Brookings’ Pollack And O’Hanlon: Containment, Not Military Action, Is Better Iran Policy

Surprising opposition to military action against Iran arose out of a joint American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Institution panel this morning. Entitled “Next Steps on Iran,” the panel featured three hawkish supporters of the Iraq war, Brookings’ Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack — whose book The Threatening Storm convinced many liberals to support the Iraq war — and AEI’s Danielle Pletka, a leading neoconservative activist behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

In his opening remarks, Pollack said he believed that by early next year “what the United States and our allies are going to be looking at is containment,” a long-term process of countering Iranian influence in the region, much as was done against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. “Implicit in the concept of containment, Pollack said “is the idea that there will be a change in regime over time.”

Remember George Kennan’s “Mr. X” article, the long telegraph, that was the ultimate focus of containment with the Soviet Union: Contain them until the regime changes, which it must because of its own internal problems. The same I think can be said of Iran, especially this Iranian regime after the events of June 12 and the rest of the summer.

O’Hanlon concurred. “The containment concept is ultimately where I wind up…it’s our most viable medium to long term option.” He continued that, although he believes there is “less of a downside to some of the military options” than many believe, “when I put them together, I do not ultimately support them.” He also said he doesn’t “consider it credible that Barack Obama will do this.”

Unsurprisingly, Pletka was somewhat more sanguine about the military option. “The fact is that the Iranians have told us where they’re going. The president of Iran has said that it would be worth sacrificing half of Iran to destroy the state of Israel. There’s no reason on earth not to believe him.” Compared to that, Pletka said, “military action starts to look a lot less unattractive.”

The president of Iran never actually said that, rather it was former Israeli national security adviser Giora Eiland in an interview with The Jerusalem Post characterizing what he believed to be Ahmadinejad’s views.

The consensus of the Brookings panelists regarding the preferability of containment to military action differed starkly from the alarmism of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who introduced the event. In his opening remarks, Lieberman insisted that “the fanatical regime” in Tehran “will only consider stepping back from the nuclear brink when they are convinced that if they fail to do so there will be consequences so severe that the continuity of their regime will be threatened.” Lieberman also warned that “A nuclear-armed Iran will overturn the balance of power in the Middle East and tilt this critical region toward extremism,” ignoring the fact that the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which he helped sell and continues to defend, has done precisely that.

“I promise you,” Lieberman went on, “in a globalized world, the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran will sooner or later come to threaten the American people here at home.”

We must be prepared to use all means at our disposal to prevent the Iranian regime from getting nuclear weapons. Everybody in a position of authority agrees with that last sentence.

That’s a questionable claim — not least because the U.S. intelligence community still maintains that there is no evidence that Iran actually wants a nuclear weapon, as opposed to breakout capacity — and at least two of the panelists who spoke after him disagreed.