Courtesy Reuters

The Containment Conundrum

How Dangerous Is a Nuclear Iran?

OVERKILL
Barry R. Posen

In "After Iran Gets the Bomb" (March/ April 2010), James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh offer a carefully reasoned and persuasive argument that in the likely event that Iran gains a nuclear or near-nuclear capability, the U.S. government should adopt a policy of containment and deterrence. They outline the negative scenarios that might ensue if instead of pursuing such an effort, Washington simply let regional politics take their course. Although much of their analysis is correct, it has some peculiar qualities and offers some inconsistent advice.

The strangest aspect of the article is its alarmist and martial tone, which is at odds with its specific prescriptions. The authors grimly predict all the possible leverage that Iran would glean from having or almost having nuclear weapons and the negative consequences that the United States would suffer from its failure to stop Iran from obtaining such weapons. But the possible consequences of an Iranian nuclear capability are largely conjectural (save for one: nobody would think of invading Iran anymore). And oddly, Lindsay and Takeyh follow their warnings of dire outcomes with persuasive arguments about why they are unlikely to occur.

On the whole, the article argues for prudent, low-key containment efforts and for resisting the urge to ramp up U.S. military deployments in the Middle East so as to avoid aggravating political sensitivities there. Yet its authors are willing to threaten preventive war for negotiating purposes, writing, "Military options to prevent Iran from going nuclear must not be taken off the table" -- even though they concede that a strike would accomplish little. More ominously, Lindsay and Takeyh argue that Washington should be willing to threaten military action, including a nuclear attack, to deter a variety of Iranian actions, including the subversion of Iran's neighbors.

These tensions between cool analysis and saber rattling suggest less about the problem posed by Iran than about the difficulty of having a reasoned strategic discussion in Washington today; hawkishness is now the ticket for admission. The mood music around Lindsay and Takeyh's article sounds a warning about U.S. domestic politics: In the event that additional sanctions against Tehran do not elicit its cooperation -- and they probably will not -- proponents of preventive war will reemerge from hibernation. Advocates of containment should prepare for a bruising political fight.

Lindsay and Takeyh should have reviewed how a U.S. or an Israeli preventive attack might unfold and the range of military, economic, and political consequences that could arise. They do note that such an attack would, at best, delay Iran's nuclear program even as it hardened the regime's commitment to it. An attack might also render the program and the regime more popular at home, and it could make Tehran more popular in some corners of the Arab world, where standing up to the United States or Israel has a peculiar cachet.

On the military front, Iran has a number of retaliatory options. None of them would be devastating, since Iran is not a very advanced conventional military power, but all would be troublesome: the harassment of tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf, damage to oil infrastructure, attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq by Iranian operatives or proxies, and terrorist strikes worldwide. Although the United States and its allies could deal with such ripostes, there would be no obvious military strategy to bring even a desultory exchange of strikes and counterstrikes to an end. Any military activity in the region would roil the international oil market -- not least because such a conflagration would likely suspend Iran's oil exports. This would not be a catastrophic outcome, but it could be problematic given the present fragility of the global economy.

Of all these possibilities, the most disturbing are the political fallout in Iran and the Middle East, the possible attacks on U.S. troops, and the difficulty of ending even a limited war. The case for preventive war is even weaker when one considers that an attack could not end Iran's programs once and for all; in other words, neither the United States nor Israel would gain much from it. Washington's frequent statements that preventive war remains "on the table," a threat it hopes will support negotiations, may come back to haunt the U.S. government when its bluff is called.

Lindsay and Takeyh rightly argue that the threat of nuclear force must be part of the United States' strategy of containment and deterrence. But they overreach when they recommend that the United States engage in "military retaliation by any and all means necessary, up to and including nuclear weapons" if Iran attacks another country with conventional weapons; transfers nuclear weapons, materials, or technology; or steps up its support for terrorism and subversion. The threat of a nuclear response should be reserved for deterring crimes that involve using or threatening to use nuclear weapons. Iran would be a legitimate nuclear target if it tried to coerce its neighbors with nuclear weapons or if it gave nuclear weapons away to nonstate groups that then used them. But this is as far as Washington's nuclear threats should go; the punishment should fit the crime. Relying on nuclear weapons beyond this in the effort to contain Iran would undermine the United States' broader goal of limiting the political salience of nuclear weapons.

