For more than three decades, the Islamic Republic of Iran has posed a problem for the world. On the one hand, the Iranian regime’s radical Islamist ideology, support for terrorism and regional subversion, and quest for an illegal nuclear weapons capability have made it a dangerous revisionist power determined to upend the existing regional and global order. On the other hand, Iran’s position atop vast energy reserves and astride critical strategic choke points has made it an essential player in the global economy. This combination has produced a strange mixture of contention and connection, conflict and cooperation.

During much of this period, policymakers in Washington and other major capitals faced a dilemma. They felt they couldn’t live with the Iranian regime, but that the world couldn’t live without its oil. The result was often a rough and unacknowledged modus vivendi in which Iran’s energy resources flowed onto global markets while the regime itself was pushed to the margins of international society. But recently this always tenuous compromise has grown even less stable. The Iranian nuclear program has moved forward, as have threats of an Israeli or American attack on it. And U.S. officials, having learned to live without Iranian energy, now want the rest of the world to do so as well. They have managed to wean Europe off it and are pressing China to follow. So each month now seems to be billed as the one in which matters will finally come to a head, one way or another.

Foreign Affairs has been at the center of public debate on these issues from the beginning, publishing dozens of articles on all sides and facets of the subject, and so we’ve decided to respond to the current buzz by pulling together several of our most important pieces into one handy collection. We have focused squarely on the nuclear question, but have also included enough background and surrounding material to make the volume an excellent primer on Iran policy more generally. The authors include world-renowned experts from several disciplines and professional backgrounds, the arguments presented span every significant position on the political spectrum, and there are several Iranian and Israeli contributions to boot. The collection, in short, contains everything needed to understand the crisis over the Iranian bomb and develop an informed, independent opinion on what should be done about it.

The first section of the book contains three background articles that put the current debate in its proper historical and intellectual context. Gary Sick’s 1987 essay, “Iran’s Quest for Superpower Status,” stresses the domestic political drivers of Iranian policy and argues that the main objective of Iranian leaders is to keep their theocratic regime in power. He also notes a curious and persistent pattern of Iranian behavior—“extreme rhetoric in public pronouncements balanced by calculated flexibility and utter realism in practice.” Jahangir Amuzegar’s 1997 essay, “Adjusting to Sanctions,” explains why outsiders have always had a difficult time constructing an effective and nonporous sanctions regime that keeps Tehran in check. And Mohsen Milani’s 2009 essay, “Tehran’s Take,” sets out the strategic logic behind Iranian policy today, showing how regime survival remains the dominant goal and what that means in practice.

The second section contains nine recent pieces laying out the pros and cons of various approaches to the Iranian nuclear problem. Richard Haass’ “Regime Change and Its Limits” provides an over- view of the debate. Scott Sagan’s “How to Keep the Bomb From Iran” counters what the author sees as a combination of “prolif- eration fatalism and deterrence optimism” and suggests a diplo- matic approach. And Jacques Hymans’ “Botching the Bomb” fa- vors standing back and letting the natural problems that have afflicted nuclear weapons programs in other developing countries do their work in Iran as well.

Matthew Kroenig’s “Time to Attack Iran” advocates taking the bull by the horns and launching a limited U.S. military strike at the Iranian nuclear program, setting it back several years if not permanently. Colin Kahl responds that it is “Not Time to Attack Iran,” at least for now, since a military strike would cause more problems than it would solve. Instead, he favors continuing current U.S. policy. And in “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” Kenneth Waltz pushes for permitting an Iranian nuclear capability as a way to balance the Israeli bomb and bring strategic stability to the broader Middle East.

James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh explore what would happen “After Iran Gets the Bomb,” contending that such an outcome would mark a transition to a new and more complicated era of containment and deterrence. Suzanne Maloney criticizes what she considers “Obama’s Counterproductive New Iran Sanctions,” which do not offer a viable endgame for dealing with the current Iranian regime. And finally, Michael Ledeen, in “Tehran Takedown,” pushes for a policy that makes even clearer the notion that regime change— support for a democratic revolution in Iran—is the central objective of U.S. strategy. 

The third and last section of the book widens the discussion, bringing in voices from Iran and Israel. In “Sanctions Won’t End Iran’s Nuclear Program,” Kayhan Barzegar presents a view of the conflict from Tehran’s perspective, while in “How to Engage Iran,” former Iranian official Hossein Mousavian lays out what he thinks went wrong in previous negotiations and what can be done to achieve better results now. Then Ronen Bergman explores “Netanyahu’s Iranian Dilemma,” Ariel Ilan Roth asks why Israel is so afraid of Iranian nukes, Ehud Eiran describes what would happen if Israel attacked Iran, and Dmitry Adamsky highlights Israel’s own problematic nuclear policy, which seeks to deter without being deterred itself.

Reading over these arguments, one realizes how much better the authors are at criticizing others’ favored approaches than they are at making bulletproof cases for their own chosen course of action. This reflects the dirty little secret of this debate (and so many others): All the options are lousy. The challenge is thus not picking a great course that delivers acceptable benefits at a rea- sonable cost and risk, but selecting a marginally less bad one with slightly fewer or less worrisome downsides than the others. Such a choice will depend not simply on one’s substantive priorities and broad foreign policy orientation but also on one’s risk tolerances, comfort with uncertainty, assessment of future political trends, and so forth. We would like to think that this collection provides the intellectual fuel to set such a deliberative process in motion.

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  • GIDEON ROSE is Editor of Foreign Affairs.