Containment is not a viable strategy against a nuclear Iran
Some have claimed that it may be better to try and adapt to a nuclear Iran through a policy of containment or deterrence rather than trying to prevent their becoming a nuclear power in the first place. This overly optimistic scenario overlooks Iran's history and the irrational rhetoric of its messianic regime.
[ Page 47 ]
During the Cold War, the United States sought to protect its allies from the aggression and influence of the Soviet Union. If the U.S. fails to prevent Iran from going nuclear, our aim will be not just to protect ourselves from Iran, but also from terrorists. To stave off the proliferation cascade that a nuclear Iran would precipitate, the United States would have to both deter Tehran and police its own allies. Yet these nations are not interested in mutual defense agreements with the United States, let alone the permanent basing of U.S. troops on their soil. Whereas the allies that joined with the United States to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) not only received U.S. protection but were also willing to commit to come to our defense, such mutuality is not true of our Middle Eastern partners. Already, Saudi Arabia has declared it would seek a nuclear weapon if Iran obtains one. Other countries in the region, especially Egypt and Turkey would not be far behind.
During the Cold War, our adversary was a nuclear-armed state. But Tehran is also the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons capability, the United States will have to contend with the very real possibility that it might transfer nuclear materials or technologies to its terrorist proxies. Classic containment strategy, however, is not adequate to deter non-state actors. Without easily targetable political, social or economic interests, such entities are not susceptible to the logic of mutually assured destruction. Even if executed properly, containment was never meant to persuade unreliable allies to forgo proliferation or to deter terrorists.
[ Page 49 ]
Containment advocates argue that the United States can maintain a balance of power through missile defense, arms transfers and regional security cooperation.84 But they overlook the importance of collective defense organizations like NATO as well as mutual defense alliances with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan to the success of Cold War containment. Deterring Iran would require similar regional alliances, which require years to establish interoperability before they become stable and effective instruments for containment. Creation of such a network in the Middle East is infeasible. The Middle East is not Western Europe.
[ Page 51 ]
The Pentagon is therefore opting for offshore and over-thehorizon force postures rather than forward defense and explicit security guarantees. The Obama administration is reorienting missile interceptors to counter Iran’s growing long-range missile capabilities and, to deal with Iran’s shortrange ballistic missiles and cruise missiles, the Pentagon has provided additional Patriot interceptor batteries to Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Simultaneously, the U.S. Navy is expressing doubts about its ability to maintain two carrier strike groups in the Fifth Fleet area of operations, which includes the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. The current Fleet Response Plan was adopted after 9/11 to make the Navy more capable of short-notice surge deployments to crisis areas such as the Middle East, and 2010-11 marked the first time two carrier strike groups were routinely on station in the Fifth Fleet AOR. In practice, Group to project U.S. forces onshore and support carrier strike group operations.
Chief naval officers, however, have warned that maintenance, personnel and shipbuilding constraints mean they cannot meet these deployment requirements longer than two more years, and only then if additional surge forces are not required by other U.S. fleets.90 Combined, these trends create a less credible defense posture for containment. While a multifaceted missile shield may provide some measure of self-defense to U.S. partners in the region, it does not commit Washington to come to their defense if attacked. Maintaining two carrier strike groups in the Fifth Fleet area of operations on a regular basis bolsters the credibility of U.S. military readiness activity and signals American resolve, but does not constitute a physical or psychological tripwire that could discourage a nuclearcapable Iran from threatening its U.S.-allied neighbors across the region.
[ Page 6 ]
On the other hand, the United States should not passively accept Iranian nuclearization. In private conversations, strategic and foreign policy elites in both the Gulf Cooperation Council’s member states and Israel express concern that acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability would embolden Tehran to use its influence and strategic resources more aggressively against the interests of the United States and its allies in the Middle East. Other assessments highlight the risks that Iranian nuclearization would prompt states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to seek their own nuclear weapons capabilities, effectively eviscerating nonproliferation efforts both regionally and globally. While one reasonably can question whether such an outcome is inevitable, it seems incontrovertible that Iranian nuclearization would, at a minimum, raise tensions and greatly complicate strategic calculations in the Persian Gulf and beyond.
