Containing Iran Requires Getting Smart, Tough, and Serious
Note: This is an updated and revised version of my article in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs.
It should be too obvious to have to say so but unfortunately some people don't get it: dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran is an extraordinarily important task in which the lives of millions of people will be at risk. Such a policy cannot be based on wishful thinking, on faith in the "rationality" of Iran, or on faith in the competence of the current U.S. government. This is not an issue of ""left-wing" or "right-wing" interpretation but of policy analysis.
What concerns me is that the mainstream debate regarding containment is being conducted in a flippant and sloppy manner, based on some questionable assumptions. Attempts to critique those concepts are blithely dismissed rather than seen as pointing out serious issues and necessary adjustments. At present, this seems an abstract debate. In future, though, the failure to consider and plan could be the source of a major tragedy.
In my view, the most likely outcome is not a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, or an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel. While these are, of course, real possibilities, too much focus has been devoted to them. I want to suggest two other scenarios that are more likely: a U.S.-Iran war based on American mistakes and Iranian miscalculations, or huge strategic gains for Iran and revolutionary Islamism in the Middle East.
Another key point is the common error of assuming that there is only one "rational" response by Middle Eastern regimes or states and that this has to be a mirror image of how American experts or policymakers would respond. What is required of an expert is to understand the particular rational response--based on perceptions, history, power structure, ideology, and other factors--that takes place in the context of a specific country's leadership making decisions.
Rational responses are not necessarily moderate ones. For example, based on his "rational" response that Iran was weak, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran and set off a long, bloody war. Based on his "rational" response that America would not intervene, Saddam invaded Kuwait setting off a world crisis and another war. Neither of these moves was "irrational," they were merely based on false perceptions and mistaken assumptions that were quite understandable given Saddam's world view and information.
Might Iran, then, some day make a "rational" decision that produces aggression--even if indirect--sets off wars and massive instability in other countries? Of course, the answer is "Yes." The Western assumption that if Iran is rational there must inevitably be moderation and stability is one of the silliest of those made by Western policymakers that has in the past created crises, wars, and massive suffering.
When Iran gets nuclear weapons a containment strategy will be the best U.S. strategy. But how should that containment policy be carried out? That is a far more delicate and complex question than is generally realized.
If the extraordinarily large challenge this problem will pose is underestimated and the idea of containment is too narrowly defined, the resulting failure will bring disaster in the region and the biggest crisis of our era.
James M. Lindsay and Ray Takeyh in, "After Iran Gets the Bomb," Foreign Affairs, March-April 2010, propose what U.S. policy should be after Tehran obtains nuclear weapons. But there are significant problems in its predictions and recommendations.
By making the possibility of containing Iran seem easier than it is and narrower than it need be the article may stir complacency and rationalize the current lack of serious diplomatic effort to stop Iran from succeeding. In addition, the article's assumptions are repeatedly "best-case" ones that understate the problems involved. It is like the planning of a military campaign by advocates who keep insisting that everything will work out properly. We have repeatedly seen in recent history the dangers of such a procedure.
In particular, the article makes four questionable assumptions.
First comes the premise that U.S. willpower and credibility with both enemies and friends is sufficient to succeed at containment. The authors note that U.S. policy needs "to reassure its friends and allies in the Middle East that it remains firmly committed to preserving the balance of power in the region."
Yet to do so, there must be a clear understanding as to why these countries don't believe this claim. As the authors point out, "Iran is determined to get nuclear weapons but the West, despite endless talk, is not determined to stop it from doing so" and Tehran's success is a major failure for U.S. credibility. Given this U.S. defeat, "Friends and foes would openly question the U.S. government's power and resolve to shape events in the Middle East. Friends would respond by distancing themselves from Washington; foes would challenge U.S. policies more aggressively."
Yet the article doesn't draw the obvious conclusion from this situation: Iran emerges as the most powerful regional player; America declines into relative irrelevance compared to the past. It would be a strategic shift in which revolutionary forces become more aggressive and those who can do so use appeasement to survive.
