Cross-posted from the Council on Foreign Relations
The "Gates memo" -- a classified memorandum written by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in January, arguing to his senior colleagues that the administration needs to develop a more effective policy for dealing with Iran's nuclear progress -- marks a significant signpost in the evolution of President Barack Obama's national security policy and presidency.
The Obama administration's initial approach toward Iran emphasized negotiations, but there is no evidence Iran is prepared to accept meaningful limits on its nuclear activities. The United States is working to gain UN Security Council approval of new sanctions, but while the symbolism of a common international front is welcome, the substance will not have much effect. The price of gaining Chinese and Russian support is delay and dilution. A second set of sanctions, more biting and more focused on the Revolutionary Guard, should be cobbled together quickly by those countries willing to sign on. And the United States should keep exploring what can be done to bolster Iran's internal opposition.
But the reality is that these measures are unlikely to accomplish the goal of halting (much less reversing) Iran's nuclear program. Three sets of actions are needed. First, the United States should take the steps that would allow it to enforce tough sanctions, such as a ban on Iranian oil exports and refined oil imports. Second, the United States should develop plans for the use of military force in an effort to set back Iran's nuclear program and weaken the government. Third, the United States should assess the pros and cons of an alternative or a fallback: a "North Korean" strategy, in which there would be an implicit acceptance of an Iranian nuclear weapon (or something close to it) that would involve deterrence of Iran and defense for its neighbors. All planning should anticipate Iranian retaliation and what would be needed from Saudis and others to stabilize energy markets.
The Gates memo is right to focus attention on the real choices. In the end, it is Iran, far more than Afghanistan or Iraq or even Pakistan, that is likely to prove the most significant strategic decision and challenge for the forty-fourth president.