Attempting to contain Iran is unrealistic and will lack credibility
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In the lead-up to this deal, the United States has already felt compelled to deepen our commitments to our regional allies, perhaps move more troops and other assets to the region, and sell our allies more weaponry. The Obama Administration has already begun taking some of these steps – an interesting twist of fate, since the President entered office determined to reduce our commitments in the Middle East. Nevertheless, some have argued that such renewed engagement might allow the United States to contain a nuclear Iran – and the potential cascade of instability in its wake – much like the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
In reality, the challenges would be manifold and intractable, and the costs and risks prohibitive. First, successful containment is premised on deterrence, which in turn demands credibility. The United States by definition would have minimal credibility after having spent years declaring a nuclear Iran was unacceptable. Second, containment is innately reactive – it draws a line in the sand and waits for the adversary to try crossing it. This would allow Iran to try to challenge the United States and its allies over time, by engaging in slightly and steadily more provocative behavior piecemeal. Third, even when successful, containment is an indefinite, long-term obligation, based on a willingness to prevail in a contest of wills over some indeterminate period, and there is little indication so far that we wish to prepared to endure this contest and pay the price in blood and treasure. A final concern is whether the nature of the regime in Tehran – and other regimes or entities that might acquire nuclear weapons – would even render it containable with nuclear capability. To again cite Kissinger and Schultz: “Previous thinking on nuclear strategy also assumed the existence of stable state actors. Among the original nuclear powers, geographic distances and the relatively large size of programs combined with moral revulsion to make surprise attack all but inconceivable. How will these doctrines translate into a region where sponsorship of non-state proxies is common, the state structure is under assault, and death on behalf of jihad is a kind of fulfillment?”