The Center for New American Security (CNAS) report — titled “If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear-Armed Iran” [PDF] — doesn’t advocate the Obama administration leaving its current policy of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. It does, however, question the logic of not preparing for such an eventuality. “In the absence of a well thought-out strategy for the ‘day after’ Iran gets the bomb, strategic improvisation could produce policy responses that are ineffective or even counterproductive,” the report argues.
In response, authors Colin Kahl, Raj Pattani and Jacob Stokes develop a set of eleven policies they believe should be put into place should prevention efforts — up to and including the use of force — fail. In such an event, the White House should pursue five “key components” to achieve those goals:
- Deterrence: attempt to prevent Iranian nuclear use and aggression through credible threats of retaliation;
- Defense: deny Iran the ability to benefit from its nuclear weapons and to protect U.S. partners and allies from aggression;
- Disruption: shape a regional environment resistant to Iranian influence and to thwart and diminish Iran’s destabilizing activities;
- De-escalation: prevent Iran-related crises from spiraling to nuclear war; and
- Denuclearization: constrain Iran’s nuclear weapons program and limit broader damage to the nonproliferation regime
Having such a plan in place is necessary, the authors argue, given the possibility that even a military strike on Iran — which the Obama administration says remains on the table as a last resort to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran — may not cause Tehran to waver. “Even an operationally effective strike would not, in and of itself, permanently end Iran’s program,” Kahl, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, said in an interview with Al-Monitor. “A strike might substantially degrade Iran’s near-term capability to produce nuclear weapons, but it would almost certainly increase Tehran’s motivation to eventually acquire nuclear weapons to deter future attacks.”
Kahl’s statement tracks with previous reports’ conclusions regarding the use of force against Iran. A Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Federation of American Scientists report issued last month warned that Iran’s nuclear program cannot be “bombed away.” While Tehran still has not decided to pursue nuclear weapons, according to intelligence from the United States and Israel, U.S. and Israeli officials alike fear that a strike on Iran’s nuclear program could in fact spur them onward to produce a nuclear weapon.
Unfortunately, “containment” has all too often become synonymous with “capitulation” in the current discourse about Iran’s nuclear program, as seen during Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings. However, even the conservative American Enterprise Institute came to the conclusion that the Obama administration should at least consider the possibility of containment. In a 2011 article, the authors noted that containment, while likely difficult, may wind up being the “least-bad choice” on Iran.