Members of the Iranian army's land force marching during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war, Tehran, September 2010.
Members of the Iranian army's land force marching during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war, Tehran, September 2010. 
Morteza Nikoubazl / reuters


If there is one part of the world where the Clinton administration cannot be accused of lacking a clear foreign policy, it is the Persian Gulf. The administration has identified both Iraq and Iran as significant threats to America’s interests in the region. It has developed a policy, known as "dual containment," to deal with those threats by isolating both countries regionally, cutting them off from the world economic and trading system, and encouraging a regime change in Iraq. It has strongly supported the continuation of U.N. sanctions against Iraq, made efforts to persuade Europe, Russia and Japan to deny Iran access to international capital and arms markets, and continued American military commitments to Saudi Arabia and the smaller monarchies that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

In the case of the Persian Gulf, however, such clarity is not a virtue. The dual containment policy is shot through with logical flaws and practical inconsistencies and is based on faulty geopolitical premises. It is hard to see how either Iraq or Iran could be contained, in the administration’s sense, without the cooperation of its hostile counterpart. American allies in the region and elsewhere have shown no enthusiasm for dual containment, making its implementation highly problematic. Dual containment offers no guidelines for dealing with change in the gulf, and it ties American policy to an inherently unstable regional status quo. Worse yet, it assigns to the United States a unilateral role in managing gulf security issues at a time when the American capacity to influence events in Iran and Iraq is at best limited. The policy could end up encouraging the very results, regional conflict and increased Iranian power, that the United States seeks to prevent.


On May 18, 1993, Martin Indyk, the special assistant to the President for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council, outlined the dual containment policy in a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He said that the United States would no longer play the game of balancing Iran against Iraq. The strength of the United States and its friends in the region, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the GCC, would allow Washington to "counter both the Iraqi and Iranian regimes. We will not need to depend on one to counter the other."

Indyk stated that the administration’s goal in Iraq is "to establish clearly and unequivocally that the current regime in Iraq is a criminal regime, beyond the pale of international society and, in our judgment, irredeemable." While reiterating the U.S. commitment to the territorial integrity of Iraq, he left little doubt that a regime change in Baghdad is the ultimate goal of American policy.

Indyk warned, however, that an exclusive focus on the Iraqi threat to American interests could lead to dangerous consequences if "the balance of power in the gulf [tilts] in favor of Iran." The "containment" of Iran, not buttressed by U.N. resolutions, is trickier than that of Iraq. Indyk stated that the U.S. recognizes that such containment must be multilateral. Toward that end Washington will work "energetically" to persuade other countries not to engage in military transactions or "normal commercial relations" with Tehran, because "Iran is a bad investment in both commercial and strategic terms for all responsible members of the international community." Indyk referred to a "five-part challenge" that Iran poses to the United States and the international community: its support for "terrorism and assassination across the globe"; its opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process, expressed in its support for groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas; its efforts to subvert friendly Arab governments; its military buildup aimed at dominating the gulf region; and its quest to acquire weapons of mass destruction. 1


America’s interest in the gulf remains appropriately unchanged with the end of the Cold War: guaranteeing the uninterrupted flow of oil to the world market at prices that do not damage the economies of the United States and its allies in the advanced industrialized world. What has changed is the perception of where the threats to that interest lie, and how the United States should respond.

It was the risk of increased Soviet influence in the area that prompted the initial American commitments to Iran after World War II and the covert American involvement in the 1952 coup that overthrew the Iranian government of Mohammad Mossadegh. An American air base was maintained in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, from World War II until 1962 as part of the global strategy of containment of the Soviet Union. As recently as 1987, with the Cold War thawing, the prospect of an increased Soviet role in the gulf led the Reagan administration to provide naval protection to Kuwaiti and Saudi tankers during the last years of the Iran-Iraq War.

The irony of this focus on the Soviet threat to the gulf is that the three most damaging events to American oil interests arose from local circumstances in which Moscow had little, if any, role. The quadrupling of oil prices in 1973-74 was caused by Saudi Arabia’s production cuts and embargo against the United States during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war at a time when the world supply of oil was closely matched to world demand. The doubling of oil prices in 1979-81 was the result of the disruption to Iranian production caused by the revolution, again in a situation where world supply of and demand for oil were delicately balanced. Saddam Hussein was hardly acting as a Soviet proxy when he invaded Kuwait. Dual containment does at least direct our attention to the region itself, not to a putative outside threat.

