Commentary Magazine


Another Weak Case for Containing Iran

Sunday’s Kenneth Pollack column on Iran qualifies as another installment in the good news/bad news dynamic of the media’s newfound appreciation for the Cold War. The good news is that the distaste for the “Cold War mind warp,” as the president calls it, has expired. The bad news is that for many on the left, the memory of those decades is a bit fuzzy. Bloomberg View, the news company’s online opinion pages, has become something of a clearinghouse for bizarre takes on the lessons of the Cold War.

In September, it featured a column called “Libertarians Are the New Communists,” perhaps the silliest thing yet written about libertarians, a distinction which remains the only aspect of the column worth mentioning. It followed that a few weeks ago with law professor and former Obama advisor Cass Sunstein’s attempt to explain the Tea Party by comparing it to the Hiss-Chambers case. Sunstein appears to have given up on the idea himself, having finished the column without actually connecting the two. He just seemed to want to take a moment, apropos of nothing, to remind the country that not all liberals are Communists, for some reason.

And now Pollack enters the fray by attempting to explain how, in the words of the headline, “Kennedy Showed How to Contain Iran.” The gist of the piece is that containing Iran could be done successfully by understanding how John F. Kennedy contained the Soviet Union despite the nuclear standoff.

You may notice something right off the bat. Iran–unless Pollack knows something we don’t–is not a nuclear power. The whole point of the current impasse is that the West (hopefully) wants to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. Kennedy never had that choice. He was confronted with a bipolar world in which the Soviet Union had already achieved nuclear capability and thus his only option was to contain Khrushchev and prevent nuclear war.

We don’t know exactly how Kennedy would have prevented the Soviets from getting the bomb if he had the chance. But Kennedy was a proponent of a ban on nuclear testing in part because he had been an outspoken opponent of nuclear proliferation–at times he appeared downright panicked about the possibility of such proliferation. Pollack’s column skips ahead by implicitly accepting Iranian nuclear capability. History suggests Kennedy would have been staunchly opposed to such a development.

Additionally, Pollack argues that Iran wants to avoid war at all costs. He writes:

Like the Soviet Union early on in the Cold War, even a nuclear-armed Iran would be vastly outmatched by the U.S. strategic arsenal. Unlike the Soviets, the Iranians can’t ever hope to match the U.S. Thus, in any crisis, American negotiators will have the upper hand and should be able to compel the Iranians to back down quickly, even accepting significant reversals to avoid a war.

On past occasions when Iran crossed an American red line and was at risk of a U.S. military response — during the Tanker War in 1988, after the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the Iranians have backed down quickly and even made humiliating concessions of their own (such as ending the Iran-Iraq War and agreeing to suspend uranium enrichment) to avert an American attack.

Again, there are a couple of clear weaknesses in this argument. The first is Pollack’s habit of giving Iran too much credit. How much did the Iranians really back down after crossing those “red lines” and risking an American military response? The Khobar Towers bombing didn’t represent the cresting of the wave of Iranian attacks on Americans–as Pollack seems to realize with his referencing the American mission in Iraq. And Iran’s nuclear program hasn’t exactly been shelved–otherwise, what are we talking about here?

The other weakness is that this argument, like many arguments in favor of letting Iran go nuclear, is self-refuting. Pollack claims repeatedly that Iran will make tangible concessions “to avoid a war” with America and to “avert an American attack.” So the American threat of force is a powerful one. That’s a pretty strong case for leaving the threat of force on the table in full view. Pollack here is arguing that if the Iranians really believe the U.S. is willing to take military action against them, they’ll back down.

That may or may not be the case, but it seems ludicrous to allow Iran to go nuclear and then threaten war. If a credible threat of force can change Iranian behavior, then why take that option off the table by letting Iran get what it wants, ultimately making a later threat of force far less credible and far more dangerous? If there is a compelling argument in favor of letting Iran go nuclear, its proponents have yet to advance it.

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