The Illogic of Dual Containment

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

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