Monday, October 26, 2009
[The transcript of Sen. Kerry's remarks are available here.]
Kerry began by stating that the debate over the proposal by General Stanley McChrystal that a minimum of 40,000 more US troops are necessary to stave off defeat is not the proper topic for policy discussion. Rather, the focus needs to be on developing a comprehensive strategy that melds military strategy with the necessary improvements in the Afghan government and society.
Kerry also stated that the US does have vital national security interests at stake in Afghanistan. Even though most of al Qaeda has been routed from Afghanistan and has moved into Pakistan, the porous border between the two means that if the US withdraws or significantly draws down its operations in Afghanistan, al Qaeda would likely move back into Afghanistan. It is thus imperative, he argued, to prevent the Taliban from re-establishing the kind of sanctuary it was able to provide prior to 9/11. Instability in Afghanistan leads to and contributes to instability in Pakistan.
Furthermore, Kerry warned that a radical departure from the current strategy would threaten US credibility around the world. First, Islamist insurgents would learn that the US can be defeated and lacks the political will to see a conflict through to its end. Second, a US withdrawal would send bad messages to US allies around the world, who look to the US as the leader of, as he called it, the global counter-insurgency movement.
So, the question that needs to be at the forefront of any policy discussion, as Kerry sees it, is what realistic goals can the US establish that can be met and will contribute to success? That in turn raises the question: How should success be defined? For Kerry, success will occur when the US has sufficiently empowered the Afghani government to the point where it can assume responsibility for domestic security and when the Afghan state can be sufficiently stable and secure so as to not be controlled by the Taliban or al Qaeda. This definition is important because it does not require that Afghanistan become a "flawless democracy," nor does it require that the US or the Afghan regime defeat the Taliban. Rather, Kerry was emphatic that the end is "good-enough" governance" which in turn requires capable Afghan security forces and a legitimate, effective civilian government.
After defining "success" Kerry turned to actual policy. He began by rejecting the strategy championed by Vice President Biden of drawing down US troops to shift to a highly limited strategy of targeting al Qaeda as an insufficient footprint to stabilize Afghanistan and protect Pakistan. Furthermore, such a policy could lead to a civil war, which would in turn directly threaten Pakistan. However, he also rejected (noting that this is not the strategy recommended by McChrystal) a broader country-wide counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy. The US does not have the capability for such a strategy (Kerry cited a number of 400,000 troops that would be needed); additionally, a broad strategy isn't needed, as the resurgent Taliban isn't active in the entire country, as it largely confined to the Pashtun-dominant regions. Fortunately, Kerry argued, such a broad COIN strategy is not needed. Rather, the US should focus its military COIN strategy on the population centers.
So. Kerry said more troops are needed. But, before the troops can be delivered, several questions need to be asked. 1) Are there enough reliable Afghani forces to partner with US troops and that can eventually assume the primary responsibility for domestic security ? 2) Are there local leaders with whom the US can partner? 3) Is the civilian government ready to support the military mission and to provide the domestic services needed by the civilian populations?
Kerry argued that while the answer to #2 is yes, the answer to #s 1 and 3 is "not yet". Kerry put out a number of 92,000 being the number of Afghan police and security forces currently capable of engaging in operations, although he noted that the real number is probably closer to 50,000, and that 3-4 times that many are required. But the real problem that worries Kerry is #3. The real problem in Afghanistan, as Kerry sees it, is inattention to the basic needs of the Afghani citizens who need basic services -- access to water, jobs, law, etc. -- to live their lives. If the government can't or won't provide these services, the average Afghani will turn to support anyone who can, and that's where the Taliban steps in. Kerry cited the recent revelation that the Taliban have created ombudsmen to hear complaints about their rule, while the government is widely mistrusted.
