Commentary Magazine


Iran: The Narrowing of Options Continues

In a superb article posted today at the Heritage Foundation website, CONTENTIONS regular Ted Bromund and James Phillips outline the costs and difficulties of containing a nuclear Iran. An alternate title for their piece might be “The Unlikelihood of Containing a Nuclear Iran.” Their analysis suggests this conclusion: if we accept the containment course because it looks easier and more convenient, there will be little difference between the approach we’re using now to keep Iran denuclearized and what we would do to contain an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. The success of our strategy to date is a good indicator of how well containment would work.

The timing of the article is excellent. One of the key factors in our strategy for either of the two objectives — discouraging nuclearization or containing Iran if that doesn’t work — is maintaining a web of alliances that encircles Iran and enables us to execute options like sanctions or military action. In that regard, facts on the ground have had a negative trend in the past year. The Persian Gulf nations from which the U.S. might operate strike aircraft have been hedging their bets with Iran and announcing their policies against such U.S. operations. Regional assistance with sanctions enforcement has been selective, intermittent, and alibi-filled; there is little sentiment among Iran’s nearest neighbors for good-faith efforts beyond the letter of the UN resolutions.

As change permeates the Arab world, the geographic posture from which to execute tougher policies against Iran is likely to erode further. This needn’t be inevitable, but given the trend of U.S. policy, it’s probable. Last week, the Saudis accepted a remarkably timed and unprecedented port visit by Iranian warships in the Red Sea, a move that followed the earlier — equally unprecedented — visit of Chinese warships to Jeddah in late November 2010.

The Saudis’ new ecumenism in naval relations has yet to result in a resumption of the U.S. port visits that were once relatively common, before the attacks on the U.S. barracks in Dhahran in 1996 and on USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. The shift in the Saudi posture, meanwhile, adds a new wrinkle to the narrowing of America’s options against Iran. Israel’s options are being narrowed as well. In the past month, the Saudi cost-benefit calculation for allowing Israel to use Saudi air space has tilted toward the cost side.

The IDF’s option to send ships and submarines through the Suez Canal has also taken a hit with Mubarak’s ouster. Three years ago, Israel might reasonably have anticipated coordinating a sea-based campaign with air routes through Jordan and Saudi Arabia or through Turkey. Today all three approaches have been rendered either impossible or much less probable due to the political shifts in the intervening years. Conventional attack options are being squeezed out for both the U.S. and Israel — which should focus our thinking wonderfully on the benefits of popular regime-change in Iran.