Commentary Magazine


Iran Cannot Be Contained

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.

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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.

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An Iran with nuclear weapons might behave as other nuclear powers have, but there are reasons to fear it would not. And the United States and its allies might succeed at containing it. But again, there are reasons to suspect they would not. No less important, it’s an open question whether even a policy of containment that did succeed—over many years and through various crises—would not exact a higher price on the U.S., its allies, and its interests than a series of military strikes that prevent Iran from going nuclear in the first place.

Today there is an odd tendency to think of the Cold War as a period during which containment served strategically as a stabilizing force abroad and politically as a clarifying one at home. In fact, containment exacted a staggering strategic, political, and human price. Nearly 100,000 Americans died in the Korean and Vietnam wars, both fought to enforce containment. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers stood guard in places like the Korean DMZ, Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie, and West Germany’s Fulda Gap. Trillions were spent on defense, intelligence, foreign aid, and prestige projects like the Apollo space program. And the U.S. repeatedly toed the nuclear brink during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the several crises over Berlin, and the Yom Kippur War.

Throughout all this, the U.S. was riven by intense domestic debates and public upheavals, not least during the Vietnam War. Containment was repeatedly attacked for its excessive reliance on nuclear deterrence and “brinksmanship” and its huge peacetime military expenditures, sometimes giving way to enfeebling periods of detente. Nor did containment prevent the Soviet Union from making steady geopolitical encroachments through the acquisition of client states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Western Europe was never entirely safe from Soviet political encroachments, either, given so-called Euro-Communist parties and a fellow-traveling “peace” movement.

That all this now seems to be largely forgotten is both remarkable and even amusing considering how often the same neoconservatives who are wary of a containment policy toward Iran are accused of being wistful for the Cold War. Of course Iran is not the Soviet Union, and the challenge it poses the U.S. is not on the global scale that was the USSR’s. But if comparisons with the Cold War are to be made, those comparisons must acknowledge what a complex, costly, and close-run thing containing the Soviet Union proved to be.

At the same time, it’s important to note the ways in which containing Iran would differ from the Cold War model. For starters, Soviet power was mostly symmetrical with America’s: “Regime change” against Stalin was never a serious option, nor did the U.S. have the means to stop Russia from developing nuclear weapons. Neither is necessarily the case with Iran today, where both military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities and a broader regime-change policy are feasible options—at least as long as Iran does not have nuclear weapons.

Then, too, the Soviet Union threatened the U.S. primarily and directly, a fact that did much to bolster American political will to persevere in the contest. By contrast, the threat a nuclear Iran would pose (at least until it acquires an ICBM capability) would be principally to countries other than the U.S., calling into question American readiness to sustain a containment policy for the long haul. “Why die for Danzig?” was the question advocates of accommodation with Hitler were fond of asking in the 1930s. Some Americans may soon be asking the same question about Doha or Dubai or Tel Aviv.

But the most important difference between the Soviet Union and Iran may be ideological. A credible case can be made that Communism is no less a faith than Islam and that Iran’s current leadership, like Soviet leaders of yore, knows how to temper true belief with pragmatic considerations. But Communism was also a materialist and (by its own lights) rationalist creed, with a belief in the inevitability of history but not in the afterlife. Marxist-Leninist regimes may be unmatched in their record of murderousness, but they were never great believers in the virtues of martyrdom.

That is not the case with Shiism, which has been decisively shaped by a cult of suffering and martyrdom dating to the murder of Imam Husayn—the Sayyed al-Shuhada, or Prince of Martyrs—in Karbala in the seventh century. The emphasis on martyrdom became all the more pronounced in Iran during its war with Iraq, when Tehran sent waves of child soldiers, some as young as 10, to clear out Iraqi minefields. As Hooman Majd writes in his book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, the boys were often led by a soldier mounted on a white horse in imitation of Husayn: “the hero who would lead them into their fateful battle before they met their God.” Tens of thousands of children died this way.

The martyrdom mentality factors into Iran’s nuclear calculus as well. In December 2001, former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—a man often described as a moderate and a pragmatist in the Western press—noted in his Qods (Jerusalem) Day speech that “if one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.”

Then there is the recent rise within Iran of an ultra-conservative sect that has sprung up around Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, an ayatollah who numbers Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad among his leading disciples. In 2005, Mesbah-Yazdi published a book openly calling for the acquisition of nuclear weapons. “Divine, messianic support has been the determining factor in the success of the Iranian regime during various trying periods,” he wrote. “We cannot be broken because of temporary difficulties.”