The key to Afghanistan is, Kerry argued, whether the Afghan government can succeed in providing these basic services and be seen as legitimate and effective. When and where the government succeeds, the Taliban weakens. Kerry claimed that there are only approximately 3,000 "hard-core" (i.e. ideologically committed) Taliban members, while the rest are either common criminals looking to profit, those opposed to the US presence, or those who simply believe that the Taliban offer a better future than does the current government. The right combination of effective governance, money, diplomacy, and promise of reintegration into society can, Kerry believes, siphon off many of these pragmatic Taliban members leaving the core isolated and weakened.
The key to Afghanistan, Kerry concluded, is whether the US and any future troop increase helps the Afghan government provide basic services and security.
Senator Kerry then took several questions from the press (the tele-conference was a press conference) one of which which I'll re-create here to the best of my ability.
A reporter from the Washington Times asked whether Kerry's preferred strategy -- implementing COIN in the population centers -- is any different from the policy implemented in the Bush administration. Kerry answered that the emphasis on effective and legitimate governance would, if done properly, make all the difference. Focusing on good-enough governance at the national and regional levels is the key to success, not increasing troops or even clearing the country-side of Taliban. The emphasis under Bush, Kerry claimed, was clear and hold, but without enough of a troop presence to hold. The proper strategy, Kerry said, is clear, hold, build (as in build civil society and services) and transfer (as in transfer responsibility for security to the Afghan government).
I am right on board with Senator Kerry's assessment. Increasing troop levels to be able to implement a proper COIN strategy is key, but it is matched in importance by the need to develop a credible and effective partner with the civilian Afghani government. These two elements must come hand in hand in order for anything even close to success to be a possibility. For Kerry, the solution is to steadily increase troop levels (Kerry stated that the US can effectively deploy 1 brigade to Afghanistan every 3 months) while concurrently judging the improvements in civilian benchmarks (provisions of services, stamping out corruption, training effective Afghan soldiers and police). The Biden-supported alternative is far too risky, not only to Afghanistan but to Pakistan. Given that a complete withdrawal is clearly out of the question, the only other alternative is to increase troops to implement a COIN strategy. McChrystal has laid out the military requirements of such a mission; but the military can only be successful when there is a sound political strategy in place. Kerry has laid out the broad contours of such a political strategy. Let us hope that President Obama listens.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times ran an article claiming that the Obama administration was, in its meetings to determine future strategy and troop levels in Afghanistan, considering a "middle path" that would require sending fewer than the 40,000 troops General McChrystal has stated to be the minimum necessary to follow a counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy that might possibly work. According to the article:
It's one thing for President Obama to decide to not pursue a COIN strategy in favor of focusing on al Qaeda, as recommended by Biden. That is a strategic decision that, by virtue of its inherent logic, requires fewer troops to be deployed in Afghanistan. Letting the strategy determine the force posture is exactly how military planning is supposed to happen. But the Obama administration seems to be allowing its desired force posture guide its strategy, which is a disaster waiting to happen. This is exactly the mistake that the Bush administration made in the reconstruction of both Afghanistan and Iraq. In both situations, the strategy was determined by the number of troops the US was willing to commit in the field, rather than the desired strategy determining the appropriate troop levels.
As the Obama administration debates whether to shift its aims in Afghanistan, officials at the Pentagon and National Security Council have begun developing "middle path" strategies that would require fewer troops than their ground commander is seeking.
Measures under consideration include closer cooperation with local tribal chiefs and regional warlords, using CIA agents as intermediaries and cash payments as incentives, said current and former officials who described the strategies on condition of anonymity.
Other steps would concentrate U.S. and allied troops in cities, pulling out of Afghanistan's widely dispersed rural areas. At the same time, the allied forces would push ahead with plans to intensify training of Afghan troops, officials said.
None of the strategies envision troop reductions, but officials said they would not require the 40,000-troop increase preferred by Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and allied commander. A number of White House officials favor sending fewer than 20,000 additional troops.
With the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan already 8 years old, advocates of a middle approach question whether the American public will support a long-term effort.
"There is a growing view, a minority opinion, within the military that worries about the sustainability on the domestic front of what McChrystal is proposing," said an administration official. "A year and a half from now we could find there is not the will to sustain this McChrystal approach."
