Stick Must Remain an Option to Stop Iran

The Obama administration is sending conflicting signals about how far it is willing to go to prevent Iran from developing nuclear capability. Recently, Vice President Joseph Biden declared, “The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, period.” Yet, shortly before that, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted, “we are not planning anything other than going for sanctions.”

This confusion, in rhetoric and policy, imperils U.S. credibility and any peaceful resolution to Iran’s nuclear threat. The president needs to clarify U.S. policy by reaffirming his 2009 pledge “to use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.”

The independent Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington has published two studies advocating a comprehensive three-track strategy: vigorous diplomacy, aggressive sanctions and active preparation for possible military action.

Many who condemned the previous administration’s lack of transparency prior to the invasion of Iraq today discourage discussion of military options concerning Iran. We ought not shirk this debate or dismiss it as warmongering; it is precisely a public recognition of a viable military option that might preclude its need.

After a year of ineffective engagement, the administration recently pivoted to a dual track of diplomacy and sanctions, anchored by a concerted push for yet another U.N. Security Council resolution further sanctioning Iran. But Russian and Chinese reluctance makes it unlikely the administration will deliver the “crippling sanctions” it promised. Meanwhile, many analysts believe Iran could develop basic nuclear weapons capability this year.

With diplomacy unsuccessful, sanctions stagnating and our regional allies increasingly anxious – Saudi Arabia arguing for “immediate resolution” and Israel hinting of striking militarily – the Obama administration must acknowledge the third aspect of American power and openly prepare for the unfortunate possibility of military action.

To begin, senior administration officials should stop publicly downplaying the viability of a U.S. or Israel military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Such comments undermine our credibility and embolden Iran.

Further, President Obama should beef up U.S. naval presence and conduct exercises with allies in the Persian Gulf and enhance their military capabilities.

If necessary, the U.S. Navy could then blockade Iran to enforce sanctions on gasoline imports passed by both houses of Congress. Should Iran continue its nuclear program, the U.S. military can launch an effective strike on Iranian nuclear and military facilities. This would disrupt Iran’s nuclear development, still requiring ongoing vigilance to prevent its re-emergence.

While risks of a U.S. military strike are significant, the risks involved in an Israeli attack are greater, and the specter of a nuclear Iran is most terrifying of all.

A nuclear Iran cannot be contained and is likely to spark regional nuclear proliferation, an end to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, greater instability in Saudi Arabia, derailment of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and a future disastrous regional conflict.

Obama inherited a terrible mess with Iran, but committing to use all means available represents his best chance of resolving it peacefully.

Michael Makovsky is foreign policy director of the Bipartisan Policy Center and author of “Churchill’s Promised Land” (Yale University Press).

Originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 21, 2010.