A year later, the influential cleric Mohsen Gharavian, another of Mesbah-Yazdi’s disciples, reportedly called for Iran not only to acquire but also to use nuclear weapons as a “countermeasure” against the U.S. and Israel. These are, of course, some of the more extreme voices in Iran, which are not necessarily authoritative. Still, Mesbah-Yazdi’s call to develop nuclear weapons is, in fact, precisely what the regime is doing for all its many denials, just as the increasingly repressive direction of Iranian politics squares with his long-held anti-reformist views.

All this suggests that a better comparison for Iran than the Soviet Union might be Japan of the 1930s and World War II—another martyrdom-obsessed, non-Western culture with global ambitions. It should call into question the view that for all its extremist rhetoric, Iran operates according to an essentially pragmatic estimate of its own interests. Ideology matters, not only on its terms but also in shaping the parameters within which the regime is prepared to exhibit flexibility and restraint. Ideology matters, too, in determining the kinds of gambles and sacrifices it is willing to make to achieve its aims. To suggest that there is some universal standard of “pragmatism” or “rationality” where Iran and the rest of the world can find common ground is a basic (if depressingly common) intellectual error. What Iran finds pragmatic and rational—support for militias and terrorist organizations abroad; a posture of unyielding hostility to the West; a nuclear program that flouts multiple UN resolutions—is rather different from the thinking that prevails in, say, the Netherlands.

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Put simply, Iran has demonstrated time and again that it is prepared to pay a steep price to realize its ambitions. The real questions are: What are those ambitions? What does the regime think it can afford? And how would the acquisition of a nuclear arsenal affect their calculus?

Advocates of containment generally believe that Iran’s ambitions are limited and regional. As Lindsay and Takeyh write,

the regime has survived because its rulers have recognized the limits of their power and have thus mixed revolutionary agitation with pragmatic adjustment. Although it has denounced the United States as the Great Satan and called for Israel’s obliteration, Iran has avoided direct military confrontation with either state. It has vociferously defended the Palestinians, but it has stood by as the Russians have slaughtered Chechens and the Chinese have suppressed Muslim Uighurs. Ideological purity, it seems, has been less important than seeking diplomatic cover from Russia and commercial activity with China. Despite their Islamist compulsions, the mullahs like power too much to be martyrs.

As for Iran’s nuclear bid, this too, Lindsay and Takeyh believe, is intended to serve limited aims:

During the presidencies of Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami, nuclear weapons were seen as tools of deterrence against the United States and Saddam Hussein’s regime, among others. The more conservative current ruling elite… sees them as a critical means of ensuring Iran’s preeminence in the region. … And this may be all the more the case now that Iran is engulfed in the worst domestic turmoil it has known in years: these days, the regime seems to be viewing its quest for nuclear self-sufficiency as a way to revive its own political fortunes.

This analysis, however, omits a few key facts. Iran has been waging war against Israel for decades via Hezbollah and Hamas. Iran also had a direct operational role in the bombings of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and of the Jewish community center there in 1994. The man chiefly responsible for the last of those attacks, Ahmad Vahidi, is today Iran’s defense minister. Iran has also carried out high–profile assassinations of its enemies on European soil; taken British sailors hostage; put U.S., Canadian, and French nationals on trial (and in jail) on patently bogus charges; and, famously, imposed a death sentence on British novelist Salman Rushdie.

Moreover, Iran’s seizure of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 was a direct attack on sovereign U.S. territory and an act of war by any legal standard. Iran almost certainly had a hand in the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, in which 241 American servicemen perished, while the FBI has long believed that Iran was also responsible for the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing that killed another 19 Americans. Then there was the war in Iraq, during which Iran did little to disguise the fact that it supplied Shiite militias, and perhaps also Sunni terrorist groups, with sophisticated, armor-piercing munitions responsible for the deaths of scores, perhaps hundreds, of U.S. soldiers.

Iran is thus very far from being the pragmatic and mostly circumspect power depicted by advocates of containment. On the contrary, the regime has stood out since its earliest days for its willingness to pick fights with powerful enemies, to undertake terrorist strikes at great range, to court international opprobrium and moral outrage, to test international diplomatic patience, and to raise the stakes every time the world seemed ready to come to terms. In short, it has pursued policies that have seemed almost calculated to enshrine its status as a global pariah.

Why has it done this? Much as containment advocates would discount the fact, Iran’s leadership remains faithful to the regime’s founding principles. “We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah,” said the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1980. “For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam remains triumphant in the rest of the world.” More than a quarter-century later, Ahmadinejad would send a letter to President Bush that would sound a similar theme. “Those with insight can already hear the sounds of the shattering and fall of the ideology and thoughts of the Liberal democratic system,” he wrote. “We increasingly see that people around the world are flocking towards a main focal point—that is the Almighty God. … My question for you is: ‘Do you not want to join them?’”

