Strategic Options: Iran’s Nuclear Program

By Meredith Lipp

Summer Intern, Innovative Decisions, Inc.

The following paper was written April 29, 2014 just after the interim accord freezing Iran’s nuclear program had be reached. Strong debates over what course of action the United States should take inspired this analysis and a hypothetical “Strategic Options Memorandum” for the US National Security Advisor. Just over one year later, it is interesting to reflect on what experts were predicting and proposing should be the US course of action, and what my analysis concluded to be the best option. The actual agreement just reached includes, in summary, an arms embargo, a few vital economic sanctions lifted, strict nuclear inspections by the IAEA, bans on the development of advanced centrifuges, and prohibitions on the development of a nuclear weapon.


“This reflects the dirty little secret of this debate: all the options are lousy. The challenge is thus not picking a great course that delivers acceptable benefits at a reasonable cost and risk, but selecting a marginally less bad one with slightly fewer or less worrisome downsides than the others.”[1]


During the period after World War II, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was the Shah of Iran and friendly to the United States (US). Using the United Nations (UN), he pressured the USSR to withdraw from the northern regions of Iran where they had remained since the war. In 1949, Mohammad Mossadeq began gaining power in the form of the National Front Party. In 1951, Mossadeq was appointed prime minister and made good on his promises to reclaim the oil industry, forming the National Iranian Oil Company and forcing out the Shah. As he gained power and popularity in his home country, the US and Britain became concerned. In 1953, Operation Ajax, conducted by a joint CIA and MI-6 force, removed Mossadeq and allowed the pro-Western Shah to resume power again. However, Iranians were extremely upset and interpreted the operation as foreigners intervening in their affairs, beginning their hatred of the US. In 1970, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was ratified, promoting disarmament, non-proliferation, and peaceful use of nuclear technology. Iran, as a member, was allowed to develop their own nuclear energy program with the help of the US and Atoms for Peace. Also in the 1970s, social unrest began and members of the National Front challenged the current government in Iran. By 1978, large demonstrations were a regular occurrence in all major cities, eventually forcing the Shah to flee Iran on January 16, 1979. On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in Iraq.[2] He encouraged the revolution and led Iran to declare herself a theocratic republic, becoming formally known as the Islamic Republic of Iran, with Khomeini as the Supreme Leader. November 4, 1979 is the now infamous day when college students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran, capturing 52 Americans and demanding the Shah’s extradition from the US to stand trial, where he had fled for medical treatment. This sparked a crisis between the US and Iran, causing the countries to sever diplomatic ties in April of 1980 which to this day have not been reinstated. Later that year, Iraq invaded Iran over territorial disagreements and an eight year war ensued. In 1981, Algeria managed negotiations between the US and Iran to return the hostages after 444 days in captivity. In 1995, the US imposed their first economic sanctions on Iran, “accusing the country of sponsoring terrorism, committing human rights abuses, and seeking to sabotage the Arab-Israeli peace process.”[3]

From 1998 through 2003, Iran is believed to have acquired from Pakistan and the AQ Khan network highly enriched uranium. Their motivations to develop a nuclear weapon stem from their war with Iraq as well as a desire to counter the Israeli nuclear monopoly in the region. After the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, relations between Iran and the US seemed to be improving, the first positive indication since the 1979 hostage crisis. However, in President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, he accused Iran of pursuing weapons of mass destruction and marked them as part of the “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea, intent on destroying world peace and collaborating with terrorists.[4] This initiated the intrusive inspections in 2003 by the IAEA into Iran’s nuclear facilities. It was discovered that Iran was producing plutonium, in violation of the NPT. In response to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and fearing similar action, Iran reduced its nuclear program. In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidential election and expressed his desire to ease tensions with the US, while at the same time continuing uranium enrichment, despite the UN’s declaration. He insisted that their program was for nuclear power production alone. The US again announced an increase in economic sanctions in 2007 to halt the Iranian nuclear program. A US National Intelligence Estimate was released, revealing that “Iran stopped developing nuclear weapons in 2003, but still continued to enrich uranium and could develop atomic arms in the future.”[5] Nations in the European Union (EU) agreed to impose new economic sanctions on Iran in 2008 to again slow nuclear progress. From the Bush Administration through Obama’s, negotiations were sporadic and unrewarding.[6]

In August 2013, Hassan Rhouhani was elected President of Iran, running on a progressive platform and promising to improve economic conditions in Iran. Rhouhani seems much more inclined to negotiate with the US over Iran’s nuclear program; only three months after taking office, an agreement was reached to allow the IAEA to inspect Iran’s nuclear facilities. In addition, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium to 20% and discontinue work on the heavy water reactor at Arak. New negotiations are scheduled for May 5 and a conclusion must be reached by July 20 when the preliminary agreements expire.

