Containing and deterring.., p.5
Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran, p.5American Enterprise Institute Foreign and Defense Policy Studies
The public discussion of Iran containment has been conducted in a haze of good feeling about the successes of the Cold War, but as Lindsay and Takeyh suggest, containing the Soviet challenge was hardly simple. As John Lewis Gaddis, perhaps the period’s foremost historian, has written, the Cold War witnessed many different—and substantially varying—codes of containment. In the early 1980s, Gaddis had already identified five such codes; arguably Ronald Reagan formulated a sixth and George H. W. Bush, responding to the unanticipated break-up of the Soviet empire, formulated a seventh.14
The seeds of the Cold War containment policy were bred in George Kennan’s seminal “Long Telegram” of 1946.15 The essence of this communiqué appeared as the “Mr. X” Foreign Affairs article in 1947; its title, “Sources of Soviet Conduct,” indicated that at the core of Kennan’s insight was an analysis of Soviet strategic culture, that is, the ingrained habits and patterns of Soviet strategic behavior. As the telegram stated, the “party line is not based on any objective analysis of [the] situation beyond Russia’s borders. . . . It arises mainly from basic inner-Russian necessities which existed before [World War II] and exist today.”16 The question of the fundamental, ingrained nature of the Iranian regime, as will be developed at length below, is key for any policy of Iran containment.
And although Kennan would later complain about the militarization of containment, he did admit from the first that the underlying balance of military power was key to his policy recommendation. The strength of US armed forces, he wrote, “is probably the most important single instrumentality in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.”17 Other “instrumentalities”—diplomacy, economic policy, and what we today would term elements of soft power—were also important tools, but credible military deterrence proved to be the one necessary, if not sufficient, means of containment.
Kennan understood that what would become the Cold War, though a bipolar geopolitical competition, was not simply a binary equation. His underlying insights provide enduring guidance in considering how to contain Iran. For example, Kennan wrote, the United States would need to defend vulnerable allies, especially in a Europe devastated by World War II. Containment required the “strengthening of the natural forces of resistance within the respective countries which the communists are attacking.” Nevertheless, in the end there was a natural limit to Soviet expansionism. “The Kremlin leaders are so inconsiderate, so relentless, so overbearing and so cynical in the discipline they impose on their followers that few can stand their authority for long,” he wrote. It has similarly proved that, for Iran’s neighbors and even for Iranian minorities, familiarity with Persian leaders has bred contempt. Kennan did not see containment as a passive posture, but rather made a case for comprehensive counter pressure. He argued that it is “the way you marshal all the forces at your disposal on the world chessboard. I mean not only the military force you have . . . but all the political forces.”18
Kennan’s principles were not codified—that is, they did not amount to a practical strategy—until the Truman administration. This began with the articulation of a Truman Doctrine, the president’s March 12, 1947, speech to Congress, and, prior to the Korean War, the drafting of National Security Council (NSC) report 68.19 More than analyzing the sources of Soviet conduct, President Truman described a policy rooted in American political principles, saying, “I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.”20 The NSC document also settled an ongoing debate about the strategy behind containment. Some had advocated a “strongpoint” strategy, hoping to retain the strategic initiative and limit the costs of containment by concentrating on solely critical points of confrontation such as Western Europe, but Truman decided in favor of a perimeter approach. As NSC 68 put it, “The assault on free institutions is worldwide now, and in the context of the present polarization of power a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.”21 Finally, the Truman administration concluded that while the Soviet empire might ultimately collapse of its own internal contradictions, “without superior aggregate military strength, in being and readily mobilizable, a policy of ‘containment’. . . is no more than a policy of bluff.”22
As Gaddis observed, however, subsequent administrations operationalized this basic policy in a number of ways; there were multiple strategies for achieving the goals of containment. Indeed, the pendulum could be said to have swung between two poles: one meant to limit costs and narrow the strategic focus and the other, originating with Truman, more expansive and more expensive. The Eisenhower New Look strategy, with its emphasis on massive nuclear response and the détente strategy of the Nixon-Carter years reflected the narrow pole; Truman, the Kennedy-era strategy of flexible response and the Reagan rollback approach to Soviet client states embodied the more expansive pole. Nonetheless, the underlying policy remained remarkably consistent:
 block further expansion of Soviet power
 expose the falsities of Soviet pretensions
 induce a retraction of the Kremlin’s control and influence and  in general, so foster the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system that the Kremlin is brought at least to the point of modifying its behavior to conform to generally accepted international standards.23
Likewise, we have taken these to be essential components of a coherent Iran containment policy: that it should seek to block any Iranian expansion in the Persian Gulf region; to illuminate the problematic nature of the regime’s ambitions; to constrain and indeed to induce a retraction of Iranian influence, including Iranian soft power; and to work toward a political transformation, if not a physical transformation, of the Tehran regime.