These ideas may sound deranged to us, but it would be foolish not to give them their due. Like other revolutionary regimes—the Nazis, the Bolsheviks, and, let’s face it, the Americans—the Iranian regime makes a philosophical claim, a claim it believes has relevance not only for Iranians and Muslims but also for all mankind. In this sense Iran, as a country, amounts to little more than an accident of geography and culture. What matters to this regime, what sustains and motivates it, is a set of ideas about justice that is bound by neither geography nor culture.

No wonder the Obama administration and its allies in Europe have had such a difficult time trying to get the regime to see reason; by the regime’s lights, it is the rest of the world that fails to see reason, because the rest of the world is adhering to an inequitable and self-serving international system. No wonder, too, that the regime has pressed forward with its ideas for reordering that system by whatever means it has at its disposal; in the absence of those ideas, the revolution would be a failure even if the regime itself managed to survive. To desist from its efforts to seek Israel’s destruction, or maintain a confrontational stance toward the West, or build a bomb is not simply something the regime will not do. Rather, it cannot do it, lest it betray its deepest purposes.

It is for this reason that the regime has consistently been willing to take apparently reckless risks for the sake of its objectives—and would most likely take many more such risks if it had a nuclear arsenal at its disposal. Then again, it also has learned something from a 30-year experience of watching its enemies routinely back away from confrontation. This was true of the Carter administration vis-à-vis the embassy hostages, and of the Reagan administration vis-à-vis the hostages in Lebanon. It was true of Israel’s failure to deliver the coup de grace against Hezbollah in 2006, and of the failure of the Bush administration to avenge the murder of its soldiers in Iraq or greenlight an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2008.

Above all, it has been true of the West’s collective failure to stop Iran’s nuclear programs in their tracks. As of this writing, the U.S. can point to three UN Security Council resolutions that rebuke Iran for its nuclear deceptions and impose relatively trivial sanctions. But Iran can also note with satisfaction that it is mainly the West that has been in retreat, allowing Iran to cross one supposed red line after another without consequence. As Ahmadinejad noted last December: “A few years ago, they [the West] said we had to completely stop all our nuclear activities. Now look where we are today.”

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The combination of Iranian aggressiveness and Western diffidence has consequences for how a containment strategy would play out against a nuclear Iran. Behavior, after all, is largely a function of experience: why would a nuclear Iran, emboldened after successfully defying years of Western threats and sanctions, believe that the U.S. was seriously prepared to enforce this or that red line for the sake of containment? More likely, the U.S. would be at continual pains trying to restrain its allies, Israel above all, from responding too forcefully against Iranian provocations, lest they “destabilize” the region.

Consider also the red lines that Lindsay and Takeyh say would be essential for a policy of containment to work. Washington, they believe, would have to “publicly pledge to retaliate by any means it chooses if Iran used nuclear weapons against Israel”; it would have to tell Tehran that it “would strike preemptively, with whatever means it deems necessary, if Iran ever placed its nuclear forces on alert”; and it “should hold Tehran responsible for any nuclear transfer, whether authorized or not.”

Merely to list these conditions underscores the risks the U.S. would be required to run to enforce a containment policy. And given its habits of provocation, Iran would almost certainly be inclined to test America’s mettle at the earliest opportunity, probably by finding ambiguous ways to transgress America’s red lines. What would the U.S. do, for instance, if Iran found ways to transfer components of a nuclear program, perhaps of a dual-use variety, to Syria? Would that suffice as a casus belliagainst a nuclear Iran as far as the Obama administration was concerned? Or, as so often has been the case in the past, would the administration be content to express “grave concern” and perhaps refer the matter to the International Atomic Energy Agency?

One might also ask why Iran shouldn’t consider making wholesale nuclear-technology transfers to other parties if that suited its needs. After all, there is a precedent here: following North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006, President Bush warned that “the transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action.” Yet when Pyongyang was exposed in 2007 as having made precisely that kind of transfer to Syria, it paid no price (other than the loss, at Israel’s hands, of its investment). On the contrary, thanks to a bit of diplomatic gamesmanship, North Korea was soon rewarded by the Bush administration by being removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Iran is well aware of this history, just as it is aware that the Bush administration had previously been adamant that a North Korean nuclear test would be “unacceptable.” For too long, every red line the U.S. has drawn for both Pyongyang and Tehran has been exposed as a bluff. Yet the essence of any successful containment strategy is that the red lines cannot be bluffs—and, what’s more, that the country being contained must be convinced of that. When America’s containment of the Soviet Union began in the late 1940s, the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was still fresh. By contrast, the U.S. would be moving toward a containment policy toward Iran following years of hollow threats and a perceptibly weakening will to thwart its ambitions. For an American president to pledge today that the U.S. would bear any burden, meet any hardship, or support any friend to contain Iran would simply not be taken seriously by the leadership of Tehran.

