Is “containment” where Iran policy will end up?


In separate articles, Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post and Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek both come to the conclusion that "containment" or "deterrence" may be where policy towards Iran ends up. Diehl portrays the choice as the only option after all the other choices fail:

The Obama administration’s positive tone following its first diplomatic encounter with Iran covers a deep and growing gloom in Washington and European capitals. Seven hours of palaver in Geneva haven’t altered an emerging conclusion: None of the steps the West is considering to stop the Iranian nuclear program is likely to work.

Not talks. Not sanctions, even of the "crippling" variety the Obama administration has spoken of. Not military strikes. And probably not support for regime change through the still-vibrant opposition.

Diehl talks to Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, who says, "If by early next year we are getting nothing through diplomacy and sanctions," then "the entire policy is going to be revealed as a charade.":

What then? Pollack, a former Clinton administration official, says there is one obvious Plan B: "containment," a policy that got its name during the Cold War. The point would be to limit Iran’s ability to produce nuclear weapons or exercise its influence through the region by every means possible short of war — and to be prepared to sustain the effort over years, maybe decades. It’s an option that has been lurking at the back of the debate about Iran for years. "In their heart of hearts I think the Obama administration knows that this is where this is going," Pollack says.

I suspect he’s right. I also don’t expect Obama and his aides to begin talking about a policy shift anytime soon. For the next few months we’ll keep hearing about negotiations, sanctions and possibly Israeli military action as ways to stop an Iranian bomb. By far the best chance for a breakthrough, as I see it, lies in a victory by the Iranian opposition over the current regime. If that doesn’t happen, it may soon get harder to disguise the hollowness of Western policy.

Zakaria, though, is more upbeat about such a policy, saying that "we are already moving toward a robust, workable response to the dangers of an Iranian nuclear program — one that involves sustained containment and deterrence":

The country is in a box and, if well handled, can be kept there until the regime becomes much more transparent and cooperative on the nuclear issue. To do so, we should maintain the current sanctions but should not add broad new ones like an embargo on refined-gasoline imports. Any new measures should target the leadership and factions like the Revolutionary Guards specifically. And we should think more broadly about other ways to pressure the regime. There should be a structure within which those countries that are worried about the threat posed by Iran can meet and strategize. We should work to further align the interests of moderate Arab states with those of Israel, which could be one of the strategic boons of the circumstance. It’s clear that Iran fears this potential alliance, which is why Ahmadinejad has worked so hard to present himself as the chief spokesman for the great Arab cause of Palestine. By spouting his nonsense about the Holocaust and professing his support for the Palestinians, he’s trying to make it harder for leaders in Saudi Arabia to effectively take Israel’s side in opposition to Tehran.

At the same time, we must stop exaggerating the Iranian threat. By hyping it, we only provide Iran with "free power," in Leslie Gelb’s apt phrase. This is an insecure Third World country with a GDP that is one 40th the size of America’s, a dysfunctional economy, a divided political class, and a government facing mass unrest at home. It has alienated most of its neighboring states and cuts a sorry figure on the world stage, with an international embarrassment for a president. Its forays in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Gaza have had mixed results, with the locals often growing weary of the Iranian thugs who try to control them.

The country does not yet have even one nuclear weapon, and if and when it gets one—something that is far from certain—the world will not end. The Middle East has been home to nuclear weapons for decades. If Israel’s estimated -arsenal of 200 warheads, including a "second-strike capacity," has not prompted Egypt to develop its own nukes, it’s not clear that one Iranian bomb would do so. (Recall that Egypt has fought and lost three wars against Israel, so it should be far more concerned about an Israeli bomb than an Iranian one.) More crucially, Israel’s massive nuclear force will deter Iran from ever contemplating using or giving away its own (hypothetical) weapon. Deterrence worked with madmen like Mao, and with thugs like Stalin, and it will work with the calculating autocrats of Tehran. The Iranian regime has amply demonstrated over the past four months that it is interested in hanging on to power at all costs, jailing mullahs and ignoring its own clerical elite. These are not the actions of religious rulers about to commit mass suicide.


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