Yesterday Mahmoud Ahmadinejad formally began his second term as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. But for Ahmadinejad, what should be a celebratory moment of transition now serves as yet another reminder of the turmoil that engulfed Iran following the disputed June 12 elections.

The occasion only intensifies the unceasing calls for reform that collectively represent the greatest challenge to the regime since the 1979 revolution.

Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now preside over a regime facing a stubborn, emboldened opposition movement led by some of the most powerful figures of the revolutionary establishment. That the regime has resorted to holding public trials of dissidents indicates a level of desperation also evident in the recent quarreling between Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei over the former’s choice for Vice President.

Analysts are divided as to how the U.S. should respond to the evolving crisis. Many believe that diplomacy with Iran, a hostile government that has spurned numerous international overtures and spewed hateful rhetoric, will only give the regime more time to further its nuclear ambitions. Still others believe that reasonable engagement will place even greater pressure on an already crumbling regime and rob hard-liners of one of their most potent political weapons: the threat of foreign intervention.

Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek accords to the latter view and advocates, quite simply, doing nothing:

The best strategy is to do nothing. Hillary Clinton implied as much when she put off the question of negotiating with Iran. In fact, the ball is in Tehran’s court anyway. In April, the West presented Iran with an offer of talks that is serious and generous. Let Khamenei and Ahmadinejad figure out how to respond, as they keep claiming they will. The West faces constraints, but they face many more.

Some argue that this allows Iran to inch closer to a bomb. But the best way to blunt that threat–which is still not imminent–has always been deterrence and containment, a policy that worked against Stalin and Mao and works against North Korea, a far more unstable and bizarre regime.

In contrast, John Bolton, writing in the Wall Street Journal, asserts that conducting diplomacy while uranium enrichment continues only grants more time for Iran to achieve its likely goal of building a nuclear weapon. According to Bolton, Obama’s policies will force Israel to preemptively halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions through military strikes, possibly within the year:

Mr. Obama has no new strategic thinking on Iran. He vaguely promises to offer the country the carrot of diplomacy—followed by an empty threat of sanctions down the road if Iran does not comply with the U.S.’s requests. This is precisely the European Union’s approach, which has failed for over six years.

There’s no reason Iran would suddenly now bow to Mr. Obama’s diplomatic efforts, especially after its embarrassing election in June. So with diplomacy out the door, how will Iran be tamed?

While Bolton portrays the impending weaponization of Iran’s enriched uranium as the most important consideration for U.S. policy, the editorial board at the Christian Science Monitor argues that the disintegrating legitimacy of Iran’s governing theocracy is a far more compelling development:

Three clocks are ticking for the rattled rulers of Iran.

One clock, which they see in their favor, is a countdown to the day, perhaps a year or so away, when the country’s scientists gain the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon.

A second counts the time until a September deadline, set by President Obama, for Tehran to respond to an offer of talks on the nuclear issue or face a stern response.

But it is the third clock, one that will influence the other two, that matters most to the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It measures the moments until their legitimacy runs out. It is counted in the number of popular demonstrations since a flawed June 12 election, the instances of power struggles among the divided rulers, and the occurrences of stinging criticisms from respected Islamic clerics.

The editors of the Christian Science Monitor, along with Zakaria, clearly favor President Obama’s policy of circumspect criticism coupled with diplomatic dialogue. But the fundamental difference between these authors and Bolton lies in their starkly divided judgments about the rationality of the Iranian regime. If you believe that the government could respond to internal or external political pressure according to its self-interest, then you would probably favor Obama’s rapprochement.

Alternatively, if you adhere to the notion that Iran is led by a government largely motivated by ideological fanaticism and a messianic belief in a global Islamic struggle, then like Bolton, you would disavow all conciliatory gestures and possibly even advocate the preemptive use of force. The question then is whether Iran can be compelled to halt its nuclear program through diplomacy based on self-interest and mutual respect, or rather some sort of punitive measure short of military strikes, such as sanctions.

While Bolton is right to point out that diplomacy may very well fail, military strikes against Iran, no matter how far they regress its nuclear ambitions, will do irreparable harm to the opposition movement and assure the continued rule of a decrepit regime. The fact that thousands of Iranians actively oppose their government, with former revolutionary leaders now occupying central roles in the opposition, rebuts the simplistic notion of a country intent on sowing regional destruction.

As for sanctions and other non-military pressure points, David Sanger of the NYTimes reports that the Obama administration is considering additional sanctions targeting Iran’s dependence on imported gasoline. His editorial colleague, Roger Cohen, points out that such sanctions would require the cooperation of key allies such as Russia and China, both of whom have little interest helping the U.S. with its foreign policy dilemmas. 

Of course, any proposed measure must be evaluated in light of Iran’s active support for terrorist groups and the threats made against the state of Israel. Bolton is right to question the efficacy of traditional diplomacy and to point out that the Iranian government has enacted brutality not only upon its own citizens but also against innocents beyond its borders. His urgent tone also underscores what few political leaders will acknowledge publicly: that there is a growing likelihood of a nuclear or near-nuclear Iran and that no policy option exists to guarantee that Iran never reaches this status.

However, the heroism shown on the streets of Tehran should not be answered with bombs and bullets. We should not imperil such extraordinary courage.

Brendan Boundy is an intern with the New Atlanticist.  He is pursuing a master’s degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.