Some argue that surgical air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities will stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons and that further negotiations will only give the Iranians time to fully develop its nuclear weapons program. The model for such strikes would be the Israeli air strikes against Iraq’s Osiraq reactor in 1981. Air strikes would certainly be successful in destroying Iran's known nuclear facilities: A number of the facilities involved in Iran's nuclear program have already been identified and located, most notably the facilities at Natanz, Arak, Isfahan and the light-water reactor at Bushehr. However, air strikes also carry several risks. First, such unilateral air strikes would almost surely produce international protests and further damage the United States’ international standing. Second, air strikes could severely weaken the Iranian reform movement and improve the position of hardliners among the general populace. Third, there would likely be negative consequences for the U.S. struggle against Islamic terrorism worldwide: Islamic nations could find it more difficult to assist the U.S. in its counterterrorist efforts, and air strikes may encourage attacks and recruitment by various Islamic terrorist groups. Fourth, air strikes would likely enrage the Iranian regime and perhaps even large portions of the populace which are otherwise unsupportive of the regime; this in turn could provide justification and political cover for Iranian reprisals including destabilizing Iraq and other Gulf states with significant Shi'a populations and pressuring Lebanese Hezbollah to launch rocket attacks against Israel.
The most pernicious possibility, in my opinion, would be the destabilization of Iraq through incitement of Shi’a rebellion and confrontation against U.S. forces in Iraq. This would be relatively easy to accomplish, provide the best opportunity to inflict damage against the U.S. and could be done with little direct and obvious involvement of Iran. To date, most Shi'a in Iraq have shown restraint and have avoided being dragged into a civil war, reasoning that the Shi'a majority will be the primary beneficiary of popular elections. And so far, Iran and its allies in the region have encouraged the Iraqi Shi'a to continue to show restraint and work for social stability in post-war Iraq. However, it would not be difficult to encourage many Iraqi Shi’a to rise up against the Americans: Most major Iraqi Shi'a groups have considerable connections with Iran due primarily to common religious, cultural and historical bonds. Additionally, considerable numbers of Iranian intelligence agents are already operating in Iraq. The consequences of Shi'a unrest in Iraq are obvious.
Even if military strikes were successful, which I’m sure that they would be, military strikes can only delay Iran’s development of nuclear weapons; chances are low that strikes can prevent Iran from eventually obtaining nuclear weapons. Given the relatively recent discovery of Iran’s nuclear facilities and the resultant controversy, it is highly likely that Iran may have other clandestine facilities hidden underground or in caves for secrecy and increased protection against attack. Additionally, air strikes would likely accelerate whatever nuclear ambitions Iran already has. According to a senior Iraqi nuclear scientist, Dr. Khidir Hamza, the Israeli attacks on Iraq’s reactor in 1981 sent Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program into overdrive and convinced the Iraqi leadership to initiate a full-fledged nuclear weapons program immediately afterwards; the number of scientists working on the program and the amount of money budgeted increased dramatically after the attack.
Options are limited, but the best option currently available is to press for multilateral negotiations through the EU (notably France, Germany, and Italy) and other trade partners (e.g. Japan and Russia) with the threat of economic sanctions and support for Security Council punitive actions. Over the past fifteen years, the only things that have caused Iran to change its behavior have been the threat of military action by the United States and the threat of sanctions by the Europeans in 1997 and 2003. American sanctions have inhibited Iran’s actions to a degree, but because Iran has always been able to turn to its trading partners in Europe, Russia and Japan, American sanctions have had little effect on Iranian actions. Unfortunately, the Europeans have been loath to do anything to jeopardize their trade relationships with Iran in the past, so the U.S. will have to marshal all available diplomatic leverage in order to convince the Europeans to go along.
However, even if we get the Europeans to go along (which is unlikely), it is possible that no amount of pressure will convince Iran to give up its nuclear program. Iranians staunchly believe in their right to develop nuclear power and enrich uranium and have said so repeatedly. Iran’s nuclear program is seen by many in Iran as a matter of national pride, and American resistance has only unified Iranians’ desire to develop nuclear technology. Should Iran develop nuclear weapons, the United States will have to rely on its formidable nuclear and conventional arsenal to deter Iranian aggression against it; Israel will have to do so as well. While the Iranian regime can be characterized as aggressive and anti-American given its record of terrorism sponsorship, Iran has not mounted a terrorist attack against the United States since 1996. Additionally, there is little to suggest that the regime is irrational or undeterrable; after the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia, Iran backed away from its terrorist activities directed toward the United States when threatened with military reprisals. Even assuming an aggressive Iranian regime, in the face of a credible nuclear response, Iran is highly unlikely to directly attack the Unites States or Israel with nuclear weapons. In a perfect world, Iran would not develop nuclear weapons. However, given the risks and costs of air strikes, the distasteful fact is that we may have to learn how to live with a nuclear Iran.