The dispute between the West and Iran over Tehran's nuclear ambitions has now dragged on for nearly eight years. Even as Iran holds new military exercises in the Persian Gulf, the United States continues to push for new sanctions on Iran in the U.N. Security Council. There is no resolution in sight as the U.S. wrestles with how, or even if, Iran can be deterred from going down the nuclear path.
At a recent congressional hearing, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michelle Flournoy said the Obama administration is ruling nothing out, including possible military action, in its bid to deter Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed state.
"As the president said, all options are on the table," said Michelle Flournoy. "We see it as the Department of Defense's responsibility to plan for all contingencies and provide the president with a wide range of military options should they become necessary. But as both the secretary - [Defense] Secretary Gates - and [Joint Chiefs of Staff] Chairman [Mike] Mullen have stated, military options are not preferable. And we continue to believe that the most effective approach at this point in time is a combination of diplomacy and pressure in terms of how best to change Iranian behavior."
But analysts say that changing Iranian behavior is easier said than done, and that there may be nothing the U.S. and its allies can do if Iran is determined to become a nuclear power.
Iran denies harboring any nuclear arms ambitions. But on-again, off-again negotiations between Tehran and Western powers have yielded little, and Iran's positions shift frequently, often depending on who is voicing them.
Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at London's International Institute for Strategic Studies, says the U.S. and Iran are headed toward the kind of impasse that characterized the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union.
"I think we are in for a long Cold War with Iran in which it will continue to make some progress," said Mark Fitzpatrick. "It will continue to face technical difficulties in its program. It won't actually cross the line to producing a nuclear weapon because it will face debilitating military action if it does. And sanctions will be applied that will hamper the Iranian economy but won't necessarily bring it to its knees."
Echoing some other analysts, Fitzpatrick says the West may have to accept an Iran that is nuclear-capable but not nuclear-armed - that is, it can build atomic bombs but halts just short of actually producing them.
"We may have to live with a nuclear-capable Iran," he said. "I think Iran can be deterred from crossing the line from capability to production. And I think they know that if they cross the line, if they start producing nuclear weapons, if they were to test any or expel inspectors or in any other way signal that they were going for the bomb, then I think they know that they are very likely going to face a military attack."
Tate Nurkin, a security and military intelligence analyst at IHS Jane's Publications, says military action would not halt the Iranian program anyway, and that it would probably spark a wider conflict.
"You can delay it [the program] for several months," said Tate Nurkin. "But I think the problem with that is that it sets off an almost certain conflict in the region, the results of which are highly unpredictable. And the likelihood of that sort of conflict intensifying and for really fundamental miscalculation that would lead from a regional conflict to something that could get larger is pretty high."
There may also be attempts to internally sabotage the Iranian program, but such covert action is never discussed publicly by officials.
Israel remains extremely nervous about Iran, especially about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated comments about wiping Israel off the map and his denial of the Holocaust. If there were to be an attack on Iranian nuclear sites, it might well be Israel that launches them, although the distances involved and unfriendly airspace present tactical difficulties for such a move.
Sanctions, says Mark Fitzpatrick, are not likely to sway Iran from the nuclear path. But, he adds, they do serve several auxiliary purposes.
Among them, sanctions show that Iran's taking a hard line is not without at least some cost, showing, in effect, as he puts it, that crime doesn't pay.
They can also limit Iran's strategic programs by cutting off access to equipment they need, forcing them to manufacture components themselves that may not be of as high a quality as the imports. For example, it is making parts for centrifuges for uranium enrichment, and those centrifuges are reporting to be breaking down at a higher than normal rate. And sanctions, he says, also have the side effect of showing the viability of the U.N. Security Council.
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