One approach would be to take McChrystal's plan and "pare it down," moving troops away from less important objectives, said a former official who served in both the Bush and Obama administrations.
The middle path strategies would not try to establish strict limits on U.S. efforts, such as focusing on attacking Al Qaeda, a posture once favored by Vice President Joe Biden.
The problem seems to be that Obama administration is worried that public opinion will not support a larger and longer commitment that will inevitably result in higher casualties (particularly in the short run). This problem is certainly exacerbated by the administration's domestic priorities and especially its effort to pass health care reform.
And here is where political science can be of use. The Obama administration is making the same mistake that Bill Clinton made in Somalia: misunderstanding the source of public discontent with military missions. As Peter Feaver (my graduate school professor and dissertation adviser) argues:
Research has shown that public support of a military campaign is chiefly a function of the mission's perceived stakes, the prospects for victory and the anticipated costs. Since the Persian Gulf War (though the seeds can be traced as far back as Vietnam), a myth has taken root among policymakers that only the costs matter -- that the public will only support policies that are "cheap" in the sense of not costing American lives. According to this view, the public rejected U.S. intervention in Somalia because American soldiers died, while it accepted our actions in Kosovo because no Americans died. This is the myth of the casualty-phobic public -- a canard that genuinely casualty-phobic policymakers have found expedient, but which has left America vulnerable to exactly the kind of terrorist attack we just witnessed. What is Osama bin Laden's fundamental premise if not the belief that killing some Americans will drive our country to its knees?
Actually, the public will support even a costly war provided the stakes warrant it and the president can persuasively promise victory. In this instance, the stakes could not be higher. What is lacking is a compelling account of victory, a frame for war aims that shapes how the public will interpret unfolding events.
Focusing on troop levels as the driver of strategic calculations undermines the ability to convey the "compelling account of victory" which is what in turn undermines public support for the military operations. President Bush, in spite of all the mistakes he and his administration made, did this during the surge (until the surge the Bush administration failed at this as well). It was clear to the American people what the surge was trying to accomplish and what would count as success.
If all the Obama administration is trying to is lower American casualties and avoid negative public opinion then it should simply find a way to get out, as that clearly signals that the US no longer has a strategic interest in Afghanistan. If it determines that the Taliban no longer poses a strategic threat to the US but that al Qaeda does, then Biden's plan makes sense. If it believes, as I do, that the two problems are linked and success will require dealing with both the Taliban and al Qaeda, that McChrystal's COIN strategy is the way to go.
The Obama administration must decide what its desired strategic outcome in Afghanistan is, and then listen to the military about what force package will be necessary to achieve the desired outcome. Letting politicians determine the force levels and then requiring the military to design strategy around those levels is doomed to fail.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Yesterday was a bad day on the Iran front for President Obama. In spite of his magnanimous gesture of dismantling the ABM system scheduled to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia doesn't seem to be willing to cooperate with the US on the imposition of serious sanctions on Iran if Iran refuses or cannot demonstrate that its nuclear program is peaceful. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Larov stated that Russia believes the threat of sanctions is "counterproductive" and that, for now, continued negotiations are the only appropriate strategy. Even more problematic than the statement itself is the fact that it came in the midst of a visit to Russia by Secretary of State Clinton who, despite the prospect of better relations and Russian cooperation following the ABM decision, failed in her efforts to win promises of support for sanctions.
As I wrote a month ago, it was foolish of the US to scrap the ABM system without extracting any serious pledges from Russia about Iran. Iran's nuclear ambitions is one of the two or three most serious security issues faced not only by the US but by the international community and trading the ABM system for Russian cooperation should have been a no-brainer.
But this also demonstrates why it was so foolish of the Nobel committee to award the 2009 peace prize to President Obama. In an unprecedented defense of its decision, the committee said yesterday that it awarded the prize to Obama in part due to his decision to "scale down a Bush-era proposal for an anti-missile shield in Europe." But its far too early to say what the consequences of that decision will be. Perhaps the weakened commitment to the eastern European NATO countries will strengthen Russia and lead to more scenarios like the Russian invasion of Georgia? Perhaps Russia will continue to impede international and American efforts to sanction Iran and prevent it from proliferating? The move to replace an ABM system with an theater-based missile defense system in and of itself was not one that inherently increased or decreased the likelihood of peace. So far, the Obama administration seems to have missed a golden opportunity to use that decision to make progress in keeping Iran non-nuclear. What other results are yet to come?