Simply declaring that it will protect regional states or issuing verbal warnings to Iran will not be sufficient. Does Iran's government believe that President Barack Obama would go to war, even nuclear war, to constrain it? Will Arab rulers bet their lives on this expectation? Is Israel going to trust its security to a U.S. government which could arguably be called the least friendly to Israel in history? "No" seems the likely answer.
Israel cannot and will not appease Iran. But the authors state that "the Israeli government's calculations about Iran would depend on its assessment of the United States' willingness and ability to deter Iran." Since the Obama Administration's efforts against Iran have been unimpressive and support for Israel has plummeted, Israel's calculations will not assume confidence in U.S. policy.
As for Arab states, the authors dismiss the danger of massive appeasement, saying, "Pursuing that strategy would mean casting aside U.S. help and betting on the mercy of Tehran." But there is no reason that appeasement must be all-or-nothing. Certainly, they'll take U.S. security guarantees but then hedge their bets, limit cooperation, and try hard to please Iran. Combining U.S. guarantees with buying off Tehran is sensible policy.
Second is the idea that Iran will act rationally and, at least as the result of pressure, moderately as well.
One doesn't have to think Tehran eager to commit suicide to understand how it is prone to risk-taking, not to mention the likelihood of miscalculation by a highly ideological regime which profoundly misunderstands the West. Even if not insane or suicidal, Iran's regime is the farthest thing from a rational-actor state the United States has confronted since Berlin fell in 1945.
Moreover, the regime may think it has found ways around the "suicide" problem or simply discount the risk. Its nuclear weapons will be controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most fanatical institution with the closest ties to terrorist groups. Iran's defense minister is an internationally wanted terrorist. Any system based on confidence about Iranian self-restraint is on a shaky foundation.
Modern Middle East history is full of examples of less volatile rulers and regimes jumping off cliffs. Egypt provoked the 1967 war; Iraq attacked Iran and Kuwait; the PLO chose launching a losing war rather than making peace and getting a state in 2000.
Taking up an Obama Administration talking point, the authors say all will be well if U.S. policy shows "Tehran that acquiring the bomb will not produce the benefits it anticipates but isolate and weaken the regime." Nuclear weapons, they say, "can accomplish only a limited set of objectives." But it seems more likely the regime is right in concluding the bomb will bring many benefits: making it more powerful, respected, and influential abroad.
Containment advocates understate many elements in this context. For example, consider their minimizing the possibility of Iran transferring nuclear weapons to others because it fears U.S. wrath. Yet precedents, as seen from Tehran, suggest America is a paper tiger. The United States has been passive in response to Iran's transferring weapons to Iraqi Shia radicals, Hizballah, Hamas, Afghan Islamists, and even cooperating with al-Qaida, despite the fact that Americans have died as a result.
To some extent, the authors put faith in Iran's "common sense":
"Iran has observed clear limits when supporting militias and terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Iran has not provided Hezbollah with chemical or biological weapons or Iraqi militias with the means to shoot down U.S. aircraft. Iran's rulers understand that such provocative actions could imperil their rule by inviting retaliation."
That's true up to a point, but what about possible Iranian involvement in Syria's effort to build nuclear facilities? As for advanced anti-aircraft systems, Iran has already provided them to terrorist groups. The U.S. Department of Defense Quadrennial Report for 2010 warns: "Non-state actors such as Hizballah have acquired...man-portable air defense systems from Iran." Equally, Iran provides bombs to Iraqi militias to "shoot down" American convoys.
Thus, while Iran may not transfer weapons of mass destruction it is more possible than containment optimists claim. Tehran will certainly escalate the transfer of other arms for wars against the United States and to try to overthrow its allies.
A third assumption is the nature of the threat to be contained, which goes far beyond the need to ensure Iran doesn't fire nuclear weapons at others. Consider the tidal wave effect as millions of Muslims conclude that mighty Iran got it right; that revolutionary, anti-American Islamism works. Islamist movements will increase violence and struggle everywhere, including Europe.
