As fears of a nuclear-armed Iran grow in Washington, partisans have clung even tighter to their preferred panaceas. The debate has broken down along predictable lines: Conservatives have advocated a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, while senior policymakers in Barack Obama's administration continue to hope that "engagement" can convince the Islamic Republic to voluntarily give up its nuclear ambitions.
Both of these choices, however, ignore the most likely, and most promising, U.S. policy option with regard to Iran: containment. Though a hoary Cold War idea, containment served the United States well as a road map in its long struggle against the Soviet Union. The concept, which was first proposed by the staunch anti-Communist George Kennan, was defined as an ongoing effort to maintain a quiet stranglehold on the Soviet economy, its access to sensitive technology, and its influence abroad. When dealing with an Iranian regime that clearly sees more use in demonizing the United States than in engaging in a meaningful rapprochement, containment has to be the de facto U.S. policy.
Containment would allow U.S. policymakers to leverage the biggest advantage they currently have over the Islamic Republic: time. Despite Iran's steady advances in mastering the uranium enrichment cycle, it still faces two significant impediments to creating a workable nuclear weapons program that are not likely to be resolved any time soon. Iran has repeatedly tried, and repeatedly failed, to build covert facilities beyond the watchful gaze of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, where uranium could be enriched to the level required to make a nuclear weapon. Such facilities will require a covertly-obtained supply of uranium -- which Iran has also repeatedly tried, and repeatedly failed, to acquire. Iran's current stockpile of uranium is closely monitored by the IAEA. Until Iran can successfully hide a centrifuge facility and then secretly lay hands on a large quantity of uranium to fuel it, its nuclear weapons program will remain stuck in neutral.
Furthermore, there is evidence that containment was not merely a one-time success story during the Cold War, but can also succeed in the context of modern Middle Eastern politics. I witnessed this firsthand as a member of the CIA's Counterproliferation Division, which was charged with gathering intelligence on the state of Saddam Hussein's rogue weapons of mass destruction programs, and taking covert actions to delay their progress. Before the 2003 invasion, the CIA knew that the multilateral sanctions imposed on Iraq were deeply flawed. "Dual-use" goods -- items with both civilian and military applications -- were being smuggled into Iraq from Turkey and elsewhere. As the smuggling continued, Saddam's government was getting its hands on more and more products that could have been used for nefarious purposes.
Based on past experience with Iraq, the CIA made the reasonable assessment that the dual-use goods were probably being used for clandestine WMD programs. The Iraqi regime was smuggling these goods in illicitly, and nobody was prepared to give Saddam the benefit of the doubt.