Iran has spent thirty years and $100 billion pursuing atomic weapons. Iran is deeply hostile to the West in general and to the United States and its allies in particular. So, that’s a problem. What to do?
Either we attack Iran’s nuclear resources to forestall the development of weapons or we accept Iran as a nuclear power and then seek to contain it. The choice will be shaped by how outsiders, the Americans in particular, perceive the Iranian leadership. If it is a rational, dispassionate leadership pursuing national security, rather than expanded power, then containment might well work. If it is an irrational, hatred-driven leadership seeking to expand Iranian power by toppling the established regional order, then an attack may be the only solution. Kenneth Pollack has concluded that Iran is driven either by “the Iranian leadership’s pathological perceptions of the United States or its own aggressive ambitions.” Nevertheless, he favors containment over the short to mid-term. Over the longer term, he argues, it would be better to engineer a change of regime through keeping the economic sanctions on Iran, reducing the diplomatic support it receives from Russia and China, and supporting dissidents within the country. Anybody, he thinks, would be better than the current rulers, both for America and for the Iranians themselves.
Matthew Kroenig shares the conviction of Pollack and every other informed observer that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, not a peaceful nuclear program. He bolsters the standard arguments by noting that Iran is also developing Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), the standard delivery vehicle for nuclear warheads. Kroenig derides the “containment” of a nuclear Iraq. If the United States won’t fight a pre-nuclear Iran today, why would it risk fighting a nuclear Iran in the future? He also doubts the Pollack’s dream of regime change will become a reality. He sees the government in Tehran as too deeply entrenched and too ruthless in crushing its opponents, as it did with the so-called “Green Revolution” in 2009.
Either containment or attack will leave the future uncertain. Might a “contained” nuclear Iran later tip toward expansionism when conditions become favorable? Would a successful attack stop Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons in its tracks for all time or would it just lead Iran to renew the effort after the dust had settled? Destroying a few key sites would still leave the country with scientists, engineers, and oil revenues—the real building blocks of a nuclear effort.
A creeping, largely unspoken fear is that the religious fundamentalists in Tehran share a basic mind-set with the religious fundamentalist suicide bombers of Al Qaeda and ISIS: death is to be welcomed in the service of a higher cause. It makes it hard to believe that Mutual Assured Destruction would dissuade Iran from waging nuclear war.
Finally, can the United States coerce Iran while seeking its support against ISIS? Or will the United States have to send troops to Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIS if it wants to coerce Iran?
If the United States agonizes too long, will Israel attack to degrade, even if it cannot destroy, the Iranian nuclear program?
 Kenneth Pollack, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013).
 Matthew Kroenig, A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
 The defeat of both the “Green Revolution” in Iran and the Tahrir Square movement in Egypt suggest the staying power of authoritarian governments in the Middle East.