“Contain: v. To hold or include within its volume or area.” That’s the first definition of “contain” in my unabridged Random House dictionary.
But the fourth explanation is equally fitting for how to deal with Iran’s ambition to acquire nuclear weapons. It reads, “to keep under proper control; to restrain.”
Interestingly, there is no entry for the noun “containment,” an expression that became the basic framework for American foreign policy in the Cold War with the former Soviet Union.
“Containment” was coined by George Kennan, one of the most astute strategic thinkers in the history of the State Department. Kennan wrote a famous telegram in 1946, published later in Foreign Affairs, in which he outlined a middle path between conflict and compromise as the most effective strategy to confront the powerful and soon to be nuclear-armed Soviet empire.
Faced with a balanced policy of containment, from the Berlin airlift to strong support for the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s, the Soviet empire — and then the Soviet Union itself — collapsed under the weight of its own political contradictions and inability to match the West’s economic dynamism.
Today, containment is emerging as perhaps the most realistic of several bad options to deal with the complex and different threat posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Unlike the Soviet Union, Iran is not a peer competitor to the United States and its main allies, Germany, France and Britain. Unlike the Soviet Union, Iran is a regional, not international power. Yet its energy resources, location and young, educated population have enabled it to become the most powerful state in the Middle East other than Israel.
Iran, under a tyrannical, clerical-military elite, remains an untrustworthy nation. Despite signs of moderation in the 1990s, the regime’s support of terrorism, vitriolic attacks against Israel and brutal repression of opposition in the 2009 election explain why it is widely distrusted and isolated.
So what is the most effective strategy to deal with fully documented evidence that Iran is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons through uranium enrichment and development of medium- and long-range missiles?
With intelligence reports stating that Iran is two to five years away from acquiring the bomb, there are basically, four options: sanctions, regime change, military action and containment.
A range of political and economic sanctions, increasingly focused on the Revolutionary Guard, is the preferred approach. But while the U.S. and its allies are ready to enforce strict measures, Russia and China, both Security Council members, are reluctant partners.
Regime change in Iran is now more plausible than it was for two decades. Genuine popular opposition has risen sharply against the dead hand of the mullahs. Yet, that implies patience, time and support to an opposition that may not succeed.
Military action against Iran’s widely dispersed nuclear sites has not been ruled out. Yet, most strategic thinkers do not see even the most successful air strikes as causing more than a temporary delay in Iran’s program. And an attack would accomplish what Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran did: allow a shaky regime to rally people to the nation’s defense.
The Israeli government’s assessment of Iran remains the wild card. Without clear backing from Washington, now in doubt, Israel may be reluctant to strike, given the need for overflights and massive support in the aftermath.
Which leads to the idea of containment — or, bluntly, acceptance of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear energy and a nuclear weapons capability — though not weaponization.
Foreign Affairs carried a superb article by James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh in its March/April issue, arguing that containment is the most appropriate course of action if sanctions fail.
Lindsay and Takeyh wrote that Iran may become the world’s 10th nuclear power, possibly precipitating a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and certainly heightening the risk of grave conflict. Nevertheless, they argue that decisive action by the Obama administration, other leading powers, Israel and moderate Arab states may be able to contain Iranian aggression.
That action would consist of drawing clear red lines that would spell prompt, overwhelming retaliation, including use of nuclear weapons, if Iran turned their enriched uranium into bombs, put their nuclear arsenal on alert, gave nuclear material to terrorist groups or attacked other states with conventional or nuclear forces.
“Containment,” they wrote, “would be neither a perfect nor a foolproof policy; it would not be a substitute for force. To the contrary, its very success would depend on the willingness of the United States to use force against Iran or threaten to do so should Iran cross [the] redlines.”
It is hard to predict the future. But Iranian determination to acquire nuclear weapons, and the West’s response, may turn out to be the first major foreign crisis of the Obama administration.
Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He can be reached at email@example.com.