Engaging Iran the Only Viable Policy Option for U.S.

A “grand bargain” provides flexibility while testing Iran’s true intentions

September 18, 2006

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WASHINGTON - In a study released today by the Cato Institute, “Iran’s Nuclear Program: America’s Policy Options,” Ted Galen Carpenter, Cato’s vice president of foreign policy and defense studies, analyzes the costs and benefits of the five policies available to the United States given Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He asserts that a package of concessions, including normalized diplomatic and economic relations, in exchange for unfettered international inspections of its nuclear program, is the most pragmatic course of action.

Acknowledging the “highly imperfect” nature of these options, Carpenter examines the impact each policy will have on the population of Iran, the region, and the international community. Multilateral economic sanctions, regime change, preventive air strikes, acceptance/ deterrence, and a grand bargain are considered, with the shortcomings of each option noted and weighed.

Though a combination of broadly-based economic sanctions and regime change are currently the preferred strategies of the U.S. government, these options are not only unlikely to succeed; they are, in fact, likely to backfire. Given Iran’s vast natural resources and existing relationships with key nations, the defection of some states from a sanctions regime is virtually certain, rendering the effort meaningless. Regime change, long encouraged by Iranian expatriates, is unlikely to succeed through purely peaceful means, while “U.S. support [for democratic reforms] gives the religious hierarchy the perfect pretext to portray even cautious advocates of political reform as traitors.” Meanwhile, it is not certain that a democratic Iran would choose to remain non-nuclear. The worst option, Carpenter feels, is a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, which would at best postpone Iran’s nuclear ambitions and serve to deepen hatred of the United States throughout the Middle East.

Carpenter proposes a “grand bargain” for Iran that goes beyond the scope of prior proposals, a solution that would entice Iran to pursue a peaceful program while illuminating the country’s true ambitions. This compromise would offer restored diplomatic and economic relations, while giving an assurance that the U.S. will not use force. While dissuading Tehran from building nuclear weapons is of paramount concern, such a bargain provides a window of opportunity to engage in such a discussion.

Should Iran turn down the offer of a grand bargain, Carpenter advocates the path of acceptance and deterrence as the appropriate fall-back position. “The one thing we should not do is start yet another war that would further destabilize the Persian Gulf region and threaten the lives and welfare of millions of people,” he concludes.  

Policy Analysis Paper no. 578