Another issue that must be resolved is the tension between Iran and Israel, our longtime ally. The current red line set by Israel for amount of enriched uranium she will allow Iran to possess is lower than the US red-line, putting the relationship between the US and Israel under strain. Israel believes a nuclear Iran poses a lethal threat to both herself and the entire Middle East and is strongly opposed to the possibility of a nuclear Iran. In addition, she disagrees with the most recent negotiations. In order to maintain our ally, we must include Israel in the upcoming negotiations to ensure we maintain our strong foothold in the region.

Saudi Arabia is another country that plays a part; the Sunni Shi’a divide in addition to their competition as major oil producers lays the groundwork for political, social and economic tensions. The US diplomatic strategy has been to ally with Saudi Arabia in order to offset Iran; therefore any negotiations must include her. Saudi Arabia has cautiously accepted the most recent deal with Iran in term of reducing her uranium enrichment and calling for more inspections.

“As differences between the US and Saudi Arabia surface, as tensions between the US and Russia grow, and as Europe seeks ways to decrease dependence on Russia’s energy resources, Iran’s role as a balancing power becomes necessary.”[7] The Iranian issue must be addressed in order to assure regional stability. In addition, its nuclear program must be kept under control to prevent nuclear proliferation in the region as well as avert terrorist acquisition of nuclear materials.

The following are suggestions for the US Strategy with regards to Iran:

a) Regime Change

b) Preventative Strike

c) Do nothing

d) Allow Iran to gain nuclear weapons

e) Continue current policies, employing diplomacy and economic sanctions to moderate Iran

Option A: Regime Change

Regime change is defined as “replacing [the current regime] with a less offensive one.”[8] For example, when the CIA and MI-6 removed Mossadeq in 1953, allowing the pro-US Shah to regain power, the US gained a more negotiable regime with whom to work. In order to implement a regime change in Iran today, a covert operation could be conducted with a new government ready to takeover. The benefits of this approach would allow the US and UN to gain full access to Iran’s nuclear program and monitor its activities more closely. Also, a pro-US regime would be friendly towards Israel, easing tensions in the region as well.

However, the risks far outweigh the benefits in this scenario. Regime change itself is an “unreliable approach for dealing with specific problems such as a nuclear weapons program in an unfriendly state.”[9] If another coup d’état is unsuccessful, the US may have to invade in order to maintain stability for the new regime; however any occupation would be “costly, miserable and futile.”[10] Obviously, the animosity maintained by Iranians toward the US has been constant since the overthrow in 1953, more than 60 years ago. Therefore, the likelihood that they would welcome another regime installed by the West is highly unlikely, and more turmoil would probably result. Another possible outcome, and the most frightening scenario, would be a revolution. Proponents for regime change assume this “revolution would end gently, with an orderly transfer of power, rather than in chaos and with the control of nuclear weapons left unclear,”[11] which is simply naïve.

A more realistic approach would be a regime evolution, in which the US could encourage certain leaders with pro-US interests to take power. Thus, in a slower, more progressive way, officials would be installed who are allied with the West. Success would be more probable because of its gradual nature; however, it would take a much longer time. Possibly, the first stages of a regime evolution may have begun in the election of Rhouhani, as evidenced by his willingness to negotiate at the P5+1 talks. His focus on improving the economic conditions requires that he compromise with those powers imposing economic sanctions on Iran which has resulted in a successful first round of peace talks.

