Iran: The Flaws of Containment

By November 24, 2010

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 123

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: A containment strategy vis-à-vis Iran seems to be the preferred fall-back option for the international community if sanctions fail. But “containment” will neither stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program nor calm the region. A review of Iranian foreign policy since 1994 (when the US employed a “dual containment” policy towards Iran and Iraq) suggests that Iran is not a rational actor, and that a “containment” policy may prompt aggressive or reckless responses from Tehran. The threshold of all-out war could be easily crossed.

While sanctions have so far failed to put an end to the threat of the Iranian nuclear program, there is again increasing debate on how to approach the conflict over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The debate gathered some momentum following Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent article in The Atlantic, in which he discussed the prospect of a military campaign targeting Iran’s nuclear installations.

At the same time, there is increasing support for a containment strategy vis-a-vis Iran as a fall-back option should sanctions fail to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. This school of thought gained momentum with James M. Lindsay and Ray Takeyh recently arguing in Foreign Affairs that a nuclear Iran could be deterred, and more importantly contained, if only a couple of credible red lines would be drawn. In light of an inconclusive debate on the merits of a military campaign against the Iranian nuclear program, a strategy of containment appears to increasingly receive credible support.

Tempting as it is to resort to such a strategy there are some serious problems that proponents fail to address. Containment requires a rational adversary, an adversary that plays by the same set of rules. The Islamic Republic of Iran, however, is everything but a rational actor; a nuclear capability in its hands will only foster its irrational course in foreign policy. But perhaps more importantly the very design of containment makes it a far less attractive option than its proponents want us to believe.

Rationality Aside

When arguing in favour of applying containment to Iran, one should note that the international community is already doing exactly that and has been doing so ever since the Clinton administration decided to pursue what it called dual containment – a strategy announced in 1994 to contain both Iraq and Iran, with anything but reasonable success. Aside from still having to go to war with Iraq nearly a decade later, the Iranian case is just as problematic. While many observers are looking at the Iranian nuclear program and its handling by the Iranian leadership to understand how a nuclear Iran would behave, it might be more illuminating to look at the development of Iran’s foreign policy in general since containment was first applied.

Despite efforts to contain it, Tehran managed to defy the United States and its regional allies for one and a half decades. It has supplied missiles to Hezbollah, turning this non-state actor into a formidable military force that has stockpiled more missiles than any other power, except perhaps for the world’s remaining superpowers. It constantly treats the waters of the Persian Gulf as its hegemonic domain, occupying islands that are claimed both by Tehran and the United Arab Emirates, and threatens others, such as Bahrain, that are sovereign states. It has meddled in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and Iraq and went as far as to more or less openly wage a proxy war with the United States in Iraq, and repeatedly captured British sailors outside its own territorial waters and held them hostage.

All of that clearly shows that so far containment of Iran has not exactly been a success story. The failure of containment is largely due to the Iranian elite’s world-view. It does indeed believe in the promise of the Islamic republic’s model even beyond its own borders. It still perceives its Islamic revolution as ongoing, and with mounting domestic problems a more aggressive foreign policy holds the promise of galvanising an otherwise increasingly disenfranchised population.

But perhaps more importantly the eschatologically-inspired outlook of Shia Islam makes war a less frightening prospect for the Iranian leadership than for any rational actor. To the contrary, it is amidst the ensuing chaos of such war that the Iranian president expects the twelfth Imam to return and establish new order (and Ahmadinejad is said to believe that he himself is that hidden Imam). Against the backdrop of an already faltering containment strategy it might very well be argued that a nuclear capability at Tehran’s disposal would give the Iranian leadership even more room for aggressive-to-reckless foreign policy manoeuvres.

The Containment Myth

Containment was a successful strategy when applied to the Soviet Union. Moscow, however, was a rational actor and containment was feasible because direct war with the Soviet Union would have meant total destruction for all civilization. But in order to make containment work and maintain it for over four decades, numerous wars had to be fought on what is so ignorantly and wrongly being referred to as the periphery. These wars, from Afghanistan to Angola, claimed the lives of millions and exposed even more to the dictatorial rule of socialist, quasi-socialist and communist states.

The same holds true for Iraq, the second case in which containment was employed. Since the liberation of Kuwait, the United States tried to contain Saddam Hussein’s regime. Containment of Hussein’s regime, however, required constant enforcement of sanctions and the two no-fly zones imposed following the liberation of Kuwait. Containment of Iraq nonetheless eroded continuously and the US repeatedly had to launch military operations to re-enforce containment, most notably with Operation Desert Fox in December 1998. Since Saddam Hussein continued to challenge the allies’ resolve, air-strikes against Iraqi military targets had to continue until Iraq was finally liberated in 2003. By then, however, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had been slaughtered by Saddam’s regime. Contrary to what its proponents want us to believe, containment is by no means a less warlike strategy just because it is not being called war.

Moreover, containment is a strategy to a certain end, not an end in itself. During the Cold War, containment, as put forward by George F. Kennan, was designed to keep the Soviet Union in check. But its ultimate goal was a democratic change in the Soviet Union itself by increasing the reach of freedom and democracy. And with the spectre of a nuclear war with a formidable adversary such as the Soviet Union looming, containment helped to avoid this war. But it should not be forgotten that mankind nonetheless repeatedly stood at the threshold of such an all-out war. With a more aggressive and less rational adversary like Iran, this threshold could well be reached far earlier and crossed more easily.

Having Debunked Containment

Often enough, the proponents of a containment strategy vis-a-vis Iran argue that containment of a nuclear Iran would work and spare the West a war that will otherwise end in a destabilized Middle East and numerous deaths. Containment in that reading is an equally promising and more humane strategy than opting for all-out war with the Iranian theocracy. Moreover, containment would help the international community to not alienate the majority of Iranians that a war would certainly antagonize. It needs to be said, however, that this is not at all certain. To the contrary, employing containment would require a willingness to fight proxy wars with Iran in the entire Middle East and a readiness to use military force to protect weak allies such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. These wars might still alienate Iranians and rally support behind the Iranian leadership and might still escalate into the sort of direct military confrontation that containment seeks to avoid. And since not going nuclear has not been a credible red line the West was willing to enforce against determined Iranian resistance, what will be? None, would be the probable answer assumed in Tehran.

So to make containment work, the West would have to face and fight Iran down on many fronts except the nuclear one. A containment strategy, therefore, will almost certainly result in an equally destabilized Middle East and may well claim just as many lives, without actually achieving any of the West’s primary policy goals; and all of that provided that the West is determined to follow through on containment. It might well be called into question whether the West or the international community for that matter has both the will and the means to go to war on the region’s periphery in order to make containment work.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

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Prof. Dustin Dehez

Prof. Dustin Dehez is visiting professor at the Centre for European Studies, University of Economics Prague (VSE), and a lecturer in international relations at the Otto-Suhr-Institute of the Freie Universität, Berlin.