May 10, 2013

U.S. Needs Containment Strategy Should Prevention of Nuclear-Armed Iran Fail, Says New Report Released by CNAS

In a report released today by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), Dr. Colin H. Kahl, Raj Pattani and Jacob Stokes argue that the Obama administration is rightly committed to preventing – not containing – a nuclear-armed Iran, but prevention efforts, up to and including the use of force, could fail. If so, they point out in If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear-Armed Iran, the United States could eventually be forced to shift to a policy of containment despite current preferences.  

Download If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear-Armed Iran.

Because of the destabilizing consequences associated with Iranian nuclearization, Dr. Kahl, a CNAS Senior Fellow; Mr. Pattani, a graduate student in security studies at Georgetown University; and Jacob Stokes, a CNAS Research Associate share the administration’s opposition to containment.  Although containment is theoretically possible, the authors point out that such a policy would be far from foolproof – and the costs of failure would be exceedingly high. Pursuing containment could also undermine other administration priorities, including the pivot to Asia, the promotion of reform in the context of the Arab Spring, and the reduction of the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy.  Nonetheless, the authors contend, “this preference for prevention is not an excuse to avoid thinking through the requirements for effective containment,” and they identify several circumstances under which the United States might be forced to pursue containment:

  • The United States could fail to prevent Iran from achieving an undetectable (and thus unstoppable) “breakout capability.” If Washington misjudges Iranian capabilities and Iran crosses a technological threshold that allows them to rapidly produce nuclear weapons before preventive efforts (including military force) have been exhausted, it could present the United States with a fait accompli.
  • Due to an intelligence failure, Iran might be able to “sneak-out” and develop nuclear weapons in secret.
  • A U.S. or Israeli military strike that fails to severely damage Iran’s nuclear infrastructure or shatters the international consensus isolating Tehran could re-double the Iranian regime’s motivations to acquire nuclear weapons while limiting options to stop Iran from doing so.

The authors stress that if prevention fails, “it would be imperative to move rapidly and coherently to minimize the damage to vital U.S. interests. . . . Facing the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran would be bad enough, but being unprepared for this possible future would be worse.” For this reason, If All Else Fails outlines a comprehensive framework to manage and mitigate the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran. The strategy – which the authors call the “Five Ds” – would include steps to deter Iranian nuclear and conventional threats, defend the U.S. homeland and American allies, disrupt Tehran’s destabilizing activities, de-escalate regional crises, and eventually denuclearize Iran’s program. Such planning and preparation is needed, they say, “not because the United States wants to take this path, but because it may eventually become the only path left.” 


This report is the third in a series assessing the potential consequences of Iranian nuclearization.  The first report in the series, Risk and Rivalry: Iran, Israel and the Bomb, was published by CNAS in June 2012 and the second in the series, Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia be Next? was published in February 2013.