Nor would such a pledge carry much weight among America’s traditional allies in the region, who are already openly expressing doubts about U.S. seriousness. Speaking at a press conference alongside Hillary Clinton in February, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal cast doubt on the administration’s sanctions efforts and, by implication, the merits of a containment strategy: “Sanctions are a long-term solution,” he said. “They may work, we can’t judge. But we see the issue in the shorter term maybe because we are closer to the threat. … So we need an immediate resolution rather than a gradual resolution.” Why would Saudi Arabia—or, for that matter, Egypt, Iraq, the Gulf emirates, or Israel—be more inclined to put its trust in U.S. security guarantees after America had failed to stop Iran from going nuclear than it is now?

The answer, say the advocates of containment, is that these countries wouldn’t have much choice: American power would remain their single best hedge against Iranian encroachments. But that may not be true, at least in the long term. Sunni states, both Arab and non-Arab, could also choose to compete with a nuclear Iran. Or they could seek to cooperate with it. Both possibilities would be ruinous for U.S. interests.

Competition with Iran would most likely take the form of Arab (or Sunni) states developing nuclear arsenals of their own. In recent years, Turkey, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and even Yemen have all expressed an interest in building nuclear power plants, ostensibly for civilian reasons, though with other purposes plainly in mind. Egypt, which has not had full diplomatic ties with Iran since it signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979, and which more recently has tangled with the Islamic republic over its support of Hamas in Sinai and Gaza, has been even less circumspect in advertising its intentions. “We don’t want nuclear arms in the area but we are obligated to defend ourselves,” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in 2007. “We will have to have the appropriate weapons. It is irrational that we sit and watch from the sidelines when we might be attacked at any moment.”

Then there is the cooperative approach. Turkey has mended its previously frayed relations with Iran (as it has with Syria), with the effect that it is now on the point of becoming a de facto enemy of Israel and a diplomatic thorn in America’s side (as Michael Rubin explains in his article, beginning on page 81). The rest of the Muslim states in the region hardly need Iran to persuade them to hate Israel. But they do need to be persuaded that a nuclear Iran would respect their sovereignty and that Iran would exercise its newfound regional pre-eminence with a light hand. Nothing prevents Iran from doing so. Over time, Iran could easily apply some combination of inducements and pressure to persuade Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain to shut down their U.S. military bases. Iran could also learn from its mistakes in Iraq—where its brazen and often violent tactics provoked a popular backlash—to mend relations with its neighbor while promoting the fortunes of its numerous and influential political sympathizers.

Additional scenarios come to mind, in various combinations. What happens, say, if Egypt develops an indigenous nuclear arsenal as a counterweight to Iran—and then its regime collapses, Iranian-style, to a Muslim Brotherhood–led Islamic revolution? What happens, too, if the Saudi monarchy falls to some of its most radical elements after it has purchased a nuclear arsenal from Pakistan? Such scenarios may be unlikely, but they are far from implausible—and there are many of them. And if any of them were to come to pass, they would almost certainly force America’s effective withdrawal from much of the Middle East, leaving Israel to fend for itself.

Still, the most frightening scenario of all would be a nuclear exchange between Israel and Iran. Most advocates of containment believe the possibility is highly remote, since Iran would not risk its own annihilation by attacking the Jewish state. But as even Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge, “Iran’s possession of a bomb would create an inherently unstable situation, in which both parties would have an incentive to strike first: Iran, to avoid losing its arsenal, and Israel, to keep Tehran from using it.” To manage that risk, the authors place great weight on Jerusalem’s “assessment of the United States’ willingness and ability to deter Iran.” Yet as with its Arab neighbors, Jerusalem’s assessment is unlikely to be positive following Washington’s failure to prevent Iran from going nuclear in the first place.