Dual containment is also the culmination of a trend toward an increasingly direct American strategic role in the gulf. While America’s longest and most economically important relationship in the area has been with Saudi Arabia, Iran was the key to American strategic views of the gulf until the 1979 Iranian Revolution. It was central to the regional containment of Soviet influence. When Great Britain gave up its formal defense commitments to the smaller gulf states in 1971, Washington encouraged the shah of Iran to assume the role of regional policeman.

The Carter Doctrine in 1980 formally committed the United States to preventing any "hostile power" from dominating the area. Three nearly contemporaneous events, the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the doubling of world oil prices between 1979 and 1981, led the United States to take a more direct role in the gulf. American military involvement in the region accelerated, from the failed hostage rescue mission of 1980 to the large naval deployment in 1987-88 to protect Kuwaiti and Saudi shipping, culminating in Desert Storm.

But even as the American military role in the gulf became more direct, the Reagan and Bush administrations continued to see Iran and Iraq as the key strategic players. As the tide of battle in the Iran-Iraq war turned against Baghdad, Washington moved to bolster Saddam Hussein’s regime as a counterweight to the Islamic Republic. After that war the Bush administration continued to see Iraq as an important check on Iranian power. Meanwhile, some Washington officials in the 1980s held out the hope of better relations with Iran. Such thinking helped spur the Iran-contra affair and led to President Bush’s message to Iran, in his 1989 inaugural address, that "goodwill begets goodwill."

Dual containment incorporates a number of elements from previous American policies. It is aimed at preventing any power from supplanting the United States as the dominant force in the gulf. It is focused on protecting Saudi Arabia and the smaller gulf monarchies from outside threats. However, in its strategic logic the policy represents a significant departure in Washington’s approach to the gulf. Dual containment explicitly disavows the need for any kind of political relationship with Iran or Iraq and rejects the idea that a rough military equivalence between them is an important element of gulf stability. It assumes for the United States a much larger, unilateral role in managing gulf affairs than any previous administration has envisaged at a time that American influence over the two most important strategic actors in the gulf is practically nil.


The major logical flaw in dual containment is the contention that Iran and Iraq can be contained simultaneously. Containment of Iran requires a relatively strong and unified Iraq on its long western border. Otherwise, Iraq becomes an ideal area for Iran to try to break out of its regional isolation. Iran has close political ties to the Shiite majority in Iraq, a historical interest in the Shi’a holy cities in Iraq, and past relationships with Iraqi Kurdish groups. A weak Iraq is an inviting target for an Iran "contained" and isolated.

Conversely, the containment of Iraq, the goal of which is a regime change without a bloody and destabilizing civil war, is hard to imagine without some kind of Iranian cooperation. While Saddam is in power, Iran is an important element in keeping the pressure on his regime. Economic sanctions on Iraq would lose some of their effectiveness if Iran were not a party to them. Dual containment, however, pushes Saddam and Tehran closer together despite their history of hostility. Tentative political contacts between the two states have recently been renewed.

If Saddam should fall, Iran would become a key player in the future of Iraq. With its military resources and its relationship with Iraqi Shiite opposition groups like the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and al-Da’wah, Iran could play a very destabilizing role in a post-Saddam Iraq if it felt that its interests were being ignored or that a new Iraqi regime was being constructed by the United States as a means to intensify Iran’s isolation. While the idea of containing both Iraq and Iran has a facile geopolitical appeal, it is fraught with difficulties.

Dual containment requires the unlikely cooperation of a number of other nations. Two of America’s closest allies in the region, Egypt and Turkey, are already calling for an easing of sanctions on Iraq. For the GCC states in the lower gulf, there is a geopolitical imperative to prevent Iraq’s disintegration, which would lead to greater Iranian and Saudi power in the region. Officials in Oman, Qatar and Bahrain have spoken about the need to bring Iraq back into Arab political circles.

Meanwhile, Europe and Japan have been unwilling to isolate Iran economically, which would mean forgoing a market whose imports from Europe were over $10 billion and from Japan over $2.5 billion in 1992. A number of these allied governments make the case that an economic quarantine of Iran would play into the hands of factions in Tehran that support terrorist activities and export of the Islamic revolution abroad. Moreover, commercial interests in the United States want to do business with Iran. Boeing wants to sell aircraft to Iran’s national airline; American oil companies continue to buy Iranian oil. Even the GCC states, whose security is a major goal of the dual containment policy, regard isolating Iran as a mistaken approach. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, still threatened by Saddam’s regime in Baghdad, have reopened diplomatic channels to Iran. For them, Tehran acted responsibly during the Persian Gulf War and has shown a willingness to abandon its revolutionary quest to destabilize the gulf monarchies. The activities of Iranian-supported opposition groups in a number of the GCC states have declined markedly, and the intensely hostile propaganda war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that characterized the 1980s has abated.

