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The Folly of Containing Iran

Jonathan Tobin outlined a number of objections and criticisms of Senator Rand Paul’s foreign policy address at Heritage, in which Paul, among other things, embraced a containment option toward a nuclear Iran. While containment is often bantered about, there are two main problems with containment which undercut anyone’s ability to contain Iran.

First, containment is a military strategy, not simply a rhetorical strategy. Paul sought to cloak himself in the mantle of Reagan, but containment requires a Reaganesque military build-up. It requires basing around Iran more extensive than that now available to the United States, a more robust naval presence, prepositioning of arms and men, and the ability to defend facilities. For example, defense against mines requires not only minesweepers, but also shipyards capable of repairing damaged vessels, and surface-to-air missiles and troops to defend those shipyards. NATO was a cohesive element during the Cold War, but the Gulf Cooperation Council could hardly organize itself out of a paper bag if it involved tactical cooperation. Paul, like Obama, is willing to talk the talk, but unwilling to invest in the backbone of containment. That heightens the danger, since the Iranians—when they see U.S. commitment to containment doesn’t go far beyond rhetorical hot air—conclude that the United States is a paper tiger and can push the envelope too far.

A greater flaw is the broad over-generalization with which Paul, Chuck Hagel, and other self-described realists too often approach Iran. Iran is not a monolith, and ordinary Iranians would not be the ones to control any nuclear arsenal. Rather, command, control, and custody of an Iranian nuclear bomb would be in the hands not only of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but the most ideologically pure unit within that organization. That no one has precise insight into the ideological allegiance of the commanders who would possess the bomb will worry regional rulers a great deal. After all, it’s one thing to talk about hardliners and reformers when it comes to politicians, but it’s another thing to fly blind when it comes to the predilection of those who we actually would face.

The Iranian regime might not be suicidal, but the nightmare scenario where Cold War-style containment and deterrence breaks down is this: What happens if there’s an uprising in Iran, like the ones in 1999, 2001, or 2009 but, instead of crushing the protestors, some units at least of the security forces join the people in the street? After all, some American analysts suggest the Revolutionary Guards is no longer so revolutionary, so it follows that they might react to the same outrage to some spark as their friends and neighbors. If momentum builds to the point where regime collapse is inevitable—think Romania in 1989—then can anyone guarantee that the guardians of an Iranian nuke wouldn’t launch it to fulfill their genocidal ideology? After all, their regime is finished anyway, so why not? Under such circumstances, containment and deterrence breaks down. Until these problems are addressed, Paul’s discussions about containing Iran fall flat.



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