Option B: Preventative Strike

Some scholars make many good arguments supporting a military strike on Iran. A strike could indeed “spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States.”[12] For example, in 2010 the Stuxnet computer worm “attacked control systems in Iranian nuclear facilities, temporarily disrupt[ing] Tehran’s enrichment effort.”[13] However, the IAEA stated in 2012 that the target plants have already fully recovered. This demonstrates that a simple virus set the Iranian back two years, so a physical attack would have even greater consequences. Triggers for a strike would have to be clearly defined, such as if Iran “begins enriching its stockpiles of uranium to weapons-grade levels of 90 percent, or installs advanced centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment facility in Qom.”[14] Otherwise, Iran may gain a nuclear weapon. Many argue that the US may not know the locations of all Iran’s key facilities; however “given the amount of time it takes to construct and activate a nuclear facility, the scarcity of Iran’s resources, and its failure to hide the facilities in Natanz and Qom successfully, it is unlikely that Tehran has any significant operational nuclear facilities still unknown to Western intelligence agencies.”[15] Another argument is that “Iran’s nuclear facilities are dispersed across the country, buried deep underground and hardened against attack, and ringed with air defenses, making a raid complex and dangerous.”[16] Not to mention that many of its nuclear facilities may have purposefully been placed near civilian populations to prevent attacks. To oppose this argument, proponents point out that the main facilities that would be targeted, namely “the uranium-conversion plant at Isfahan, the heavy-water reactor at Arak, and various centrifuge-manufacturing sites near Natanz and Tehran,”[17] are all either above ground, vulnerable to air attack, or away from civilian populations. Therefore, “U.S. precision-guided missiles could pinpoint specific buildings while leaving their surroundings unscathed.”[18]

There are more arguments against this approach however. For a strike to be successful, “intelligence assessment of the threat must be near 100 percent accurate, confirming that the danger is in fact imminent and that there are no other available means to stop it.”[19] This kind of information is exceedingly difficult to come by, making support from the international community challenging to obtain. Also, even if the strike set the nuclear program back years, the government would ensure that when rebuilding, it would make its program more invulnerable to potential strikes. Another factor to consider is that a strike would anger the Arab and Muslim worlds, especially the Iranian population. Iranians would rally around the regime and become even more committed to building a bomb. Potentially, Iran would consider withdrawing from the NPT. Also, the regime would see a strike as an attack on itself, not solely the nuclear program. Since the US and Iran “share no direct and reliable channels for communication…the inevitable confusion brought on by a crisis would make signaling difficult and miscalculation likely.”[20] Another factor to consider is that “in the event of a conflict, both sides would come under significant pressure to stop the fighting due to the impact on international oil markets.”[21] Iran may then launch an all-out response to prevent the US from destroying its ballistic missile arsenal and end the conflict quickly. The Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran could also potentially initiate “unauthorized responses that could rapidly expand the fighting in the crowded waters of the Persian Gulf.”[22] In response, the US would be forced to escalate to protect American citizens and military deployed in the Middle East. Iran could give weapons to terrorists who would carry out attacks in the region or in the US itself. The regime could also assume that Israel was complicit in the attack and suggest to Hezbollah to attack Israeli cities. In response, Israel may attack. In the midst of all this, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would become concerned, escalating tensions even higher. Finally, Iran could attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, interrupting billions of dollars in trade and potentially causing oil prices to soar, “dealing a heavy blow to the fragile global economy.”[23]

Option C: Do Nothing

Some analysts argue that instead of maintaining an interventionist attitude toward Iran, the US should simply allow their program to fail on its own. For example, “since the 1970s, there has been a persistent slowdown in the pace of technical progress on nuclear weapons projects and an equally dramatic decline in their ultimate success rate… [Therefore] the slow pace of Iranian nuclear progress to date strongly suggests that Iran could still need a very long time to actually build a bomb”[24] or could even fail to make one. The idea would be to remove the US as a scapegoat for the regime and allow the program to fail. Trusting in the NPT to prevent proliferation has worked with other countries in the past and could succeed again. Experts claim that in order to develop a nuclear weapon, there needs to be an atmosphere of “intense commitment, creative thinking, and a shared spirit of cooperation among large numbers of highly educated scientific and technical workers.”[25] However in Iran, the strongly authoritarian regime under the Supreme Leader limits the likelihood of success because these qualities cannot be attained. Under this option, the US should “avoid doing anything that might motivate scientific and technical workers to commit themselves more firmly to the nuclear weapons project. Nationalist fervor can partially compensate for poor organization. Therefore, violent actions, such as aerial bombardments or assassinations of scientists, are a loser’s bet.”[26] This option is a possibility; however, it must be weighed against the chance that their weapons program succeeds which will be discussed in Option D.

