Containing and deterring.., p.3
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       Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran, p.3

           American Enterprise Institute Foreign and Defense Policy Studies
 
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Introduction

  It has long been the policy of the United States government that a nuclear-armed Iran would be unacceptable. “It is unacceptable to the United States. It is unacceptable to Israel. It is unacceptable to the region and the international community,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared last year.1 As he was running for president in 2008, Barack Obama told Fox News that “it is unacceptable for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon; it would be a game changer.”2 This was only an extension of previous Bush administration policy; an Iranian nuclear weapon “to blackmail or threaten the world” would be “unacceptable.”3 Even French President Nicolas Sarkozy used the word, saying, “If Iran develops nuclear weapons, it’s unacceptable to our country.”4

  Whether the means of US and Western policy—sanctions—can secure the end of keeping Tehran from fulfilling its longtime nuclear ambition is far from clear. There is also a persistent belief that nontraditional means, such as the Stuxnet computer-virus attack or covert sabotage operations, can keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons without provoking a confrontation. Even if these reports are accurate, they amount to no more than a postponement of the day of reckoning. As Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank close to the Obama administration, observed, “There is no credible evidence that the current Iranian regime can be dissuaded from crossing that fateful point to possessing the bomb.”5 Gary Samore, President Obama’s senior arms control and nonproliferation adviser, essentially agrees, observing, “It may be that the current leadership in Iran is so committed to developing a nuclear weapons capability that all of the offers of engagement and all the threats of pressure and sanction simply may not be enough.”6

  If there is a consensus that sanctions ultimately will fail, there is an equally strong belief among the foreign-policy establishment in Washington and other Western capitals that preemptive military action is unappealing. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, frames the conundrum, saying either an Iranian bomb or an attack on Iran would be “a calamity, a disaster.” Even if Tehran neither used nor threatened directly to use a nuclear weapon, its possession of nuclear weapons would boost its regional ambitions and hegemonic designs. Other regional powers would be tempted to acquire their own nuclear capabilities, igniting an arms race among unstable states. A preemptive strike—no matter how successful—is likely to be only the first shot in a war in a volatile region that supplies much of the developed world’s energy resources. Thus Brzezinski and many others argue that the least-bad choice is “containment,” or, as Cronin terms it, “comprehensive containment.”7

  An undeniable attraction of a containment policy is that it worked during the Cold War in the face of a truly existential Soviet threat. “There is reason to think we can manage a nuclear Iran,” MIT’s Barry Posen wrote in the New York Times:

  The fear is that Iran could rely on a diffuse threat to deter others from attacking it, even in response to Iranian belligerence. But while it’s possible that Iranian leaders would think this way, it’s equally possible they would be more cautious. Tehran could not rule out the possibility that others with more and better nuclear weapons would strike Iran first, should it provoke a crisis or war. Judging from Cold War history, if the Iranians so much as appeared to be readying their nuclear forces for use, the United States might consider a preemptive strike.8

  Christopher Layne, like Posen another member of the so-called realist school, concedes that while “a nuclear-armed Iran is not a pleasant prospect, neither is it an intolerable one. . . . The United States has adjusted to similar situations in the past and can do so this time.”9

  James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh are perhaps the most notable recent advocates of a policy of containing Iran. Their Foreign Affairs article, “After Iran Gets the Bomb: Containment and Its Implications,” carefully weighs the pros and cons of such a policy. Takeyh served briefly as an aide to Dennis Ross, then–State Department special adviser for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, who also counsels containment. While Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge that “containing a nuclear Iran would not be easy,” they conclude that the alternatives are worse and that an Iranian nuclear capability is not unacceptable and may represent an opportunity:

  Containment could buy Washington time to persuade the Iranian ruling class that the revisionist game it has been playing is simply not worth the candle. Thus, even as Washington pushes to counter Iran, it should be open to the possibility that Tehran’s calculations might change. To press Tehran in the right direction, Washington should signal that it seeks to create an order in the Middle East that is peaceful and self-sustaining. The United States will remain part of the region’s security architecture for the foreseeable future. But it need not maintain an antagonistic posture toward Iran. An Islamic Republic that abandoned its nuclear ambitions, accepted prevailing international norms, and respected the sovereignty of its neighbors would discover that the United States is willing to work with, rather than against, Iran’s legitimate national aspirations.10

  Even while acknowledging that Iran poses a qualitatively different threat than did the Soviet Union, Lindsay and Takeyh also extend the underlying Cold War analogue in arguing that military “deterrence would by necessity be the cornerstone of a U.S. strategy to contain a nuclear Iran.” They further recognize that, though this ultimately was a winning approach in the Cold War, deterrence can fail and nearly did so during the Cuban missile crisis and at several other junctures:

  Iran’s revisionist aims and paranoia about U.S. power may appear to make the country uniquely difficult to deter. But that conclusion conveniently—and mistakenly—recasts the history of U.S. confrontations with emerging nuclear powers in a gentler light than is deserved. At the start of the Cold War, U.S. officials hardly saw the Soviet Union as a status quo power. In the 1960s, China looked like the ultimate rogue regime: it had intervened in Korea and gone to war with India, and it repressed its own people. Mao boasted that although nuclear war might kill half the world’s population, it would also mean that “imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist.11

  In sum, should sanctions and negotiations fail to dissuade Iran from fulfilling its nuclear ambitions, some consider containment an increasingly acceptable alternative to military action. We agree that escalated confrontation with Iran—and there is undeniably, a low-level war already being waged by Iranian operatives or proxies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere—would throw an already volatile region into chaos, perhaps spread and involve other great powers, and place a heavy burden on overstretched American forces and finances. The costs of war are all too obvious and painfully familiar.

 
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