The Iranian nuclear issue is at a critical point. America's highest-ranking military officer has expressed the belief that Tehran has enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, an independent commission has unveiled a plan that its members hope can avert an "untenable" situation from developing in the Middle East.The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, in an interview broadcast by the American cable news television channel CNN, said the US military estimates that Iran can build an atomic weapon. He added that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a "very bad outcome" for efforts to foster stability in the volatile Middle East. The US military assessment turns up the heat on President Barack Obama to take action to address the potential Iranian threat. While not explicitly rejecting the use of force, Obama has expressed a clear preference for a negotiated settlement.An independent task force has developed a blueprint that its members hope can meet the challenge posed by the Iranian nuclear program. The heads of the task force -- two former US senators, Charles Robb, a Virginia Democrat, and Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican -- unveiled the findings in late February at an event hosted by the National Security Initiative of the Bipartisan Policy Center. The blueprint, titled Meeting the Challenge: US Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development, offers a "realistic, robust, and comprehensive approach, incorporating new diplomatic, economic, and military tools in an integrated fashion," according to Robb. He insisted that the plan "can prevent the untenable."The task force's blueprint places its emphasis on seeking a negotiated solution to current dilemmas. "The bottom line for us is that it has to be a comprehensive approach to the problem. It can't be done with a piecemeal approach," Robb said. "We have to develop diplomatic leverage in order to be able to enter into any kind of negotiations."Steve Rademaker, former assistant secretary of state for arms control and nonproliferation, related that, while the group accepted that "diplomacy is by far the preferred solution," the task force concluded "that there are some conceivable diplomatic solutions to the problem that would be worse than the status quo, from the prospective of achieving our objective of minimizing Iran's nuclear weapons capability." Although many foreign governments and nonproliferation experts would allow Iran to enrich uranium provided the process was under international management and supervision, Rademaker related that the group saw these arrangements as insufficient to ensure that Tehran only used nuclear technology for peaceful purposes "given the Islamic Republic's history of nuclear deception."The task force also insisted that "we need to engage with Iran from a position of strength, not from a position of weakness." According to Rademaker, "the key thing in our perspective to maximize our chances of a successful outcome is to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, and that needs to be done before the negotiations begin, not during negotiations."Rademaker believed that imposing harsher UN sanctions on Iran could provide this enhanced leverage. He noted that the Bush administration had achieved only limited progress in realizing this objective, but hoped the Obama team might now be able to do more -- potentially with the new administration and the international goodwill that has been created, there may be a window to do more through the UN than was possible in the past. And if securing further UN action proved impossible, then the administration could work directly with other governments -- including Russia and China -- to impose further economic sanctions on Tehran.To prevent Tehran from dragging out any negotiations indefinitely while developing its nuclear capacity, Rademaker demanded that "Iran has to suspend its work on enrichment before negotiations can begin." He noted that critics complain that imposing such a precondition created "an obstacle for entering negotiations," but the task force wanted to "make sure that Iran is not incentivized to talk, talk, talk and build, build, build, but never agree to anything." Gen. Chuck Wald, who commanded coalition air forces during the early part of the war in Afghanistan, rejected the widespread perception that the United lacked credible military options against Iran. "I will say up front . . . that we have the capacity to take military action against Iran today that would put them back to the point where they would not be a regional threat."Wald described using force only as last resort option. If it came to that, however, the general said he was confident that the United States could obtain whatever operational support it needed from nearby countries -- including Azerbaijan and Turkey as well as the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council -- to conduct effective air strikes. Independent experts have questioned this view. Azerbaijan in particular has shown a reluctance to do anything that could be perceived by Tehran as a threatening gesture.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.