Also of concern if this path is chosen is Israel’s reaction. Obviously, Israel fervently opposes a nuclear Iran and has set her red lines accordingly. If the US chooses this option, we could lose a valuable ally in the region and possibly prime Israel for an attack against Iran as they view the US’s actions as a sign of abandonment. 

Option D: Allow Iran to Gain Nuclear Weapons

Iran has many reasons for pursuing a nuclear weapon; among them are “to protect herself against an external security threat, to satisfy the parochial interests of domestic actors, or to acquire an important status symbol.”[27] Therefore, their reasons are justified and almost similar to the US’s intentions in gaining a nuclear weapon during WWII. While the Israeli’s would fervently object to Iran developing a nuclear weapon, such a development may bring stability to the region. “In no other region of the world does a lone, unchecked nuclear state exist.”[28] Some argue that it is not Iran’s pursuit of a weapon that has caused turmoil in the Middle East but rather Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear arsenal that has contributed most to the current crisis. Many American civilians argue about the seeming irrationality of the Iranian leadership and how stability issues would become more pronounced if they gained a weapon of mass destruction; however, a true analysis of their past actions reveals a carefully calculated approach to foreign diplomacy and conclusive evidence that their priority is self-preservation. Therefore, their use of a weapon would be subject to deterrence through conventional means. They do not want their country to be invaded like Iraq in 2003. Another benefit of Iran gaining a nuclear weapon is “history shows that when countries acquire the bomb, they feel increasingly vulnerable and become acutely aware that their nuclear weapons make them a potential target in the eyes of major powers.”[29] The US could use this to their advantage, since Iran would shy away from bold and aggressive actions. Others argue that Iran may give a weapon to terrorists; however, nuclear weapons are costly and dangerous to develop, and an exchange with terrorists is highly likely to be detected by other countries, resulting in a strong backlash and international condemnation. Some people worry that if Iran is allowed to gain weapons, this will be the nuclear tipping point in the Middle East, causing many countries to begin nuclear weapons programs; however, this has not been the case in other regions and the nuclear age is more than 70 years old. Ultimately, Iran could act as a balance of power for Israel, deterring them as rival states have for many years.

Again, Israel and Saudi Arabia’s reactions must be taken into account if this option is carried out. Based on Israel’s statements, it is likely that she will attack Iran once she passes the prescribed red lines with no regard to US pleas. This would be detrimental to the region and could lead to nuclear weapons being unleashed. Saudi Arabia could then begin construction on her own bomb or claim the weapons she funded in Pakistan. Neither of these scenarios would promote stability in the region so the US would have to work closely with all three countries to ensure that tensions remain minimal.

Option E: Continue Current Policies

With the success of the most recent round of negotiations, diplomacy finally seems to be working after more than 30 years of tension and mistrust. The benefits of this strategy are that it is supported by the international community, functioning under the directives of the NPT. The economic sanctions imposed have finally taken their toll, causing the Iranian population to demand relief and Rhouhani being forced to make concessions. Some argue that Iran is simply buying time in order to further their nuclear program; however, with their acceptance of IAEA inspections, the likelihood of this is decreasing. Following this option sets the precedent to other countries that the US will not unnecessarily invade a country but will work through legal channels, striving ultimately for world peace. The US must try diplomacy before pursuing other options if only to appear to the international community to be exercising every available option.


