Iran’s leadership is hostile to the United States and often aggressive in undermining U.S. interests in the Middle East. A nuclear weapon would make Iran an even more formidable threat.
Despite this danger, U.S. options are limited at best. Many Iranian leaders are highly committed to the nuclear program, and it appears to enjoy widespread popular support. U.S. levers to move the clerical regime in Tehran, never strong, are weak. The debacle in Iraq has curtailed overall U.S. influence in the Middle East and improved Iran’s bargaining position. U.S. policy will have to recognize the relative weakness of the U.S. hand even as it strives to maximize pressure on Tehran. Regime change, bombing campaigns, and other high-profile and blunt forms of pressure are likely to fail and may even backfire. A U.S.-led multilateral strategy to press Tehran economically and isolate it diplomatically offers the most potential leverage. Such a strategy must be calibrated to strengthen voices in Iran that worry that the nuclear program will lead to international isolation, which in turn would derail Iran’s economy. Washington also must prepare for the possibility that its best efforts will not sway Iranian leaders.