Can Iran Be Contained?

Washington’s latest approach to the Iranian missile threat seems to be rather an old-fashioned one: isolating the problem (financially for instance) and attempting to destabilize it from within — in other words: containment.

Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, writing for The Washington Post, isn’t having any of it. It is wrong, she writes, “to think a nuclear Iran can be contained.”

The theory of containment is a Cold War one, notes Pletka, and applying it to modern-day Iran is false. There is no mutually assured destruction because the Obama Administration is too hesitant to ensure it; there is no clear leadership in Iran, especially after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s heavily contested reelection last June; and there are no allies nearby, for the neighboring Arab states are afraid of Iran. Iran on the other hand, doesn’t lack self-confidence.

Tehran probably sees itself more in the mold of India, a great power whose nuclear weapons are acknowledged and now accepted, than of North Korea, a lunocracy without serious global aspirations or influence.

If Iranian officials ponder withdrawal from the non-proliferation treaty, it’s because they no longer want to be constrained by status-quo powers and their status-quo treaties.

Pletka’s argument doesn’t sound too convincing however. After all, containment worked pretty well in the past. What’s really so different about Iran?

Moreover, Pletka largely ignores the Israeli perspective. She admits that a nuclear Iran will be tempted to use its nukes “as a shield from behind which it can engage in adventurism in Lebanon, Iraq and Israel” and that the latter is unlikely to tolerate that, but Israeli action can harm America’s interests.

Obama administration officials confess that they believe Israeli action will preempt our policy debate, as Israel’s tolerance for an Iranian nuke is significantly lower than our own. But subcontracting American national security to Israel is an appalling notion, and we cannot assume that an Israeli action would not provoke a wider regional conflict into which the United States would be drawn.

Thus America must strike now lest it be drawn into a “wider regional conflict” that Iran is unlikely to instigate in the first place? With troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and supposedly still fighting a Global War on Terror, it appears America is already quite involved in a wider Middle Eastern conflict.

The very reason Iran is developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles is because it is afraid of Israel and the United States. Pletka believes that Iran is bullying us all into accepting it as a nuclear power while hardly anyone in Washington likes the notion of that — and Israel is unlikely to accept it.


  1. I disagree with “The very reason Iran is developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles is because it is afraid of Israel and the United States.”
    A significant percentage of the US armed forces are on the borders of Iran, and despite their primary role in international terrorism, we have not attacked.
    Iran can be controlled only from within. If the Iranian opposition were to successfully remove the theocracy. Iran would become the most valuable ally to the West. External threats have a negative impact, the US should disavow any attacks and openly deter Israel.

  2. You’re presuming that common sense prevails in Tehran? Sure, the US has little reason to attack Iran (perhaps unless it acquires nuclear weapons), however with a president denying the Holocaust and a bunch of Islamist extremists pulling the strings behind the curtain, there’s at least some reason to think that not all of Iran’s policy makers are as rational as we’d like them to be.

    I wholeheartedly agree that internal reform is our best chance at getting an Iran that’s no longer a threat but actually an asset in the Middle East. As it is though, it’s an oppressive theocracy that is financing terrorism and threatening Israel. Waiting around for reform to happen might not do the trick.

  3. I agree. I hope that the “new liberalism” does not constrain the West’s intelligence agencies from accelerating reform. I wish that Jimmy Carter had thought a little more about the consequences when he created the vacuum back in the 1970’s.

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