Despite the renewed diplomatic efforts of the world, it seems that a lot of the effort directed at preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is misplaced. If you take a moment to analyze the United States’ strategy on this issue, you very quickly come across a mess of dead ends and contradictions. Doing nothing in the face of the unpopular possibility of Iran with a bomb would be unacceptable. However, states do not have the broad support or resources to credibly impose any military threat on Iran for not complying.

Thus America and her global partners are left with sanctions. Iran has lived with sanctions since the 1979 revolution. No matter how “crushing” new sanctions are going to be, there will still be a market for Iranian oil. Germany, Russia and China are all big trading partners with Iran and have invested heavily into their economy. America would have to make major concessions elsewhere to get any kind of productive consensus with these powers, especially China.

The line America is trying to walk is so fine that the goal now seems unlikely, and probably is not worth the effort. It doesn’t make sense for Iran to use a nuclear weapon. Iraq, their traditional enemy, is weak, disorganized, and no longer a threat to Iranian regional dominance. President Ahmadinejad would be nowhere near the hypothetical button.

The real power in the complex government lies in actors like the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council and the Revolutionary Guard. They won’t do something as radical as a nuclear strike, or allow their possible weapon to fall to terrorists. Keep in mind that Iran’s clerics are Shiite Muslims, and have little patience for Sunni troublemakers like Saddam Hussein, Al Qaida and the Taliban. 

So if they don’t plan to use it, why is the bomb so important to them?

The nearest American equivalent is the space race. Iran feels that to join the ranks of the world’s elite powers it must achieve a level of technological equivalence lacking in its recent history. Developing countries like China and India are quickly securing their piece of the global pie. Iran wants a bigger seat at the table, something more equal to their growing power. I think the sooner America recognizes this national goal, the sooner we can negotiate a real solution that Iran might accept.

The most immediate issue, however, is that achieving nuclear capability doesn’t solve the Iranian regime’s biggest strategic problem. Widespread dissent following Ahmadinejad’s recent reelection has severely weakened the state and its legitimacy at home and abroad.

The bomb may be an achievement Tehran would love to be able to claim, but it does nothing to address this domestic political problem. A bomb also is no answer to demographic challenges. The Iranian people are younger, better educated and more willing to actually address Iran’s economic and political challenges in the 21st century than the Republic’s bomb-obsessed old guard. States have to remember this new force when dealing with Iran.