Since taking office in 2009, the Obama administration has patiently pursued a two-track policy which seeks to persuade the Iranian leadership to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions by creating a series of reinforcing positive and negative incentives. It is time to acknowledge that the current version of the two-track policy has reached its limits, and is unlikely to achieve its objectives with the current Iranian regime.
Recognizing this reality should not, however, make U.S. policymakers believe that there is no hope of persuading Iran to relinquish its nuclear program and end its other dangerous activities. This is the conclusion of many on the far right and the far left, who argue that since both Bush’s sticks and Obama’s carrots (and sticks) now have failed to move Iran, the United States needs to “face facts” and simply make the awful choice between waging war on Iran to destroy its nuclear program (and perhaps overthrow the regime) or else simply accept a nuclear Iran and learn to live with it. At some point, the United States may have to face that Hobson’s choice, but not yet. And because both of those alternatives are so unpalatable, if there is anything else that the United States and its allies can try, they should.
All is not lost, and there is still reason to believe that the United States can achieve its goals without the use of force. It is still possible to craft an Iran policy that could compel Tehran to relinquish its nuclear ambitions, adhere to prevailing norms on terrorism and human rights, and respect the sovereignty of its neighbors. Nor is it necessary to jettison all aspects of the existing policy, as it has broadened the international coalition pressing Tehran. Nonetheless, it is time to appreciate that the only manner of inducing meaningful change in the Islamic Republic’s behavior without the resort to war is to otherwise imperil its very existence.