Iran's Nuclear Program: Challenging Conventional Options

When dealing with Iran, it is critically important to factor in that the tougher ourgets, the deeper they will dig their heels in. We must exhaust all options before we turn to military action.
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Misguided Narratives

There are two competing narratives on how to deal with Iran. But the idea that there are only two narratives or options is misguided. The first dominant option claims that since Iran can't be trusted, they must be producing nuclear weapons and therefore if they don't do everything that the U.S. and Israel demands, they should be attacked. While it is true that Iran should not necessarily be trusted, it is not true that there is only one option. The second option holds that there is no evidence of a weapons program and therefore the international community can and should do nothing since it is Iran's right to enrich uranium for energy and medical research. This too is misguided. Doing nothing is not an option, but this does not mean that attacking Iran is the only alternative.

Alternative Options

There are, however, more than the two options (attack Iran or let Iran develop a nuclear capability). We have a toolbox of options. We can: sanction Iran; use covert means such as cyber attacks to disrupt their program; assassinate scientists involved with the program; seek regime change through a coup; bargain with Iran; offer incentives; negotiate; find confidence-building measures through others shared goals; or use some combination of options. These alternatives have their own pros and cons associated with each. Since the primary issue is one of trust, an important aspect of negotiation is to build trust where it does not exist. Small trust-building measures are important. Working toward shared goals in Afghanistan, oil prices or the world economy are more options. Is this naive? No. It is just an option that doesn't sound tough and therefore one that is not as attractive. When dealing with Iran, it is critically important to factor in that the tougher our rhetoric gets, the deeper they will dig their heels in. We must exhaust all options before we turn to military action. Any objective observer of conflict would say that both sides of an issue need to be considered. With Iran, most people would state that we don't have that luxury. Iran has proven to be very untrustworthy. They hid their nuclear program from the start. We are suspicious because of the nature of the dual use technologies found. And enriching uranium to 20 percent purity is actually 90 percent of the enriched capacity to get to a weapons grade uranium. There is a lot of reason to be suspicious. However, suspicion is not evidence. Cute sayings like 'if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck' are not serious attempts to analyze the situation and offer a way forward. Since we can't trust Iran, Israel is right to be concerned about a nuclear attack from Iran. But we all need to be more concerned with making sure that we have our facts right in the face of fear.

Questioning Conventional Wisdom

If we had asked more questions before the start of the war with Iraq, if we had questioned the conventional wisdom about Iraq possessing WMD in 2003, and if we had taken more seriously the costs associated with war, we might never have invaded under a false pretense of WMD and therefore avoided that unnecessary war altogether. For a moment, let's question conventional wisdom. Why would Iran attack Israel via a nuclear weapon? An unprovoked nuclear attack on Israel would surly mean the end of the regime. Iran knows that it would wipe itself off the face of the map if it did this and that conflicts with the regime's primary objective, which is regime preservation. Bold leadership on this issue is needed. The need for negotiation could not by higher. Negotiation is not weak. It is not appeasement. Negotiation is respect. It is humility. It is a demonstration of strength and confidence, over fear and self righteousness. And it is absolutely necessary to avoid war and military conflict.

If evidence of a weapons program becomes evident, maybe military action will someday be necessary, but we are not there. My point here is that we should not be so quick to: 1) assume that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program -- we have no hard evidence, and 2) rush to military action -- we have many options.

PAUL HEROUX previously lived and worked in the Middle East, was a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies, and is a frequent guest on TV and radio stations discussing the Middle East. Paul has a Master's in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at

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