Monday, October 12, 2009
President Obama is rapidly approaching what may prove to be the most important and defining decision of his presidency: What to do in Afghanistan. The military has presented Obama with a number of possible plans, but most sources agree that General Stanley McChrystal has told Obama that an increase of 40,000 US troops in Afghanistan is the minimum number necessary to prevent the collapse of the US-led effort there. If this option is selected, the thinking seems to be that US troops would begin implementing COIN (counter-insurgency strategy) along the lines of what was done in Iraq after the surge: Extend protection for Afghan citizens in an effort to separate them away from the Taliban and allow for the creation of government institutions and the provision of services (this report from Reuters does a nice job of illustrating what will be required for the COIN strategy to work). If the US's goal is to stabilize Afghanistan and continue moving Afghanistan down the road to democracy, most analysts see adopting a COIN strategy as the only way.
McChrystal also offered the president two other options: A troop increase of more than 40,000 (the more the better to implement COIN) and an option of no troop increase. Implicit in the third options (it very well have been made explicit, but we don't have the details of the meeting yet) is that sending anything less than 40,000 more soliders isn't worth the effort or the lives as it won't create a large enough force to protect and stabilize the country. These proposals come at a time when the US is hotly debating which strategy should be adopted in Afghanistan. One side, led by Vice President Biden is urging the president not to push for a large increase in troop presence and to focus on hunting down al Qaeda in Pakistan instead of continuing to attempt to stabilize Afghanistan. The other side, mainly the military (Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton have yet to reveal their preferences) continues to argue for a classic COIN strategy and the tens of thousands of troops that will require.
Increasingly, however, the Obama administration seems to be moving towards focusing on al Qaeda instead of Afghanistan. And while there has been no formal (or at least public) decision on McChrystal's proposal, Obama has begun backing away from his previous position of Afghanistan as a "necessary war." Last week, a senior administration official told the Associated Press that "Obama is prepared to accept some involvement in Afghanistan's political future and appears inclined to send only as many more U.S. troops as needed to keep at bay."
The problems in Afghanistan certainly make it easier to move away from the COIN option to a focus on al Qaeda. Between the magnitude of the electoral fraud rampant in the August elections becoming increasingly apparent on one hand and reports of the failure of US efforts to create a functioning, legitimate government on on the other, it becomes harder and harder for Obama to justify sending thousands of American men and women to fight and die for the corrupt and inefficient Karzai regime.
The dilemma facing Obama demonstrates the difficulties the US has pursing its foreign policy, particularly in the long term. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, "a democracy finds it difficult to coordinate the details of a great undertaking and to fix on some plan and carry it through with determination in spite of obstacles. ...[T]he tendency of [the United States is] to obey its feelings rather than its calculations and to abandon a long-matured plan to satisfy a momentary passion...." Just last month, Obama was referring to Afghanistan as a "war of necessity" and warning that "those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again" referring to the nexus between al Qaeda and the Taliban.
By itself al Qaeda does not pose a truly serious threat to the US and its interests. Since the loss of its base in Afghanistan, al Qaeda has had difficulty carrying out any significant operations of any real complexity (the Spanish train bombing and the London bus bombings, while horrifying, do not represent the kind of sophisticated operation that al Qaeda would like to be implementing; the London attack in particular had very little strategic payoff). But the Taliban, in fact, both by itself and in conjunction with al Qaeda do, in fact, represent a significant threat.
