Editor’s Note: Kenneth Pollack argues that America needs to be prepared for containment of a nuclear Iran in the event that attempts at using diplomacy to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapons fail. While the idea of living with a nuclear Iran is distasteful to Washington, he writes, this does not mean we should not prepare for it.
This week, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, will address the United Nations General Assembly. His message is likely to be a sharp change from the adolescent belligerence of his hard-line predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr. Rouhani is a genuine reformer — but his desire to move Iran in a new direction should not blind the United States to the difficulties of achieving a diplomatic solution.
Mr. Rouhani has hinted that he is willing to compromise on aspects of Iran’s nuclear program for the sake of repairing relations with the rest of the world and having economic sanctions on Iran removed. But he has also warned that he cannot hold off his hard-line rivals forever, and it is unclear whether the Iranians will be willing to make the kind of concessions that America and its allies want. Ultimately, it is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not Mr. Rouhani, who would make the final decision on a deal. He has shown little inclination for one, although recent statements from the leadership offer hope that their position may be softening.
If it cannot reach a diplomatic deal, America will face a choice between two alternatives: using force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal or containing a nuclear Iran until its regime collapses from its own dysfunction.
It is going to be a difficult choice. For that reason, we need to start thinking about it now. We cannot afford to have our diplomatic efforts collapse suddenly and, as in Syria, be forced to lunge forward unprepared.
Sizing up the two alternatives, I favor containment over military operations. I say that, however, understanding that each option has more drawbacks than advantages, that there are circumstances when a military strike would be preferable, and that those who advocate the military option merit a hearing.