Dual containment places a substantial political burden on the gulf monarchies. As Iran and Iraq rebuild their militaries, the deterrent aspect of the policy requires a continued, perhaps expanding, American military presence in the gulf. Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners would have to host such a presence, raising the level of hostility between them and both Tehran and Baghdad. The higher the American military profile in these countries, the greater the risk that it would become a lightning rod for domestic discontent, as has happened many times in past decades in the Middle East. The lack of enthusiasm for dual containment was summed up by the secretary general of the GCC, who said in a recent interview, "What interests us is that this policy not reflect on our situation, and that our states not be affected by it." 2


The most serious flaw in the dual containment policy is its unstated assumption that the regional status quo in the gulf can be maintained over the coming years, and that any changes there can be stage-managed by Washington. In fact, the current situation will inevitably change. To be blind to this reality is imprudent. The key in this regard is Iraq, whose internal situation is inherently unstable. The Kurdish areas in the northern part of the country are exercising de facto independence under the protection of the United States and other Western powers. Iraqi aircraft are denied access to the southern third of the country. A government that lives on oil revenues has not been able to export more than a marginal amount of oil for the past three-and-a-half years. Indications of unrest in circles close to power in Iraq continue to emerge, most recently a failed coup attempt in the summer of 1993 organized by political personalities from Saddam’s hometown, Tikrit.

No one knows with any certainty what is going to happen in Iraq over the next few years. It is possible that the West will lose its resolve, lifting oil sanctions and allowing Saddam to reconsolidate his control over Kurdish areas, with all the bloodshed that would entail. Resumption of Iraqi oil exports is more likely (though by no means certain) since Iraq’s recent acceptance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 715 on long-term monitoring of Iraq’s military. Such developments would mean the end of the "containment" of Iraq, as other actors would see in them a flagging American will to maintain Baghdad’s international isolation. It is also possible that the Saddam regime in Baghdad will collapse and be replaced by a fragile military-party junta or a political vacuum in which a number of local groups and regional powers vie for influence.

This last scenario, a bloody struggle for power in Iraq that draws in other regional actors, is the worst-case scenario for American policy and the one dual containment is least able to address. America’s favored Iraqi opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress, is headquartered in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq and largely identified with the Iraqi Kurdish groups that are its core. Iraqi Shiite opposition groups have participated in some of the congress’ meetings but maintain a wary relationship with it. The ability of the Iraqi National Congress to stabilize Iraq domestically and avoid the temptation to pursue dreams of Kurdish independence is questionable. Both Turkey and Iran would act directly to prevent the rump Kurdish state in northern Iraq from declaring independence. Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt would find local allies to support in an Iraqi struggle for power. The "containment" of Iran gives Tehran every incentive to intervene in Iraqi politics, using its ties to Iraqi Shiite groups, to break out of the isolation that Washington is attempting to impose. Iran would enjoy many advantages were a post-Saddam Iraq to become a contest for influence among regional powers. If the contest were between Iran and an American-backed group of regional allies, Iran would have an excellent chance of winning. Should Tehran succeed in installing a friendly regime in Baghdad, the correlation of forces in gulf regional politics would turn drastically against Saudi Arabia and the smaller gulf monarchies.


The problem with dual containment is that it fails to address, and in fact makes more likely, the worst possible outcome for American interests in the area, a collapse of the Iraqi domestic situation into chaos that Iran can exploit. A more realistic approach would view the question of Iraq, the pivot around which the geopolitics of the gulf will turn, as an issue for regional consultation and, potentially, cooperation. To avoid this worst-case scenario the United States needs to build an understanding with all relevant parties, Iraqi and regional, about how a transition to a post-Saddam Iraq would work. Among those parties must be Iran and the Iraqi Shiite groups it supports. Iran has a number of interests in avoiding a clash over the future of Iraq, as long as its minimum security needs are met. It has every incentive, and substantial means, to foil American-supported initiatives on Iraq that it sees as directed against it.

A dialogue with Iran on the future of Iraq should aim at reassuring Tehran on a number of points: that the United States does not support the breakup of Iraq or Kurdish independence, that the United States does not seek to turn a post-Saddam Iraq into an American asset aimed at increasing Iran’s isolation, that in a post-Saddam Iraq Shiites will be able to play a role commensurate with their historical and demographic weight in the country. The United States should also give up its counterproductive efforts to deny Iran access to regular economic relations with the rest of the world, a policy that only feeds Iranian paranoia about American intentions without materially affecting the Iranian economy. Saudi Arabia is already consulting with Iran on oil questions, an acknowledgment that the two share an interest in preventing any further decline in world oil prices (and in preventing a quick Iraqi return to the world oil market). The United States need only express its lack of opposition to such consultations.