First, the Taliban in Afghanistan is rapidly increasing in numbers, growing from 7,000 to an estimated 25,000 in just three years, and is becoming more and more independent from its Pakistan branch. If the US fails to deal with this insurgency and backs away from the Karzai government (or whichever government is running Afghanistan), it is more than possible that the Taliban would reclaim control of the country. Setting aside the human rights disaster that would inevitably ensue, al Qaeda would likely quickly return from the mountainous regions of Pakistan and reestablish its more centralized organizational structure that enabled it to carry out the 9/11 attacks.
Secondly, the Pakistan branch of the Taliban is posing a serious problem to Pakistan. It wasn't all that long ago that the Taliban was threatening the stability of the Pakistani government, prompting fears over the security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. Increasingly, the Taliban is attacking Pakistani nuclear facilities, and the recent attack against an army headquarters in Rawalpindi makes clear the growing capability and sophistication of the Taliban's military power.
One could make the case about Afghanistan that the US has no real interest in the government there and that containing the Taliban and focusing on al Qaeda would be a better strategy. But when Pakistan is added into the equation, the porous border makes it vital that the US do more to root out the Taliban in Afghanistan itself. If the US backs away, both the Taliban and al Qaeda currently in Pakistan will return to Afghanistan and continue their attacks against both Pakistan and the world from relative safety.
Merely focusing on al Qaeda in Pakistan or on the governance of Afghanistan is too short-sighted. The nexus of the Taliban in both countries, the relationship with al Qaeda and the potential fragility of Pakistan make this a very serious problem and one of considerable importance to US national interest and global security. Obama needs to remember why he argued for some time that Afghanistan, and not Iraq, was the proper focus of the war on terror.
But even if he chooses to focus on al Qaeda, he needs to make a decision soon and in a decisive manner. The current dithering is rapidly undermining domestic public and political opinion which will, in turn, make it more difficult to sustain whichever option Obama picks. When the commander-in-chief determines that American soldiers need to be sent into harm's way, he needs to clearly justify his rationale to the American people and Congress.
Friday, October 09, 2009
But wait, you say...it's too early to judge these outcomes. His decision to terminate the ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic may yet work out, especially if it gets Russia to bear down on Iran; he's still deciding what to do in Afghanistan and it will surely be several years before we know the outcome there; the trade war with China won't develop as China realizes that domestic protection is just part of normal politics. But that's exactly the point. It's far too early to determine that Obama deserves a peace prize. And everyone knows it.
It's even possible the Nobel will complicate Obama's efforts. Obama is not the president or leader of the world; he is the president of the United States and acts in the interests of the US, not the world. Sometimes those interests are aligned, but sometimes they aren't. But now his policies have the imprimatur of the international community: What's good for the US is good for the world. How will that affect negotiations with Iran or North Korea or Russia or the Palestinians?
So, if Obama hasn't actually done anything to deserve it, then he must have been given the award on one of two (or possibly both) criteria: What he plans/hopes to accomplish in his presidency or that Nobel committee likes him and is especially glad that he's not George Bush. Officially, the award was given for Obama's work to create a "new climate in international politics" and his work on .
But look at the recent list of winners. 2001: The UN and Kofi Annan. 2002: Jimmy Carter. 2005: The International Atomic Energy Agency and Mohamed ElBaradei. 2007: Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A laundry list of hopers, wishers, and dreamers who have actually accomplished little.
The problem with the committee awarding the prize to those striving towards peace, rather than those who's work has actually accomplished anything is the overt politicization that has emerged with the prize. Yes, the committee has given the prize to many truly deserving people: Martti Ahtisaari, Wangari Muta Maathai, and Muhammad Yunus among the recent winners. And these are exactly the kind of people who should be winning the award. Activists, not politicians.
Additionally, who knows what will happen? Maybe Obama will be forced to attack Iran, or allow Israel to do it. Maybe at some point in his administration, as most US presidents do at some point in their administrations, Obama will decide to use force to advance US interests at the expense of international opinion. Awarding the prize on intentions and wishes is exceedingly dangerous given the volatile and complicated nature of running the most powerful country in the world.