The US’ path moving forward should be to first establish official diplomatic relations with Iran. This will accomplish two things: first, it will allow the opportunity for information to flow more freely between governments, hopefully beginning to build a more trusting relationship than has been possible in the past. Second, it will be a gesture of good faith. The US should offer Iran fuel for their nuclear energy program to both encourage them to not enrich themselves, and to continue to improve the relationship between the two countries. Next, “red lines” should clearly be set, not just for Iran but for all countries, to establish what boundaries should not be crossed and what the consequences will be if they are and get the international community on the same page. Specifically in this case, the US should state that they will act swiftly and justly Iran if they either attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, engage US troops in the Gulf, or in any way encourage terrorist attacks on the US. In reward for her cooperation, some of the current economic sanctions on Iran should be lifted. However, the threat should remain upon the regime’s leaders that if they do not cooperate, harsher sanctions will be re-imposed on them with additional ones targeted for the leadership in particular. Finally, the US should begin negotiations with the UN and the IAEA to designate the five recognized nuclear weapon states as the only countries allowed to enrich. Then, contracts should be established with other countries wishing to have a nuclear program, assuring them access to nuclear fuel as long as the IAEA is allowed to inspect and all standards are met. In this way, all enrichment could be strictly regulated and the Iranian crisis could be resolved. The US must also negotiate simultaneously with Israel and Saudi Arabia in order to maintain our allies and ensure their cooperation. This could possibly be accomplished by giving them economic benefits or promising them certain retaliatory responses should Iran not follow through on its promises. However, this will be difficult as a result of the recent activities in Crimea in which we promised to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity if she gave up her nuclear weapons and then did not follow through. Israel and Saudi Arabia would not require more than a simple statement of our intent. If negotiations fail, we must keep our options and allies intact. Hopefully by working with President Rhouhani, US-Iran relations will steadily improve enough that freer communications will allow a new status quo to be established more favorable to all involved.


Balaghi, Shiva. “Brief History.” A Brief History of 20th Century Iran. New York University, n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2014. <>

Haas, Richard N. “Regime Change and Its Limits.” Foreign Affairs. July/August 2005.

“How Iran Entered the Axis.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2014. <>.

Hymans, Jacques E.C. “Botching the Bomb: Why Nuclear Weapons Programs Often Fail on Their Own – and Why Iran’s Might, Too.” Foreign Affairs. May/June 2012.

Kahl, Colin H. “Not Time to Attack Iran: Why War Should Be a Last Resort.” Foreign Affairs. March/April 2012.

Kenneth N. Waltz. “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb: Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability.” Foreign Affairs. July/August 2012.

Kroenig, Matthew. “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option.” Foreign Affairs. January/February 2012.

Oskanian, Vartan. "Iran Nuclear Talks: The 'trust but Verify' Dictate." Aljazeera. N.p., 28 Apr. 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2014. <>.

Pickering, Thomas, AMB. “Iran-US: War or Peace.” Middle East Forum. 20 February 2014.

Rose, Gideon. “Introduction.” Iran and the Bomb. Foreign Affairs. 22 August 2012.

Sagan, Scott D. “How to Keep the Bomb from Iran.” Foreign Affairs. September/October 2006.

“Timeline: A Modern History of Iran.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2014. <>.


[1] Rose, Gideon. “Introduction.” Iran and the Bomb. Foreign Affairs. 22 August 2012.

[2] Balaghi, Shiva. “Brief History.” A Brief History of 20th Century Iran. New York University, n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2014. <>

[3] “Timeline: A Modern History of Iran.” 

[4] “How Iran Entered the Axis.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 26 Mar. 2014. <>.

[5] “Timeline: A Modern History of Iran.” 

[6] Pickering, Thomas, AMB. “Iran-US: War or Peace.” Middle East Forum. 20 February 2014.

[7] Oskanian, Vartan. "Iran Nuclear Talks: The 'trust but Verify' Dictate." Aljazeera. N.p., 28 Apr. 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2014. <>.

[8] Haas, Richard N. “Regime Change and Its Limits.” Foreign Affairs. July/August 2005.

[9] “Regime Change and Its Limits.”

[10] “Regime Change and Its Limits.”

[11] Sagan, Scott D. “How to Keep the Bomb from Iran.” Foreign Affairs. September/October 2006.

[12] Kroenig, Matthew. “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option.” Foreign Affairs. January/February 2012.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Regime Change and Its Limits.”

[20] Kahl, Colin H. “Not Time to Attack Iran: Why War Should Be a Last Resort.” Foreign Affairs. March/April 2012.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Hymans, Jacques E.C. “Botching the Bomb: Why Nuclear Weapons Programs Often Fail on Their Own – and Why Iran’s Might, Too.” Foreign Affairs. May/June 2012.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] “How to Keep the Bomb from Iran.”

[28] Kenneth N. Waltz. “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb: Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability.” Foreign Affairs. July/August 2012.

[29] “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb: Nuclear Balancing Would Mean Stability.”