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What Are The U.S. Options On Iran?

On June 24, the Brookings Institution held an interesting event, "Which Path to Persia? Options for a New American Strategy Toward Iran."

A monograph of the same name will soon be released by the think tank, enumerating the choices U.S. policymakers have over Iran. These are the options that emerged from the briefing:

1. Persuasion. Ken Pollack described it as the policy of "carrots and sticks," except keeping silent about the sticks. The biggest downside to this approach is that it cannot work without substantial international support.

2. Engagement. This is different from what Obama is calling "engagement." It is a policy of all carrots and no sticks -- kill them with kindness. This is the approach the United States took with China starting with Nixon's visit in the 1970s. The biggest downside is that the time frame for achieving the U.S. goal (elimination of Iran's nuclear program) is huge, in the span of years to decades.

3. Invasion. There are countless downsides to this approach, mainly that it would require domestic support, which at this point it simply does not have.

4. Air strikes. Though some hard-liners have favored this option, it also has many downsides. To be successful, it would require superb intelligence. And even if it were successful, it would likely only set back Iran's nuclear program by a few years, it would throw support to Iranian hardliners, it is not repeatable (i.e. the United States would be out of options after this if Iran continues its nuclear program). And, most importantly, this option provides no answer to Iran's support for terrorist groups.

5. Israeli air strikes. This option has all of the same downsides as U.S. air strikes, but with a lower chance of success due to Israel's much smaller military.

6. Popular revolution. While the previous options focus mostly on halting Iran's nuclear program, this option implies that the regime itself, not its behavior, is the real problem. Though this is an attractive option, it is impossible to predict and it is hard to know how best to help a fledgling revolution without discrediting or exposing it. Additionally, to succeed, the regime in power must lose the will and/or capacity to use violence, which at this point is not guaranteed.

7. Insurgency. The idea of promoting an insurgency inside Iran to precipitate regime change also appears attractive at first glance, but to be successful we would need to recruit reliable, highly capable people, which are hard to find. Even then, the chance of success is low.

8. Military coup. As with the popular revolution, this option is impossible to predict. Revolutions are spontaneous. It would also require the United States gathering superb intelligence that could be passed on to the coup organizers.

9. Containment. Allow Iran to get a nuclear bomb and simply limit the political damage it might cause because of it. This policy did work during the Cold War. The question is, though: could the United States deter a nuclear Iran?

Suzanne Maloney, one of the co-authors of the monograph, said that she believes the current protests are far more significant than the student protests of 1999 and 2003.

This is the first open, organized opposition movement since the Islamic Revolution, which is highly significant. She stated that two things have led to the current crisis.

First, Ahmadinejad over the course of his term has alienated much of the elite and ruling clerics. And second, people were simply outraged that their government had become so base and corrupt that it would attempt to rig even such a relatively unimportant election (since the president has little real power).

Bruce Riedel, another co-author, stated that, first of all, the vision of Iran as a regional hegemon has been set back greatly by the current events. He then explained that there are three possible scenarios for the future.

First is the "Fizzle Out Scenario." This is what Mossad thinks will happen. The protests will slowly start to decline due to police intimidation, and the situation will become somewhat normal again. Yet even here, the regime will be weaker than it was before the current crisis, since there will be lasting internal strife.

Second is the "Tiananmen Square Scenario": brutal crackdown on the protesters. This is the worst possible outcome for Obama (let alone for the protesters), since it would show that Obama's approach has failed. In this scenario, the United States would likely move towards the "Containment" option, as both parties would be less likely to negotiate. Israel would also likely advocate speeding up efforts to destroy the Iranian nuclear program.

The third scenario is "Change," in whatever form it may come. This would validate the Obama approach, but would still leave Israel nervous until Iran ceases aid to terrorist groups.

Riedel also stated that we can live with a nuclear Iran. It would be unpleasant, but it would be doable. According to him, the regime is not crazy. However, if Iran does get the bomb, it will become much bolder in its foreign policy, somewhat like Pakistan. Iran obtaining a nuke would also likely launch an arms race across the entire Middle East.

The event concluded with all six co-authors of the book stating that they believe Ahmadinejad will be the president three years from now. Current events, they said, will not lead to regime change.

-- Jonathan Gelbart

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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