Could the committee not have found someone more deserving? Like Morgan Tsvangirai (OK, he's a politician, but he is literally struggling day and night to transform Zimbabwe and end the reign of one of the world's worst dictators), like someone in Iran leading the protests against the regime, like someone in Iraq working to reconcile Sunnis and Shia, like someone in Afghanistan risking reprisals from the Taliban to educate Afghani girls? Like a Chinese human rights activist?
Obama's best move would be to turn down the prize, and ask the committee to reconsider him once he's succeeded in his policy initiatives. But that's not going to happen.
This is an embarrassment that taints the prize beyond repair.
Friday, October 02, 2009
How should we measure success in the talks with Iran that begin today? I propose the following sliding scale.
1. Breathtaking, mission accomplished victory: Iran agrees to abandon its nuclear weapons program, submit to a rigorous verification and safeguards regime, and open substantive dialogue on its support for global terrorism. If this is achieved, President Obama would be a shoo-in for the Nobel Peace Prize. Chance of this happening: I would guess near zero.And in an op-ed in yesterday's Boston Globe, Nicholas Burns argues that the revelation of the previously secret uranium enrichment facility near Qom "gives the United States the most important opportunity in years to pressure Tehran to forgo its nuclear weapons ambitions:"
2. Demonstrable and significant progress: Iran's continued recalcitrance is identified early by all the relevant players, especially Russia and China, and the UN Security Council responds within a few weeks with a substantial ramping up of de facto sanctions on Iran -- sanctions that involve the effective participation of Iran's chief trading partners, the EU, Russia, China, and India. Chance of this happening: I would guess not zero, but maybe just a 1-in-10 chance.
3. No progress beyond what the Bush team already achieved: Iran's continued recalcitrance provokes a range of global rhetorical censure ranging from Chinese tut-tutting to American (or French or British) bluster. The United States unilaterally increases sanctions pressure, but only incrementally because U.S. unilateral leverage over Iran is minimal. Europeans agree to review their options for an incremental increase of sanctions pressure themselves, but do not commit irrevocably to a ramp up in pressure. Russians and Chinese acknowledge that Iran has not been forthcoming, but block further sanctions on the grounds that these would be counterproductive. Chance of this happening: I would guess this is the most likely outcome, so maybe a 4-in-10 chance.
4. Less progress than what the Bush team already achieved: Iran's continued recalcitrance even after the U.S. has played its "hole card" of the evidence of Iranian duplicity concerning the second enrichment site splits the international coalition and key members, likely Russia or China, blame the United States for its mishandling of the negotiations. Chance of this happening: I fear this is the next most-likely-outcome, so maybe a 3-in-10 chance.
5. False progress is achieved: Desperate to show progress, the United States accepts a fig-leaf arrangement, or merely declares the negotiations fruitful when they are not, and so there is neither true progress towards Iranian relinquishment of their nuclear program nor increased leverage imposed on them to make a deal in the next round more likely. Chance of this happening: I don't think this is as likely as some Obama critics think, but there is a non-trivial possibility of this happening, perhaps barely a 2-in-10 chance.
6. U.S. capitulation: Desperate for a deal, the United States follows the advice of some and signs a grand bargain agreement that "resolves" the issue by preemptively conceding to all of Iran's demands, including the demand that the world community stop complaining about the Iranian nuclear weapons program. Chance of this happening: not likely, probably only marginally more likely than outcome #1.
Prior to any argument about what will or will not result from the current negotiations must be an understanding of why Iran wants nuclear weapons (assuming, contrary to Iran's claims, it is in fact developing its nuclear energy program with the eventual goal of weaponization). Only if we understand Iran's interests and preferences can we even hope to make progress in talks.
...the United States has significantly greater credibility to take advantage of Iran’s mendacity and to lead an international coalition toward comprehensive sanctions should talks fail. But, Obama must now turn to a more tough-minded policy. He should ratchet up the pressure on the Iranian government by moving from a strategy of engagement to one that combines continued negotiations, tough new inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the threat of much more powerful sanctions.
