February 22, 2012

The Iran Containment Fallacy

It has become increasingly fashionable in Jerusalem and Washington to advocate a military strike on Iran. Central to the case for war is the argument that a nuclear-armed Iran, unlike the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War or North Korea today, would be impossible to contain, and therefore attacking Iran is the “least bad option” to prevent an intolerable threat. Ehud Barak, Israel’s Minister of Defense, told an audience at the annual Herzliya security conference in early February that military action may soon be needed because “dealing with a nuclearized Iran will be far more complex, far more dangerous and far more costly in blood and money than stopping it today.” 

Echoing this theme, former Bush administration official and current Mitt Romney adviser John Bolton recently called for an immediate bombing campaign on the grounds that attempting to contain Iran was futile. “The mullahs,” Bolton asserted, “do not buy our theories of deterrence.” And last Thursday, on Capitol Hill, 32 senators introduced a resolution urging President Obama to “oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.” Explaining the rationale, Senator Joe Lieberman said: “We . . . want to say clearly and resolutely to Iran: You have only two choices—peacefully negotiate to end your nuclear weapons program or expect a military strike to end that program.”
Yet, paradoxically, the most likely road to containment is the very course war proponents advocate: a near-term preventive strike on Iran's nuclear program.

There are two pathways to containment. The one administration critics emphasize—that president Obama would somehow choose to “live with” a nuclear-armed Iran—is actually the least likely. Obama has made clear that an Iranian nuclear weapon is “unacceptable,” his Secretary of Defense has described an Iranian nuclear weapon as a “red line,” and the administration has put in place unprecedented sanctions to pressure the regime to accept a diplomatic solution. Obama has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to use force abroad, and during his January 23 State of the Union address stated that the military option remains on the table regarding Iran. Meanwhile, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made clear that the Pentagon has a viable Iran contingency plan should it be required. In short, the least likely road to containment is the one being pursued by the administration.


A second, and far more likely, path to containment is to rush into war before all other options have been exhausted. A near-term U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program would knock it back, at most, a few years. Meanwhile it would motivate Iran’s hardliners to kick out International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, incentivize the regime to rapidly rebuild a clandestine nuclear program, and rally the Iranian people around that cause to deter future attacks. Consequently, in the aftermath of an Israeli or American strike, Washington would have to encircle Iran with a costly containment regime—much like twelve-year effort to bottle up Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War—and be prepared to re-attack at a moment’s notice to prevent Iran from reconstituting its program. And with inspectors gone, it would be much more difficult to detect and prevent Iran’s clandestine rebuilding efforts. The net result would be a decades-long requirement to contain an even more implacable nuclear foe.
Compounding matters, Washington would be left to bear the burden alone. In the absence of clear evidence that Iran has made the final decision to build a bomb, a unilateral Israeli or U.S. strike would shatter international consensus and allow Tehran to play the victim. The result would be the worst of all worlds: an Iran emboldened to go for a bomb and a requirement for post-war containment without the international cooperation required to actually implement such a policy.
In short, the choice between “war now” or “containment later” is a false one. The war hawks want would likely be a prelude to failed containment, not a substitute for it. Fortunately, there are other options and we still have time to pursue them.
The Iranian nuclear threat is growing, but it is not yet imminent. U.S. and Israeli officials have both noted that it would take Iran at least a year to produce a testable nuclear device once Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei decides to do so; it would take several more years to develop a warhead for a missile. Although Iran is clearly positioning itself to develop a nuclear weapons capability, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate on January 31 that there is no hard evidence that Khamenei has yet made the final decision to translate those capabilities into a bomb. Assuming Iran does not have covert enrichment sites, Khamanei is unlikely to dash for a bomb soon because doing so would require Iran to use the declared facilities at Natanz or Qom to produce weapons grade uranium. Because any such move would be detected by the IAEA, Iran is unlikely to go for broke until they can dramatically reduce their timeline or build a weapon at new covert facilities. This could be years away.
Meanwhile, Washington-backed pressure measures are starting to bite. The Iranian economy is struggling under the weight of unprecedented sanctions and, in the face of impending American and European actions against the Iranian oil sector, Iranian leaders have signaled their willingness to return to the negotiating table. We need to take a collective breath and let this process play out.
Military action should remain an option—indeed, the credible background threat of force is important for diplomacy. But we still have time before exercising that option, and we should not let ourselves be rushed into yet another preventive war by the exaggerated claims and false choices presented by war advocates.