WASHINGTON -- The Obama Administration finds itself low on good options for avoiding conflict with Iran, a bleak new report from a major international conflict-prevention group says.
In the report released Thursday, the International Crisis Group argues that while a war with Iran could have "devastating consequences," the main alternative currently being pursued -- crippling sanctions -- is itself unlikely to succeed, and may well end up expediting military conflict.
"In some ways sanctions have been the tail wagging the dog because all of the politics are based on the notion that sanctions are going to get Iran to change its course," said Robert Malley, the Middle East and North Africa program director for Crisis Group. "If that's our logic -- and there's no evidence that [sanctions] have worked, or that they will work -- then you corner yourself, because at that point you have no argument left."
As the Crisis Group report puts it: "If it is either sanctions, whose success is hard to imagine, or military action, whose consequences are terrifying to contemplate, that is not a choice. It is an abject failure."
Iran has long insisted that its nuclear program is entirely for peaceful energy purposes, although the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors nuclear activity inside Iran, recently reported it has seen signs of increasing uranium enrichment of the sort that might lead to weapon production.
The government of Israel is deeply concerned about the possibility of Iran gaining possession of a nuclear weapon and has threatened to take military action to prevent it from doing so, a course of action that American officials have repeatedly indicated they do not support.
But as the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday, the U.S. still does not believe that Iran has decided to build a nuclear weapon.
And in an event Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said that militarily preventing Iran from acquiring a bomb -- should they decide to try -- might be an impossible task.
"If they [Iranians] have the intent, all the weapons in the world are not going to change that," retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright said, according to the Washington Times.
In that case, Crisis Group analysts say, if there is truly any hope of preventing Iran from possessing a nuke, a positive effort to encourage a non-military nuclear program may be the best hope of preventing all-out war, rather than threatening more sanctions.
"From their perspective, the more sanctions we impose, the more you tend to convince the regime that the goal is to topple it," said Malley. "And you only have to look at a few countries nearby to find out why they might be convinced they need [a nuclear weapon]."
The Crisis Group report points to the case studies of Iraq, North Korea and Libya, where possession of nuclear weapons seemed to be the primary differentiating factor in whether the West attacked the regime.
Instead, the report proposes that the West follow a new tack of engagement, similar to Turkey's recent approach to Iran, which includes a number of strategies -- reducing the threats of sanctions, openly acknowledging Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear program -- that Americans or Israelis have long rejected.