So, why would Iran want nuclear weapons? I can think of at least five reasons (none of which are necessarily mutually exclusive): for defense and deterrence, for aggression, to ensure its regional power, as a bargaining chip, and as a key to international status. Any chance of getting Iran to cease developing nuclear weapons depend on which these is the primary motivation. Let's consider each in turn.
Defense/deterrence: It shouldn't come as any surprise that states see nuclear weapons as the only means by which to defend themselves against the United States. Going back to the aftermath of the first Gulf War, an high-ranking Indian military officer who conducted India's after-action report noted that the first lesson of the war should be that if your national interests may run afoul of the US, be sure to get a nuclear weapon. Clearly, Iran looks at what happened to Iraq and Afghanistan and worries about what the US could do to Iran if the US so desired. Iran's national and regional interests obviously are often in conflict (although not necessarily as much as people assume) with those of the US; thus, Iran very well could be seeking nuclear weapons to prevent the US from attempting regime change. It wouldn't even necessarily take a large arsenal to deter the US. War games in which I participated when I worked in the defense industry in the mid-1990s concluded that a credible threat against even a close US ally (like Turkey or Israel) could be enough to deter the US from attacking. If this is the primary reason Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon, there is little the international community will be able to do to prevent it as nuclear capability is essentially an end unto itself. There's no other way Iran could really develop enough military capability to deter the US.
Aggression: As many in Israel seem to fear, its certainly possible that Iran is seeking WMD for aggressive reasons. Perhaps it wants to incinerate Israel, perhaps it merely wants to be able to employ a "keep out" strategy against the US in the event it embarks on a more conventional military adventure. If this is motivating Iran's nuclear ambitions, there is a better chance of getting Iran to cease, unless it simply wants to attack Israel out of some millenarian concern. In that case, Iran would be undeterrable and it's probably impossible to move Iran off of the path towards nukes. But, if Iran sees nuclear weapons as merely another weapon, or as a deterrent cover to launch a conventional war, that suggests some kind of cost-benefit analysis that can be applied to change Iran's assessment. If Iran can be made to see aggression as too costly or as unlikely to succeed, nuclear weapons become less appealing. It doesn't make for a high likelihood of success, but the door isn't shut either.
Regional power: Perhaps Iran was nuclear weapons to cement itself as the dominant power in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. Like the aggression option, this implies that while Iran may have a strong interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, it's doing so as a means to a different end. And, like in the aggression option, it's then possible to change Iran's calculations. Not easy, but possible.
Bargaining chip: If Iran's nuclear program is really designed to be used as a bargaining chip, this obviously presents the best scenario for getting Iran to give up the program. The problem in this scenario is, of course, determining what Iran wants.
International status: As India long argued, the key to being accepted as a serious player on the world stage is nuclear weapon status. Perhaps Iran feels slighted and is seeking a nuclear weapon to push its way into the highest levels of international politics. In this scenario, the question becomes whether Iran can get that status and respect without developing nuclear weapons. India certainly never believed it could.
As I see things, I believe Iran's primary motivation is the first one on the list: defense and deterrence. If this is correct, it means both good and bad news. The bad news is that it will probably be impossible to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. If Iran has decided that the best, if not the only, way to ensure its national security is to proliferate, it's hard to imagine that decision being altered by any combination of international sanctions or pressure (especially the kind of sanctions or pressure likely to emerge from a disparate coalition of states with unaligned interests).
The good news, however, is that Iran proliferating may not be such a problem. If Iran's main motivation is defense, proliferating may in fact stabilize the regional situation, as a state not fearful for its continued existence can be a more rational and well-behaved state. Indeed as Thomas P. M. Barnett notes:
if history is any guide, both the United States and Israel are looking at the first real chance for a durable regional security architecture to emerge (now that you should expect a nuclear Saudi Arabia and Turkey to show up at the negotiating table, too). Yes, the hotheads on all sides seem desperate to freak out over this prospect, but, again, read your history: With the exceptions of our allies in Britain and France, the U.S. has looked down upon every rising power to ever get the bomb as constituting a loose canon capable of all manner of nefarious acts and strategic stupidity. And yet we're the only one that's ever pulled the trigger.