And yet the argument persists that for all its dangers and difficulties, containment is our only realistic option for dealing with the inevitability of a nuclear Iran. Better to start fine-tuning the concept now, the advocates say, than to try to make it up on the fly later.
In one sense, this analysis is right: should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, the U.S. will have little choice but to attempt to manage the consequences and contain the fallout. Yet containment would be a strategy resting on the rubble of a decade’s worth of failed diplomacy. That unsturdy foundation alone—a compound of indecision, cravenness, and squandered credibility—is one reason why the policy would be likely to fail.

Another reason is that the tools the U.S. would have at its disposal to enforce a containment policy would have to be salvaged from a collapsed edifice. Yes, we would have allies. But they would be weaker, more hesitant to side with us, and more tempted to accommodate the cunning and willful regime next door. Yes, we would have our military might. But it would be confronted by a much more formidable adversary. Yes, Iran would still have all its own internal divisions and dissensions to deal with. But as Lindsay and Takeyh themselves acknowledge, the acquisition of a bomb would “revive [Iran’s] own political fortunes.” Yes, we would have a compelling national interest to contain Iran. But American leaders would also have to contend with a perennial political temptation to abandon the field.

Finally, it cannot be stressed enough that a nuclear Iran would be unlike any nuclear power the world has known. It would be dangerous and unpredictable in moments of strength as well as in those of weakness. While it could well be that the regime would not consider using its arsenal if it believed it could get its way through other means, the calculus could change if it felt threatened from within. Indeed, the closer the regime got to its deathbed, the more tempted it would be to bring its enemies along with it. The mullahs will not go gentle into that good night.

Thus to the extent that American policymakers indulge the notion that containment is a difficult but ultimately workable policy option, they also lull themselves into thinking that a failure to prevent Iran from going nuclear is anything but “unacceptable.” In doing so, of course, they only further undercut whatever feeble will is left within the administration to confront Iran, now and in the future.

This essay deals with policy options and scenarios that still lie over the horizon. But a few final words ought to be devoted to what is within America’s power to do now. Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons. It may yet be prevented from getting them. Recognizing that a nuclear Iran would be catastrophic to U.S. interests (to say nothing of Israel’s) is the first step on the road to prevention. Recognizing that neither diplomacy nor, in all likelihood, sanctions can stop Iran’s nuclear bids is the second step. The serious options that remain are military strikes or efforts to support regime change.

Advocates of the latter strategy often insist that nothing would harm their efforts more than military strikes. Maybe. But the recent apparent fizzling of the Green movement that arose after the stolen 2009 election offers little hope that it can mount a successful challenge to the regime before Iran crosses the nuclear threshold. It took the Solidarity movement in Poland 10 years to come to power. That is much longer than the world can afford to wait in Iran.

Regime-change advocates must also reckon that while military strikes on Iran could set their efforts back, so too would the regime’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. A regime that has little to fear by way of external challenges to its power will have even greater scope to repress its own people. And a regime that can use its nuclear status to burnish its prestige and advance its interests abroad will also be able to make use of those assets for domestic political purposes.

It is also far from clear that military strikes would be the death knell to the reform movement that opponents claim. Whatever fits of nationalist, anti-Western fervor such strikes might induce among Iranians at large, they are likely to be short-lived. Defeat does not ultimately make for good politics. In 1982, the unpopular and repressive regime of Leopoldo Galtieri in Argentina also bought itself popular support by invading the Falklands. Yet Galtieri was ousted just days after the British took Port Stanley. Much the same went on in the Balkans, where Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic profited politically from his brutal policies in Kosovo and his defiance of NATO. Yet he, too, did not last long in office after losing the battle he had staked so much on.

As for the argument that military strikes would merely delay Iran’s nuclear programs, one can only ask: what’s wrong with delay? Israel’s 1981 strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor was also, in its way, a delaying tactic, since Saddam Hussein moved aggressively to reconstitute his program under deeper cover. Yet had it not been for the raid on Osirak, the Iraq that invaded Kuwait in 1990 might well have been a nuclear power. In that case, no U.S. government would have dared risk a war with it for the sake of Kuwait’s liberation. As for Iran, a delay of several years to its nuclear programs would be no small thing if the regime fell to its internal opponents within that period. Far from being the end of the reform movement, military strikes could be their salvation. One must also ask what would prevent the U.S. from striking again in the event that Iran did attempt to reconstitute its program.

None of this is to say that strikes on Iran would not have unforeseen, unintended, and unhappy consequences. All military actions do. But the serious question that confronts policymakers today is whether the foreseeable consequences of an Iran with nuclear weapons are not considerably worse. They would be. And because they are foreseeable, they are preventable. Through action. Not through the inaction that, in this case, goes by the name of containment.

About the Author

Bret Stephens is a deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the author of the paper’s Global View, a weekly column.




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