Analysts are split between those who support military option or regime change and others who argue negotiations must continue.
US considers next move over Iran's nuclear programme
WASHINGTON // With little resolved during talks in Geneva this week between Iran and six world powers over its nuclear programme, the US administration once again faced questions over how best to proceed on the issue.
Analysts in Washington were divided between those who saw no practical alternative to continued and sustained engagement with Tehran and those who believed that a credible military option and/or regime change was the only way to make progress.
The administration has so far tried the middle ground, pushing for tougher sanctions while pursuing engagement. This has generally been well received in Washington, even by administration critics. But sanctions have yet to yield any breakthrough.
The administration has also had to be mindful of diplomatic limitations in keeping a united international front together. And, as cables revealed by WikiLeaks show, Washington has worked hard to keep Russia, China, and, to a lesser extent, Germany - three powers with their own interests in Iran - on board.
For now, US officials have tried to remain positive about the Geneva talks between Iran and the so-called P5-plus-one nations - the five permanent members of the UN's Security Council and Germany.
On Tuesday, Phillip J Crowley, the State Department spokesman, said he hoped Geneva would provide the basis for a "serious process" to start in Turkey, where Iran and representatives of the P5-plus-one meet in January.
"We're encouraged that there will be a follow-on meeting," Mr Crowley told journalists at the daily State Department briefing. "As we signalled before this first meeting, we were open to have multiple meetings in multiple locations, and certainly the decision to meet next month in Istanbul is a reflection of that."
But Mr Crowley sidestepped Iranian assertions that Geneva had been a "victory" for Tehran and that the Istanbul talks would not focus on Iran's nuclear programme. The nuclear issue, Mr Crowley said, "is something that remains at the forefront of our concerns".
Critics in Washington suggested, however, that continued negotiations would not resolve any issues but would instead serve only to give Iran the time it needs to improve its uranium enrichment capabilities.
"The bottom line is that engagement with Iran gives new legitimacy to the Islamic republic so it can stall, using negotiations as a pretext to demonstrate to the world that it is willing to compromise, while at the same time it continues to enrich uranium to higher and higher levels," said Raymond Tanter, who teaches terrorism and proliferation at Georgetown University.
Mr Tanter, who served on the senior staff of the National Security Council in the Reagan administration, suggested that the Obama administration should begin to seriously explore a regime-change option led by the Iranian diaspora and remove groups such as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a Paris-based opposition group, from the US list of foreign terrorist organisations.
In the meantime, he said, the administration should use engagement as a means to hold together the international coalition in the short term with a view to imposing tougher sanctions on Iran.
If that should not work, "the military option will move from the back burner to the front burner, and I would hope that the regime-change option would move from the floor to the table."
But others suggested that a military option would be counterproductive.
"Military action wouldn't necessarily slow down the [nuclear] process that much," said William Hartung, the director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation.
"It would create huge enmity not just on the part of the government but of the Iranian people toward the US and probably Israel, depending on who carried it out. So I don't really see any upside."
Mr Hartung said the very fact that the parties were back talking was "promising" and, while he conceded that securing a deal with Tehran would be challenging, "if the right incentives are laid out, it's not out of the question".
Observers also disagreed on how far along Iran was with its nuclear effort. In April this year, US Gen James Cartwright, the vice joint chiefs of staff chair, told Congress that Iran was three to five years from building a nuclear bomb. But that estimate has remained the same since 1995 and Mr Hartung suggested that Iran's capability remained limited.
"They've had problems with the centrifuges," he said. "They've been working with nuclear technology for quite a while so far with quite limited results. The notion that they are going to make any immediate breakout from civilian to military uses of nuclear technology I think has generally been overstated."