President Obama is working against time to untangle 30 years of enmity and prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb, but even his own advisors know the chance of success is slim.
So they also have been working on Plan B: What do we do if Iran gets the bomb?
Today, the Obama administration is debating its Iran policy behind closed doors. Last year, however, four of its key appointees wrote about the issue as private citizens, and their writings suggest they are already planning for how to handle a nuclear Iran.
Dennis Ross, the former Middle East peace negotiator who is expected to be named as Obama's top Iran advisor, argued for giving diplomacy a chance to work but suggested that containment might have to be the future course of U.S. policy.
"Maybe, even if we engage the Iranians, we will find that however we do so and whatever we try, the engagement simply does not work," Ross wrote in a September report published by the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that has supplied several appointees to the new administration. "We will need to hedge bets and set the stage for alternative policies either designed to prevent Iran from going nuclear or to blunt the impact if they do."
If diplomacy fails, another Obama advisor wrote in the same report, the alternative "is a strategy of containment and punishment." That was the conclusion of Ashton B. Carter, Obama's reported choice as an undersecretary of Defense, who also warned: "The challenge of containing Iranian ambitions and hubris would be as large as containing its nuclear arsenal."
Most (and maybe all) of Obama's advisors see the costs of attacking Iran as outweighing the benefits. If Iran gets closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, they've warned, military action won't look any more appetizing than it did under George W. Bush.
But that doesn't mean the United States would do nothing. Instead, Obama aides suggested in their writings, the U.S. should pursue a Persian Gulf version of the containment strategy used against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
What would that mean? For starters, a nuclear-capable Iran would face continued, serious pressure from the United States and its allies to dismantle whatever it had built. Obama might declare that a nuclear attack on Israel would be treated as an attack on the U.S. homeland. And the U.S. military would act to bolster Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states against conventional-warfare threats from an emboldened Iranian regime.
And there is some optimism among administration officials that a nuclear Iran would practice restraint. Gary Samore, Obama's top advisor on nuclear proliferation, and Bruce Riedel, who is running Obama's review of policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, wrote last year that a nuclear-capable Iran, while undesirable, would not be the end of the world. For example, they argued, it seems unlikely that Tehran would give nuclear weapons to terrorists.
"If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it is likely to behave like other nuclear weapons states, trying to intimidate its foes, but not recklessly using its weapons," Samore and Riedel wrote in a report for the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations. "As such, Iran will be subject to the same deterrence system that other nuclear weapons states have accommodated themselves to since 1945."
None of this thinking means Obama has abandoned hope in negotiations to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons. At this point, one official said, the administration is focusing on Plan A, not Plan B. But it's welcome evidence that behind the slogan of hope lies a realistic appraisal of the possible outcomes.
During his presidential campaign, Obama called the idea of a nuclear Iran "unacceptable," and offered to meet with the Tehran regime without precondition to persuade it to change course. And his advisors agree that there's still a window for diplomacy.
Samore and Riedel forecast that Iran is "at least two or three years away" from being capable of building a nuclear weapon, and note that there are several stages between capability and deploying a bomb -- stages at which the United States could still work to freeze the program and contain Iran's behavior.
The first step, Ross wrote, would be to gather support from Europe, China and Russia. (Undersecretary of State Bill Burns is working on that already.) Next, Obama would seek direct, comprehensive talks with Tehran -- with a tangible threat of tougher economic sanctions if the Iranians don't cooperate, and the promise of rich rewards if they do.