As fears of a
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
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
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
The CIA, however, was wrong.
Following the invasion, I served in two separate occasions on the Iraq Survey
Group (ISG), which was tasked with locating Saddam's WMDs. Despite the smuggled
shipments of dual-use goods, the ISG definitively established that Saddam,
under pressure from the combination of the U.S. sanctions, U.N. sanctions, and
U.N. weapons inspectors, had abandoned his WMD programs.
In interviews with Iraqi
government scientists at all levels of Saddam's regime, we heard the same story
again and again: Saddam wanted WMD, but didn't think he could build them
without getting caught. Saddam's "intent to reconstitute" his previous WMD
programs was undeniable - but so was the fact that, despite wide holes in the
sanctions regime, Saddam was still so wary of international scrutiny that Iraq
had no active nuclear, biological, or chemical programs, and had not had them
Containment worked on the Soviet
Union, and the ISG -- tragically, only after the invasion -- proved that it was
also working on Iraq. As was the case with Iraq, the sanctions regime against
Iran's nuclear program has major holes -- including, once again, major
smuggling operations that pass through Turkey. But perfection is not a
reasonable goal in an imperfect world. Flawed though sanctions and
international scrutiny may be, they still serve to greatly complicate Iran's
attempts to build a nuclear weapon.
The repeated discovery of Iran's
attempt to construct covert enrichment facilities suggests that the combination
of sanctions, international scrutiny, intelligence collection, and covert
action are still doing major damage to its nuclear weapons ambitions, and will
continue to do so.
But what about the regime itself?
While containment delays Iran's nuclear ambitions, U.S. policymakers should be
happy to watch the Islamic Republic implode due to its own domestic and
economic tensions. The Iranian government has badly mismanaged the country's
economic, and falling oil revenue has only exacerbated the crisis. The official
inflation rate currently hovers around 10 percent, while unemployment is officially
close to 12 percent, but private economists estimate the real unemployment
figure is closer to 20 percent, with the number rising as high as 30 percent
among young workers and women.
Economic tensions have already
sparked domestic dissent: A recent attempt to raise government revenue by
imposing a 70 percent business tax on merchants resulted in a strike in Iran's
bazaars, forcing the government to back down. Recent rumors have also suggested
that the government may be preparing to cut its expensive subsidies on food and
gas -- a move that risks reigniting another round of civil unrest, similar to
the 2007 gas protests that rocked the country. Perhaps the most ominous hint of
the state of the Iranian economy comes from the government itself -- its central
bank has not reported the country's official growth rate since 2008.
The discontent with Iran's
theocratic regime was overestimated in the wake of the riots following the 2009
presidential election, but is nevertheless widespread and growing. The majority
of Iranians alive today were born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and have
no ideological stake in maintaining the current regime. As they move into
"middle management" in the coming years, that same rot of deep disaffection
that destroyed the Soviet Union will spread with accelerating speed through the
public and private sectors of Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's
grip on power may be tight today, but he cannot halt this demographic trend. The
only event that could revive the ayatollahs' dimming fortunes is a military
attack from the United States or Israel, which would produce a "rally around
the flag" effect in the country.
In order to limit the threat of a
nuclear-armed Iran, the United States should keep doing what it has been doing:
squeezing Iran with sanctions and using every nonviolent means available to it
to block Iran's nuclear progress. This does not mean that the United States
should cease efforts to "engage" with Iran, but its expectations for success
should be severely limited. The history of failed, foiled, and false
negotiations with Iran suggests that the chief value of earnest U.S. attempts at
negotiation is to demonstrate conclusively to the international community that
Iranian intransigence to the blame for the lack of a resolution to this
standoff. Having lost the moral high ground in much of the world's eyes with the
invasion of Iraq, the United States can only be helped by continued efforts to
engage Iran, which will allow it to win back some of its reputation as a
responsible member of the international community.
In an uncertain world, it is
impossible to say that there are absolutely no circumstances under which the
use of force against Iran would be appropriate. If Iran develops a bomb, and if
the U.S. intelligence community develops reliable information that Iran intends
to use the bomb, or put it in the hands of some group that intends to use it,
then that would certainly be sufficient grounds for armed intervention.
But outside these narrow and
extraordinary circumstances, U.S. policymakers should shelve their plans for a
quick fix to the Iranian threat. Rather, the United States should rely on the
long-term trends that are working in their favor to thwart the Islamic
Republic's plans. The disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq and the CIA's errant
assumption also should not distract from the fact that containment did
successfully dissuade Saddam from pursuing his WMD programs. When it comes to
Iran, the United States should not walk away from a concept that has repeatedly
proved its worth.
Containment, however, is not the
only lesson relevant to Iran from U.S. history with post-Soviet Russia and Iraq.
Hope for Russia as a budding democracy fizzled as Russia has backslid slowly
into autocracy. Before the invasion of Iraq, the State Department had the
foresight to create a "Future of Iraq" project, which projected problems the United
States was likely to face building democracy in post-invasion Iraq.
Unfortunately, due to political infighting, the prescient work in the Future of
Iraq project was ignored by the Coalition Provisional Authority that
administered Iraq, initiating a series of missteps whose consequences haunt U.S.
efforts at nation-building in the country to this day.
Now is the time to turn the same
focus and intensity that produced the Future of Iraq project to planning for
that day, perhaps a year from now, perhaps a decade, when the theocratic regime
in Iran collapses under its own weight. A "Future of Iran" project, taking a
serious look at how to support a fledgling Iranian government establish
democratic norms and build civil society, is a crucial step. If the United States simply stands aside and
waits for the collapse, then throws a poorly coordinated patchwork of aid and
development programs at the country, we may see post-theocracy Iran slipping backwards
as hard-line clerics fight to reassert their control, as apparatchiks have in
post-Soviet Russia. Containment, while it has proven useful at helping usher
shaky regimes into collapse, is only half of a strategy. It's time to start
planning for the other half.
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