Speaking to reporters about Iran’s nuclear program, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton appeared to talk tough in the wake of Iran’s foot-dragging on American overtures:
We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment … that if the U.S. extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf, it’s unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer because they won’t be able to intimidate and dominate as they apparently believe they can once they have a nuclear weapon.
Maybe. But then again, maybe not. Tough as it may sound, this statement is the clearest statement to date, as much as I can tell, from a senior administration official, that if engagement fails, America will not switch to other preventative measures but will instead resort to establishing a credible deterrence posture.
From the safe distance of America’s eastern seaboard, deterrence may appear safe. If you happen to be a monarch ruling over a small statelet in the Persian Gulf, and every morning when you open your palace windows (well, when your servants open them for you), you see Iran across the Gulf, deterrence may not be as reliable. After all, if Iran chooses to, say, instigate a Shiite uprising or a coup in Bahrein and thus manages to topple the monarchy there, will America’s public support U.S. direct intervention? Before Secretary Clinton can get to a TV studio to make the case for sovereignty, stability, legitimacy, and all the rest of it, before CENTCOM can deploy, an army of pundits will be on CNN and al-Jazeera reminding us that the Sunni monarchy there is not exactly the expression of the will of the people; that the newly installed regime should be recognized as the authentic expression of the Bahreini nation; and that a small island-state and its not-so-democratic monarch do not deserve the shedding of American blood or the risks of a nuclear showdown with Iran. Before you know it, someone will be asking for America’s Fifth Fleet at Juffair base in Bahrein to pack up their bags and relocate.
Of course, this will be done politely, and over time. But the bottom line should be clear: Containment comes with a price, which during the Cold War — when our nemesis was a nuclear-armed Soviet Union — meant recognizing clearly delimited spheres of influence in Europe and clashing occasionally in areas where the fragile balance between the two blocs was constantly under challenge.