What Happens if Sanctions Don't Contain Iran?

In politics, timing is everything. When the Iranians failed to meet President Obama's year-end deadline for coming clean about its nuclear programs, Defense Secretary Robert Gates drafted a memorandum and sent it to Obama's national-security adviser, Gen. Jim Jones. The memo reflected Gates's conviction at the time that the administration had not yet fully focused on what to do about Iran in the event that it wouldn't change its nuclear policies.

Gates denies that his memo was a "wake-up call," as a senior official described it to The New York Times. It was, he says, "intended to contribute to an orderly and timely decision-making process." That sure sounds like a heavy nudge in the ribs.

Publicly, Obama is committed to increasing the pressure on Iran with a new round of sanctions. Months of diplomacy have gotten the Europeans on board, but Russia and China—the key votes in the U.N. Security Council—continue to evade hard pledges. Both have agreed to further sanctions in principle but remain vague on precisely what these should comprise.

The White House hopes to further pressure Iran by isolating it at next month's big gathering in New York to review the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Obama's signing of the New START agreement with Russia earlier this month, and the unprecedented "nuclear security summit" in Washington that followed, give the U.S. considerable momentum going into New York. But Iran is already preparing countermeasures—mounting its own nuclear disarmament conference in Tehran this past weekend, at which senior officials from (according to Iran) 24 nations listened to anti-U.S. diatribes from the Iranian leadership. Iran disrupted the last NPT review conference in 2005, and it's clearly set on constructing an anti-U.S. bloc in New York this time too.

What does the White House propose to do if these efforts at peaceful pressure fail to change Iran's mind? That's the question that increasingly concerns the U.S. military. It's also the question that probably explains the leak about Gates's memo. In the words of a civilian Pentagon official, who did not want to be named voicing criticism, there's "a growing sense we're into paralysis by analysis."

The military option—a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, perhaps accompanied by a wider assault on Iran's military capabilities as a whole—would be a high-stakes gamble. As Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said in a forum at Columbia University this past weekend: "From my perspective, the last option is to strike." He was candid about the dilemma: "Iran getting a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. Attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome. In an area that's so unstable right now, we don't need more of that."

Admiral Mullen defended the administration's seeming inability to find a clear path through the Iranian morass: "If there was an easy answer, we would've picked it off the shelf."

But there is a growing sense, among at least some defense specialists involved in the Middle East, that the White House's inability or unwillingness to chart a path beyond sanctions has meant that none of the other options is getting the detailed preparations necessary.

Should Obama, for example, seek to contain a nuclear or near-nuclear Iran by constructing a new defense alliance with its neighbors? That alliance would require at its core a nuclear guarantee by the U.S of the sort that the NATO alliance confers on America's European allies. Constructing such an alliance would take a lot of work both in the region and in Congress—work that the administration has so far shied from.

Or should Obama acknowledge that military action may be the only option? The U.S. military has already put in hand more preparations than the Pentagon has advertised. But, says the civilian defense official, "Any military action is going to need the collaboration of a lot of other countries. We haven't put in hand the work needed to set up that collaboration."