In exchange for those assurances, Washington should expect Tehran to renounce any intentions of supporting the monopolization of political power in a post-Saddam Iraq by its own allies in the Iraqi opposition, to cooperate in efforts to bring about a stable regime transition in Baghdad, and to accept America’s special strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia. An understanding on these issues could lead to discussions on other gulf issues, like the festering dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates over Abu Musa and the Tunbs islands, and on measures aimed at avoiding unnecessary frictions in the area, like prior notification of naval maneuvers. The alternative to a policy that recognizes the importance of regional players like Iran in managing gulf security issues is for the United States to assume this task unilaterally, a militarily costly and politically risky strategy in an area where Washington has little control over the political futures of allies or adversaries.

The arguments against dealing with Iran are serious but not irrefutable. Iran’s conventional arms purchases are significant, but are dwarfed by those of America’s allies in the area and can be seen as a reasonable effort to restore its military strength after nearly a decade of war and international isolation. Given its size, Iran will always be a major military power in the gulf. However, with Desert Storm fresh in Middle Eastern minds, the chances of Iranian military adventures against American’s gulf allies are very low.

Given the effectiveness of the U.N.-supervised dismantling of the Iraqi nuclear program and Iraqi agreement on long-term monitoring of its military industry, it is difficult to see Iraq reviving its nuclear weapons program for quite a while. Iranian nuclear ambitions, however, are a special component of the gulf strategic picture. In December 1993 the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that there were no indications that Iran intended to use its nuclear facilities for military purposes. CIA Director James Woolsey has described Iran’s nuclear program as "relatively embryonic." So a nuclear Iran does not seem imminent. The question is how best to keep it that way. Enforcement of international nonproliferation regulations is an important step, as is keeping a careful eye on elements in the former Soviet republics who are willing to provide nuclear material and expertise for hard currency. At the same time, efforts to isolate Iran economically and strategically will provide more impetus for those in Tehran who argue that a nuclear capacity is the only way to hold Iran’s enemies at bay.

Iranian opposition to the Arab-Israeli peace process is raised as an impediment to any American-Iranian dialogue. That opposition is largely ineffectual. Iran’s major card in this game is its relationship with the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s ability to play a disruptive role rests on Syrian sufferance, as Syria exercises effective control over most Lebanese territory. If the summit of President Clinton and Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad in January 1994 presages progress in Syrian-Israeli negotiations, Hezbollah’s freedom of maneuver will in all likelihood be curtailed. Iranian opposition cannot derail the momentum in the peace process built up over the last months. If there are immediate American interests in the gulf that can be served by dialogue with Iran, the Arab-Israeli peace process will not suffer from it. The Salman Rushdie issue and attacks on Iranian dissidents abroad must be brought up in any dialogue with Tehran. However, the current policy of isolating Iran has neither helped Mr. Rushdie nor stopped the violence against prominent Iranian opposition figures. It is time for a new approach.

An effort to accommodate reasonable Iranian interests in the gulf should not be mistaken for an American tilt toward Tehran. We should not give or sell Iran arms. Our regular nuclear nonproliferation policies should be applied to Iran as they are to other states, no more and no less. Our military and political relationships with the GCC states should remain close. We should continue to combat Iranian efforts to derail the Arab-Israeli peace process by encouraging all the parties to that conflict to maintain the momentum established by the Palestinian-Israeli agreement of September 1993.

Any American strategy for the gulf entails risks. The United States has serious disagreements with Iran that cannot be ignored or papered over. However, Washington and Tehran do have some parallel interests in avoiding a destabilization of the gulf. When Henry Kissinger initiated the opening to China in 1971, Beijing was still considered a "revolutionary" power and was supporting a North Vietnamese government that killed American soldiers daily. Common interests led the two sides to agree to disagree on a number of points, and the relationship grew to encompass a range of issues. To this day the United States and China have serious differences, but conduct business in a productive way on matters of mutual interest. The Chinese example should serve as a model for American dealings with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and it represents a more effective and realistic way of furthering American interests in the region.


1 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "Special Report: Clinton Administration Policy toward the Middle East," PolicyWatch, May 21, 1993.

2 Al-Hayat, October 17, 1993, p. 5.

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  • F. Gregory Gause III is Associate Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and Fellow for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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