A further essential characteristic of Cold War containment applicable to Iran is that such a policy demands a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach driven by consistent diplomacy. Containing Iran requires effecting the isolation of the Iranian regime, disconnecting it from great power patrons, limiting its ability to peel off neighbors and regional players to serve its agenda, limiting its use of proxies, and more. Particularly because the shock value of an Iranian nuclear breakthrough will diminish over time, a prime task for diplomats will be to ensure that the global coalition now in place is not divided and that no party seeks to make a separate peace. Because the world today is more multipolar than it was when the Soviet Union was the chief adversary, preventing any separate peace will be more difficult.
The isolation of Iran should not be intended as a punishment per se for nuclear transgressions, but rather as a means of limiting Iranian exploitation of its newfound status as a nuclear power. Much as the United States ultimately sought to encircle the Soviet space via the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and organizations of like-minded nations, the US government will need to build and institutionalize coalitions to box Iran in and to deny it the opportunity to project power.
A strong United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution that authorizes the various measures necessary to underpin any global containment regime will be easier to achieve if the Islamic Republic’s break with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty is overt and it declares that it is in possession of nuclear weapons. Parts of such a regime are already in place, but the history of UN-mandated sanctions regimes (Libya, Iraq, Iran, and Bosnia) is that they are flouted with little consequence and they erode quickly over time.
What diplomatic pieces are required to successfully contain Iran?
•Global isolation of the regime. Iran’s strategy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution has been to divide and conquer the international community, seeking to pit centers of power (the United States, European Union, Russia, China) against each other. Diminishing the benefits Iran would derive by going nuclear will require limiting Tehran’s ability to divide and conquer and preventing Tehran’s integration into the international community as a nuclear state.
•Regional encirclement. The gover
•Building strategic alliances in the context of Iranian interests. Iran has effectively exploited key economic relationships to undermine existing sanctions regimes. The United States has countered with secondary sanctions to reduce incentives to conduct business with Iran, but much more will be needed. Among democratic nations, India continues to trade with the Islamic Republic despite growing international pressure. South Korea and Japan have also resisted efforts to isolate the regime even as its behavior has worsened. Their behavior highlights the need for further coalition building, substitution of other providers for goods Iran offers, and to strengthen incentives to work with the international community. Efforts to address these countries’ interests and wrap them into regional constructs will build credibility. In the case of Iran, Turkey presents a special challenge. While Turkey is a key partner in NATO, its Islamist government has sought to reposition itself as an independent heavyweight if not a regional hegemon. How this will play out vis-à-vis Iran is difficult to predict. Ultimately, many predict that Turkey’s neo-Ottoman ambitions will clash with Iran’s Shia revolutionary aims. It will require major diplomatic investment to ensure Turkey remains a responsible member of the Atlantic alliance and an important element in containing Iran.
•Undermining the global network of malign actors. Iran has successfully built a network of international pariahs and rejectionists to bolster its diplomatic defenses. Syria, Venezuela, Belarus, and Brazil have thrown their votes at the UN to protect Iran from the consequences of its own actions. Despite this pattern, few efforts have been made to isolate or co-opt Iran’s partners. This is a major lacuna in US foreign policy and a sine qua non of any successful containment strategy. If Iran is to be cut from the web of the civilized world in the wake of going nuclear, it cannot be offered a backdoor for reentry. These nations will require a strategy to address the role that they play in cushioning Iran from international opprobrium. The same can be said for Iran’s substate proxies, particularly groups that straddle the line between politics and terrorism such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The United States has made efforts to persuade its allies that these groups play a dangerous role in the Middle East and to cut such groups off from recognition and assistance. Such efforts will require a redoubling to prevent these groups from being strengthened—not just militarily—by a nuclear Iran.
•Sever Iran from great power patrons. Russia and China have consistently been willing to front for Iran in the United Nations and other international forums. Though some of Iran’s recent actions—particularly revelations that it had constructed a secret nuclear facility near Qom—have alienated Moscow and Beijing to a certain extent, the two are likely to seek rapid rapprochement with Iran subsequent to its acquisition of nuclear weapons. Just as the loss of Russian patronage was a blow to Tehran, recouping Russian support will also be high on the regime’s list of priorities. Diplomatic efforts to maintain Russian and Chinese solidarity in a coalition to isolate nuclear Iran will be key but costly. Both states are mercantilist in their approaches and have economic and strategic rationales for resuscitating ties with Iran quickly. Russia has long watered down international efforts to sanction Iran to protect its own nuclear and arms trade, and China may well demand concessions on North Korea in exchange for solidarity on Iran.
•Encourage a unified European Union (EU) strategy for Iran. The European Union has historically been reluctant to work in concert on foreign-policy matters, particularly in such contentious areas as Iran. Success on the questions of Libya and Syria may encourage greater future cooperation, but the issue has been sufficiently debated that observers might suspect the EU’s divergent positions are rigid. At various times, Italy, Greece, and Sweden have undermined EU efforts to maintain a united front. Indeed, more than Russian or Chinese wobbliness, a failure by Europe to stand firm in containing Iran will be a major flaw in any effort.
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