Others argue that it is necessary to constantly threaten a strike. Such talk creates its own dilemmas. For one, it boosts oil prices, which blunts—if it doesn’t completely eliminate—the cost of sanctions to the Iranian government. Constantly talking of war but not delivering one also undermines the credibility of the threat itself. Over time, the logic of an enduring and often-repeated threat leads to at least some conflict in its effort to avoid war, with unpredictable results.
In other words, there are many ways a military option could fail, and even more ways that its outcome would be impossible to judge. By contrast, an Iranian nuclear program that has more intrusive inspections and narrower areas of uncertainty puts the United States in a better position than it is in now. Despite more than a decade of drama after the U.S.-led war on Iraq in 1991, the resultant inspections regime was enough to stymie any Iraqi nuclear ambitions. What was left was mostly smoke and mirrors and public relations, intended to bolster the regime rather than threaten its neighbors.
There is substantial international support for such an approach, ranging from governments who want to bolster multilateralism to those that fear a disruption in energy supplies. While Russia and China in particular seem reluctant to promote a U.S. victory, successful U.S.-led management of Iran is preferable to these countries than chaotic conflict. One way that the United States can sustain international unity is quietly to remind that it retains a war option, while doing everything possible to find diplomatic alternatives to it.
Such an outcome would fall short of full success, and regional tensions would remain—and some say they would remain intolerable. Iran would be an enduring problem that needed to be managed. For those seeking a “solution” to the Iran problem, the middle ground would count as a failure.
Yet, achieving complete success is both unlikely and unverifiable. With no agreed starting point and no clear ending point, and a host of contingencies in between, there seems little way to avoid at least some period of deeper uncertainty in efforts to change Iranian behavior.
Few view collective action as the most desirable course or have much appetite for it. Over the next 5 to 10 years, however, it is likely to provide the best route to prevent Iran from acquiring the bomb.