America is a nation of 300 million; Israel, 8 million. America is a continental nation; Israel, a speck on the map, at one point eight miles wide. Israel is a “one-bomb country.” Its territory is so tiny, its population so concentrated that, as Iran’s former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has famously said, “Application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.” A tiny nuclear arsenal would do the job. In U.S.-Soviet deterrence, both sides knew that a nuclear war would destroy them mutually. The mullahs have thought the unthinkable to a different conclusion. They know about the Israeli arsenal. They also know, as Rafsanjani said, that in any exchange Israel would be destroyed instantly and forever, whereas the ummah — the Muslim world of 1.8 billion people whose redemption is the ultimate purpose of the Iranian revolution — would survive damaged but almost entirely intact. This doesn’t mean that the mullahs will necessarily risk terrible carnage to their country in order to destroy Israel irrevocably. But it does mean that the blithe assurance to the contrary — because the Soviets never struck first — is nonsense. The mullahs have a radically different worldview, a radically different grievance and a radically different calculation of the consequences of nuclear war. The confident belief that they are like the Soviets is a fantasy. That’s why Israel is contemplating a preemptive strike. Israel refuses to trust its very existence to the convenient theories of comfortable analysts living 6,000 miles from its Ground Zero.
[ Page 49 ]
While such pressures may play a limited role in Iran's decisionmaking, it would be unwise for the United States to put too much faith in such possibilities. First, Iran's regional behavior is only partially driven by security fears. Even if Iran believed there was no threat from the United States, its status as a potential regional hegemon gives it incentive to increase its role in regional affairs. Second, while a limited amount of learning related to nuclear crisis management did take place during the Cold War, it took the United States and the Soviets a number of crises to fully appreciate these lessons.11 Although the existence of this Cold War record might enable Iran to learn such lessons more quickly, the limits of vicarious learning offer ample reasons to doubt that Iran will internalize these dictums without experiencing similar crises.
[ Page 30 ]
[ABRAMS] The third argument against an Israeli strike is that a nuclear-armed Iran could still be “contained.” It is never explained how this would be achieved. Containment is not a diplomatic strategy but at bottom a doctrine enforced by military power: red lines are set and may not be crossed without clear consequences. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, this would mean that all such red lines had been crossed and that US warnings had been proved to be mere words. After Iran has gained status as a nuclear weapons state, how could Washington threaten war to contain it when it was unwilling to act when it did not have nuclear weapons? This cannot be seriously advanced as a realistic proposition to make Iran think twice about the course it has set.
"Attacking Iran's Nuclear Project
." World Affairs
. Vol. 175, No. 1 (May-June 2012): 25-38. [ More (7 quotes) ]
[ Page 19 ]
A simplistic exchange model would have the U.S. threatening a nuclear attack in retaliation for any nuclear use by Iran. This approach not only is implausible, but better options are available to the United States. As the guarantor of the international order and the country with an overwhelming dominance in conventional military forces, no nation benefits as much as the U.S. from the norm against nuclear use. Nuclear use in warfare would substantially drive up the cost to the U.S. of preserving order, whereas the prohibition that has existed since 1945 channels conflict into the sector of warfare in which the U.S. has the greatest operational advantages: clashes between identifiable combatants organized into military units and targeting adversary military units. To deter Iran, the U.S. doesn't need to threaten nuclear retaliation.
[ Page 19-20 ]
In fact, containment never worked -- and it has even less of a chance of working in the future. Its failures have been well documented in yearly reports by the State Department, which detail Iran's ongoing support for terrorism and warn of advances in its nuclear program. Sanctions and other forms of U.S. pressure have failed to prevent Iranian misbehavior. Worse, the Bush administration has taken steps recently that make containment an even less effective policy. Washington's ill-advised invasion of Iraq has benefited Iran by empowering local Shiite parties sympathetic to Tehran. Long gone are the days when a powerful, Sunni-dominated Iraq could function as a counterweight to Shiite power in Iran. Iraq's Shiites are hardly homogeneous, but the leading Shiite parties in power in Baghdad -- Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- have intimate ties to Tehran. This does not mean that Iraq's new leaders are willing to subordinate their interests to those of Iran, but they are unlikely to confront the Islamic Republic at the behest of Washington.