While preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is preferable, the United States could successfully contain a nuclear Iran, according to a new report released here Monday by the Center for a New American Security, an influential think tank close to the administration of President Barack Obama.
The report, “If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear-Armed Iran,” outlines a detailed “containment strategy” designed to deter Tehran’s use of a nuclear bomb or its transfer to non-state actors, and persuade other regional states not to develop their own nuclear arms capabilities. “The United States should do everything in its power to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, and no option should be left off the table,” said Colin Kahl, the lead author of the 80-page report and the Pentagon’s top Middle East policy official during most of Obama’s first term.
“But we also have to consider the possibility that prevention efforts – including the use of force – could fail,” he added in an email to IPS. “In that case, we’d need a strategy for managing and mitigating the threats a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to vital U.S. interests and allies. That’s what we’re focusing on.” The administration, according to the report, has so firmly committed itself to a prevention policy – including threatening military action if diplomatic efforts and economic pressure fail – that cannot explicitly endorse a different approach “without damaging the very credibility it needs to effectively address the Iranian nuclear challenge,” according to the report.
At the same time, however, Tehran may be able to achieve “an unstoppable breakout capability” or build a weapon in secret before preventive measures have been exhausted. In addition, a U.S. or Israeli military strike may inflict only minimal damage to Iran’s nuclear program while strengthening hard-liners in the regime who believe a nuclear deterrent is the only way to ensure its survival. “Under any of these scenarios, Washington would likely be forced to shift toward containment regardless of current preferences,” the report notes, arguing that Washington needs to think through the requirements for an effective strategy.
The new report adds to a growing literature about U.S. options in dealing with Iran, which has itself repeatedly denied that its nuclear program is designed to develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. intelligence community has also reported consistently over the last six years that Iran’s leadership has not yet decided to build a weapon, although the increasing sophistication and infrastructure of its nuclear program will make it possible to build one more quickly if such a decision is made. U.S. intelligence agencies have expressed confidence that they will be able to detect any effort by Iran to achieve a “break-out” capacity.
Since coming to office in 2009, the Obama administration has described its efforts to dissuade Iran from developing a nuclear weapon as a “dual-track” approach involving both diplomatic outreach through the so-called P5+1 process of negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, and economic pressure exerted primarily through the imposition of harsh economic sanctions – some multilateral, most unilateral – designed to “cripple” the Iranian economy.
While the sanctions have clearly damaged Iran’s troubled economy, Tehran has so far rejected far-reaching concessions demanded by the Western members of the P5+1, such as suspending all operations at its underground Fordo enrichment facility and shipping most of its 20-percent enriched-uranium stockpile out of the country. While there have been some exchanges between the P5+1 and Iran since their last meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan last month, the diplomatic process appears to have been put on hold pending next month’s presidential elections in the Islamic Republic.
The lack of progress on the diplomatic front combined with technological advances in Iran’s nuclear program – with estimates that Tehran will have likely enough enriched uranium to build a bomb within a very short period by next spring or summer — has provoked a simmering conflict here. It revolves around pro-Israel and proliferation hawks pushing for yet more draconian sanctions and “credible threats of force” by the administration on the one hand and more dovish forces who are calling for more emphasis on the diplomatic track.
Much of the foreign policy establishment, including former senior military, intelligence, and diplomatic officials, lean to the latter camp; recent reports by blue-ribbon task forces of The Iran Project, the Atlantic Council, the Carnegie Endowment, and the Center for the National Interest have shown a developing elite consensus in favour of greater U.S. flexibility at the negotiating table. In Congress, where the Israel lobby enjoys its greatest influence, however, the emphasis remains on the pressure track. Measures currently being circulated in both houses of Congress target foreign companies and banks in ways that, if enforced, would impose a virtual trade embargo against Iran.
The new report, the latest in a series by CNAS on Iran policy, does not address either strategy, although Kahl has in the past argued for greater U.S. flexibility in negotiations. It is likely, however, to fuel the ongoing debates between the hawks and doves on whether Washington can indeed live with a nuclear-armed Iran if its “prevention” strategy fails. A containment strategy, according Kahl and his two-co-authors, Raj Pattani and Jacob Stokes, would integrate five key components: deterrence, defence, disruption, de-escalation and de-nuclearisation.
Deterrence would involve, among other steps, strengthening Washington’s threat to retaliate in kind if Iran uses nuclear weapons and extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella to other regional states in exchange for their commitment not to pursue independent nuclear capabilities. Defence would aim to deny Iran any benefit from its nuclear weapons by building up U.S. missile-defence capabilities and naval deployments in the region and increasing security co-operation with Gulf countries and Israel.
Disruption would include “shap(ing) a regional environment resistant to Iranian influence” by, among other steps, building up Egypt and Iraq as strategic counterweights; “promoting evolutionary political reform” in the Gulf; and increasing aid to moderate elements among Syrian rebels and the Lebanese Army as a counter to Hezbollah. De-escalation would be designed to prevent any Iran-related crisis from spiralling to nuclear war “persuading Israel to eschew preemptive nuclear doctrine and other destabilizing nuclear postures,” creating crisis-communication mechanisms and exploring confidence-building measures with Iran; assuring Tehran that “regime change” is not Washington’s goal, and providing it with “’face-saving’ exit ramps” during crises.
Finally, de-nuclearisation would try to constrain Iran’s nuclear program and limit broader damage to the non-proliferation regime by maintaining and tightening sanctions against Iran and strengthening interdiction efforts. The report stressed that such a strategy would entail major costs, including “doubling down on U.S. security commitments to the Middle East,” making the administration’s military “rebalancing” to the Asia/Pacfic more difficult; “greatly complicate efforts to promote reform” allied Arab states; and “increase the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy at the very time the Obama administration hopes to move in the opposite direction.”
The CNAS report was immediately assailed by several prominent neo-conservatives who have long been warning that Obama, given his clear reluctance to risk war in another predominantly Muslim country, would himself eschew his prevention strategy in favour of “containment by another name.” But, as noted by Kahl, the hard-line neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute published a paper 18 months ago that concluded that “containing and deterring” a nuclear-armed Iran could be the “least-bad choice” for U.S. policy if Washington can “demonstrate that it can deter both Iran’s use of nuclear weapons and aggression by Tehran’s network of partners and terrorist proxies.”
Kahl’s position on containment is also expected to be echoed with the anticipated publication by Ken Pollack, a former CIA analyst at the Brookings Institution, of his new book, “Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy’. Pollack’s 2002 book, “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq,” helped persuade many liberals and Democrats to back the invasion.