each other, as the end goal should be to bring about regime change more favorable to U.S. interests.