The Iran Options

Sunday, February 18, 2007

PRESIDENT BUSH'S actions toward Iran are consistent with two very different underlying strategies. Both start with a correct reading of Iran's behavior at home and in the region as dangerous to U.S. interests and to the prospects for peace and democracy in the Middle East. Both mix pressure -- economic, rhetorical, military -- with diplomatic overtures. In one scenario, these are employed with the hope of success. In the other they are employed with the hope of success but an expectation of failure, in which case military force would be brought to bear with a justification that every other reasonable approach had been tried.

We have seen no evidence that the administration has Option B in mind, but it's plausible enough to merit stating that such a course for this president would be folly. There is much speculation in Washington about how Mr. Bush views his "legacy": about how he ostensibly wouldn't want to kick the Iran problem to his successor as he believes President Bill Clinton left North Korea to him, or to be known as the president who invaded the country without nukes while allowing the two other "axis of evil" nations to go nuclear. Concern about historical judgment is natural, but it should play no part in such decisions.

Given the intelligence fiasco that preceded the invasion of Iraq, any claims by this administration about Iranian misbehavior will be viewed with intense suspicion, as we saw last week. Given the debacle of postwar planning in Iraq, there is no reason to trust Mr. Bush with the execution of another war of choice. Someday a future president may decide, in consultation with a future Congress, that the risks of seeking to contain a nuclear-armed Iran are greater than the risks of seeking to degrade or destroy its nuclear capability by force. Most intelligence estimates suggest that such a decision need not be faced in the next two years.

Meanwhile those concerned about Option B shouldn't urge the administration to abandon Option A. It's not acceptable that Iran defy U.N. demands to abandon its nuclear program, nor that it undermine a U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon or a U.N.-approved military mission in Iraq. The international coalition the administration has painstakingly assembled to pressure Iran seems to be having some effect on the mullahs; it should be maintained and strengthened. U.S. financial pressure and assurances of support to Iran's neighbors also are appropriate. All of these might have a greater chance of working, as we've said before, if the administration also remained open to diplomatic overtures, at least in a regional context. That, and not secret military plans, is the missing component of U.S. strategy right now.

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