The Growing Containment Consensus On Iran

iran missileIn an article exploring the available options (all bad) on Iran, Michael Rubin asserts at the outset that “for President Obama and most of the American foreign-policy apparatus, a nuclear-weapons-capable Islamic Republic would be strategically untenable.”

While I’m pleased that Rubin is not among those on the right who have been excitedly preparing the ground for an Israeli attack on Iran — he clearly recognizes that such a strike, in addition to likely failing to achieve Israel’s goals, would have disastrous consequences for the region and for the U.S. — it seems to me that he avoids following his own good analysis to its logical conclusion, which is that, in the likely event that the Geneva talks fail to secure a substantial capitulation from Tehran on its nuclear program, we’re going to be looking at a policy of containing a nuclear-capable Iran.

I think we can see the consensus around this policy already forming. As I reported last week, Brookings Institution scholars Ken Pollack and Michael O’Hanlon, both hawkish supporters of the Iraq war, recognized containment, if somewhat grudgingly, as the least-worst option.

Yesterday, Fareed Zakaria voiced support for this policy, noting that “In fact, we are already moving toward a robust, workable response to the dangers of an Iranian nuclear program — one that involves sustained containment and deterrence”:

Iran’s rise has aroused suspicion in the Arab world. Many countries in the region are developing closer ties with the United States, including military ones. In the West, European nations worry about nuclear proliferation and are irritated with Iran’s deception and obstructionism. They have gotten tougher over the years in combating Iran and its proxies, and they are getting tougher at implementing some of the financial sanctions that target Iran’s elites. Even Russia and China, which have tried to maintain their ties with Iran, are conscious that they cannot be seen to be utterly unconcerned about proliferation and the defiance of U.N. resolutions. So they’ve allowed for some actions against the Iranian regime (and according to some reports were critical to the outcome of last week’s talks in Geneva).

All this means that Iran has become something of an international pariah, unable to operate with great latitude around the world. 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. […]

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.

We should not fear to negotiate with these rulers. We talked to the Soviet Union even as we implemented a far more extensive policy of containment toward Moscow.

While such historical comparisons shouldn’t be overplayed, the example of containment as practiced against the Soviet Union is helpful. It’s important to remember that the same sort of hysterical assertions currently being made about Iranian “irrationality” were also made about the Soviets. (It’s also worth noting that there was a school of U.S. national security thought that advocated cultivating an image of U.S. “irrationality and vindictiveness.” I didn’t say it was a good school.)

I’ve been glad to see the Helsinki Accords being referenced more frequently — most recently by Ray Takeyh and the Project on Middle East Democracy’s Andrew Albertson here. I also brought up the example of Helsinki last June in an L.A. Times exchange with Rubin. At the time they were signed, the accords were seen as a major victory for the Soviet Union (and decried as “appeasement” by American conservatives). Over the long term, however, they became part of a series of measures that worked to challenge and constrain a hostile power while also creating political space for dissidents who suffered under its rule — precisely what we should aim for with Iran.

Dealing with a nuclear Iran would of course be highly unfavorable, but that’s not the same as “strategically untenable.” I think the Obama administration is right to avoid discussing this option, but given that it is likely to be the least-worst one available, it’s important that we start talking about what the policy would look like.