By Bret Stephens
Quietly within the foreign-policy machinery of the Obama administration—and quite openly in foreign-policy circles outside it—the idea is taking root that a nuclear Iran is probably inevitable and that the United States and its allies must begin to shift their attention from forestalling the outcome to preparing for its aftermath. According to this line of argument, the failure of the administration’s engagement efforts in 2009, followed by the likely failure of any effective sanctions efforts this year, allows for no other option but the long-term containment and deterrence of Iran, along the lines of the West’s policy toward the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. As for the possibility of a U.S. or an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, this is said to be no option at all: at best, say the advocates of containment, such strikes would merely delay the regime’s nuclear programs while giving it an alibi to consolidate its power at home and cause mayhem abroad.
Whatever else might be said of this analysis, it certainly does not lack for influential proponents. “Deterrence worked with madmen like Mao, and with thugs like Stalin, and it will work with the calculating autocrats of Tehran,” writes Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria. In a Foreign Affairs essay titled “After Iran Gets the Bomb,” analysts James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh echo that claim, saying that “even if Washington fails to prevent Iran from going nuclear, it can contain and mitigate the consequences.” Another believer is Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser, who argues that while Iran “may be dangerous, assertive and duplicitous… there is nothing in their history to suggest they are suicidal.”
As for the Obama administration, it insists, as Vice President Joseph Biden put it in March, that “the United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, period.” But it sings a different tune in off-the-record settings. “The administration appears to have all but eliminated the military option,” writes the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, while in the New York Times David Sanger reports that the administration “is deep in containment now.” In January, Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired off a confidential memo to the White House that, according to the Times, “calls for new thinking about how the United States might contain Iran’s power if it decided to produce a weapon.” If the Times’s reporting is accurate, it suggests how little faith the administration has that a fresh round of sanctions will persuade Tehran to alter its nuclear course.
But how sound, really, is the case for containment, and do its prospective benefits outweigh its probable risks? The matter deserves closer scrutiny before containment becomes the default choice of an administration that has foreclosed other options and run out of better ideas.
Superficially, the case for containment looks remarkably good. The concept has a distinguished American pedigree; it has room for tactical, diplomatic, and strategic maneuver; it was practiced over many decades by Republican and Democratic administrations alike; it suggests a counsel of mature patience against naïve calls for accommodation and impetuous calls for military action. And, of course, it ultimately delivered the (mostly bloodless) surrender of the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
Perhaps the most convincing case put forward in favor of the containment of a nuclear Iran is that it is the best of a bad set of options. Many of containment’s current advocates are former supporters of engagement with Iran. Having invested their hopes in President Obama’s “outstretched hand,” they now understand that Iran’s hostility to the United States was not merely a reaction to the policies of the Bush administration but rather is fundamental to the regime’s identity. The Islamic republic, it turns out, really means what it says when it chants “Death to America.” It believes—and not unwisely—that more contacts with the U.S. and more openness at home will pave the way only to a kind of Iranian glasnost that is as dangerous to the regime as outright rebellion.
The failure of the administration’s engagement efforts, however, has by no means done anything to convince advocates of containment that preemptive military strikes offer a better course. They entertain grave doubts that a U.S. strike would set Iran’s programs back very far. That goes double for an Israeli attack, since Israel may not have the capacity for undertaking a sustained series of strikes. And any attack, American or Israeli, would be met by some sort of Iranian reprisal, the nature or severity of which nobody can predict. But several nightmare scenarios are often trotted out: that Iran mines the Straits of Hormuz or attacks shipping in the Persian Gulf, perhaps tripling the price of a barrel of oil overnight; that Iran redoubles its efforts to destabilize Iraq, undermining the gains we have made there, while increasing its support for the Taliban; that Iran launches ballistic missiles at Israel while seizing control of Lebanon through Hezbollah, and so on.
A larger worry about the wisdom of military strikes concerns the political consequences within Iran itself. It is a concern shared by at least some people traditionally identified with the neoconservative camp, such as historian Bernard Lewis and analyst Michael Ledeen. In this analysis, any attack would give the regime what Lewis has called “the gift of Iranian patriotism,” a gift they have never really possessed and have only further squandered since last year’s bloody post-election fracas. Yet many Iranians who despise the regime, including the most prominent figures of the Green movement, nonetheless support its nuclear program and would rally behind the leadership in the event of an attack. That deeply felt if knee-jerk nationalist impulse—traditionally powerful in Iranian society—could spell the death of the Greens and thus any hope that regime change could, over time, happen from within.
Advocates of containment also see a positive side to the policy. Containment has a way of locking in pro-U.S. alliances against a common enemy for the long haul. That was true during the Cold War—think of NATO, SEATO, and even CENTO, the Central Treaty Organization that for a few years brought together Britain, the U.S., Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and, briefly, Iraq. In the case of Iran, advocates of containment believe that the antipathy the Shiite regime elicits throughout the region could help smooth relations between Israel and such Sunni powers as Saudi Arabia, and thus perhaps also bring about more favorable conditions for an Israeli-Palestinian accord. The same goes, arguably, for Iraq in terms of its still-fraught relations with the rest of the Arab world.
Another alleged virtue of containment is that the policy is relatively stable and predictable. So long as certain expectations are fulfilled—defense pacts, diplomatic support, credible expectations of military action in case of war—friends and foes alike know where they stand. This also supposedly gives parties to a conflict a strong incentive to avoid outright confrontation and instead seek marginal advantages. At the same time, it allows internal developments to take their course, which in Iran’s case is presumed to be the evolution of the Green movement into a robust and broad-based opposition campaign that might, like Solidarity in Poland, wear the regime down.
But wouldn’t a nuclear Iran be able to break out of the containment “box”? Not at all, say the policy’s proponents. While a nuclear Iran might initially feel emboldened to throw its weight around its neighborhood, it would, they say, quickly discover that a nuclear arsenal is more of an insurance policy against foreign attack than it is the strategic equivalent of venture capital. “Paradoxically, a weapon that was designed to ensure Iran’s regional preeminence could further alienate it from its neighbors and prolong indefinitely the presence of U.S. troops on its periphery,” write Lindsay and Takeyh in their Foreign Affairs essay. “Nuclear empowerment could well thwart Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.”
As for the idea that Iran might actually use its weapons, containment advocates note that nuclear states—even ones as erratic as Maoist China or present-day North Korea—aren’t so crazy as to seek anything but political advantage from their bombs. Nor do the advocates believe that a nuclear Iran will necessarily set off a wave of nuclear proliferation among Middle Eastern states. “If Israel’s estimated arsenal of 200 warheads… has not prompted Egypt to develop its own nukes,” writes Zakaria, “it’s not clear that one Iranian bomb would do so.”
All this makes for a powerful case for containment. Yet it is far from being convincing.