Moreover, Iran will practice what can be called nuclear-defended aggression. The authors say a U.S.-backed Israel would keep radical groups "in check." Tehran, "will not risk a nuclear confrontation with Israel to assist" Hamas and Hizballah. But Iran is already helping them at no cost to itself or nuclear confrontation.
In contrast, Israel has no leverage to defeat revolutionary Islamist groups outside the West Bank. Indeed, U.S. policy ensures Israel can't overthrow Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The United States won't battle to stop an Iranian-Syrian takeover of Lebanon already in progress through Hizballah and other assets. In this context, too, Palestinian leaders and Arab states will be too fearful of Iran-and their own people thrilled by Iran's defying the West-to move toward peace with Israel. If they do, Iran and its allies will sabotage these efforts, using them to escalate conflict and anti-Americanism.
A more accurate picture is presented by Abd al-Rahman al-Rashid, director-general of the al-Arabiya television network, writing in al-Sharq al-Awsat last February: "An Iranian bomb...will not be put to military use; it will be used as a way to change the rules of the game." With nuclear weapons, Iran's nuclear umbrella will protect itself and its clients who seek or take power in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, and in the Palestinian lands "from deterrence" by the United States. Iran doesn't need to attack anyone else; it must merely ensure no one else attacks itself as it steps up subversion and terrorism.
Another advantage for a nuclear-armed Iran is brinkmanship. As Ahmad al-Jarallah, editor of the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, explained last February, Arab states would be "hostage to fears of rash actions by Iran that could cause nuclear catastrophes...." Thus, they would do everything possible to avoid any risk of being obliterated by keeping Iran happy no matter what the United States promised them. It would be cold comfort for them to fear incineration comforted by expectations that Iran would also be flattened.
Finally, there's the plan proposed for U.S. policy toward Iran itself. Washington needed "to persuade the Iranian ruling class that the revisionist game it has been playing is simply not worth the candle." But why should we assume the United States can convince these rulers of anything, least of all that Iran's ambitions are mistaken? It's far more likely that the revisionist game yields much fruit, especially since the containment being proposed would cost Iran almost nothing more than it's facing now.
The article suggests, "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." But this is exactly why Iran, Syria, and revolutionary Islamist movements see the United States as blocking their ambitions. Thus, its influence must be destroyed if Iran and "Islam" is to gain what they consider to be its "legitimate interests."
The authors conclude U.S. policy can live with an Islamic Republic that abandons its nuclear ambitions and respects neighbors' sovereignty. That's fine in theory. But is there going to be such an Islamic Republic, at least before decades of bloody attempts to overturn the regional order? Containing the USSR took almost a half-century through numerous subversive campaigns and wars. And when the United States began that effort, the Soviet Union was far closer to being a cautious, status quo power than Iran is today.
Successful containment, then, will not just be difficult but extraordinarily so, requiring major changes in current U.S. government thinking and behavior. The first step is to understand the inescapable conflict between U.S. interests and revolutionary Islamist movements, to see the Iran-led alliance as an extremely dangerous adversary which is more determined, ruthless, and probably tactically cleverer than the United States itself.
That's why it's so important to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons at all. Otherwise, despite a framework of soothing promises, verbal threats, and military build-ups, Iran's bomb will change the Middle East strategic balance; inspire revolutionary Islamist movements to new levels of violence, foster Arab and Western appeasement, and shift power toward Tehran.
But we are all going to face a nuclear Iran. To deal with this situation, the United States cannot merely take one element-nuclear umbrella and deterrence-from its Cold War experience as containment on the cheap. It must adapt an entire repertoire including a truly tough posture; readiness to contest every country and battle every revolutionary surrogate of Tehran in an appropriate manner, employing a full gamut of overt and covert military, diplomatic, and economic tools.
The struggle will be long and hard. On a regional level, victory cannot be taken for granted. Certainly, unless the United States takes containment, struggle, credibility, deterrence, and other such things seriously, a massive defeat for the United States can be taken for granted.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East (Routledge), The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).