The United States and its allies do need to be able to threaten tough and practical responses to deter a range of dangerous actions by Iran. But these need not include nuclear threats because the threat of a U.S. conventional response is highly credible. If Iran invaded another country, its obsolescent conventional forces would be destroyed handily by the United States and its allies. And if Iran were to get into the business of exporting nuclear weapons or nuclear technology, it would suffer a range of damaging consequences, possibly including a military attack.

Most disturbingly, Lindsay and Takeyh recommend threatening nuclear retaliation to deter Iran from subverting its neighbors. But as their own analysis suggests, it would be very difficult to determine where to draw that "redline" because subversion is usually clouded in secrecy. Moreover, internal unrest in neighboring countries would likely have multiple causes, obscuring Iran's hand. Given the ambiguities and the gravity of any decision to use nuclear weapons, Iran would not likely be deterred by such a threat because the United States would be unlikely to carry it out. In any case, the United States and its friends have good intelligence agencies, and so they ought to be able to combat Iran's subversive activities directly. The provision of weapons, money, advice, and training are the tools of subversion; intelligence collection, covert interdiction, and overt police work are the countermeasures. Neither a conventional counterattack nor a nuclear response would be appropriate. And if Iran finds openings for subversion because its neighbors mistreat their own citizens or mistreat other states, perhaps domestic political or foreign policy reforms in those countries are in order, as the authors recommend.

Lindsay and Takeyh suggest that the United States should threaten nuclear preemption, writing that Washington should threaten to "strike preemptively, with whatever means it deemed necessary," in the event that Iran developed a nuclear force and put it on alert during a crisis. Although such a reaction would be unwise, both the United States and Israel would consider it, and Iran should know this. Nuclear alerts are a dangerous game. In any event, Washington and Tel Aviv should wield this threat with great care, lest mutual alarm prompt Iran to put its nuclear forces on alert out of fear, not aggressive intent, and noises about preemption provoke Iranian escalation. No one would want that to happen.

Realistically, neither the United States nor Israel ought to rely on preemption as the means to a meaningful victory in a nuclear war with Iran. Strategists should be honest: despite the United States' impressive capabilities and Israel's deep fears about Iran, the decision to use nuclear weapons to preempt a suspected attack from Iran would be very difficult. This is a long-standing problem. Even an extraordinarily successful preemptive attack might miss something, and the wounded and angry victim would probably respond. Unlike with conventional forces, in the world of nuclear forces, the remainders matter; even one surviving nuclear missile could destroy a city. This is an irreducible risk, and not even the expanded theater missile defense systems that Lindsay and Takeyh recommend would take it out of the calculation. Moreover, a decision to launch a nuclear first strike would sorely test not only the nerves of U.S. or Israeli policymakers but also their ethics. Intelligence indicating that Iran was preparing to launch its weapons is unlikely to be so compelling as to make a decision to use nuclear weapons for the first time since 1945 an easy one. Even conventional preemption is fraught with risk.

Iran must instead be made to understand one simple thing: using nuclear weapons first or arranging for others to do so would be the path to certain annihilation. There is nothing Iran could do to prevent devastating retaliation from the United States or Israel. Making that point clear should be the underpinning of the United States' deterrence strategy.

BARRY R. POSEN is Ford International Professor of Political Science and Director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is currently on leave at the Dickey Center at Dartmouth College.

THE RIGHT KIND OF CONTAINMENT
Barry Rubin

Although the United States will need a containment policy if and when Iran gets nuclear weapons, such a program requires a clear understanding of the problems involved and a high level of commitment to make it work. James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh, while making a serious attempt to describe what a containment policy would require, understate the difficulties Washington would face.

By making containment sound too easy, this underestimation may serve to rationalize the Obama administration's lack of serious diplomatic effort to stop Iran from succeeding in its nuclear ambitions. In particular, their analysis makes four questionable assumptions.

First is the premise that the United States' willpower and credibility would be sufficient to make containment work. The authors correctly note that the United States needs "to reassure its friends and allies in the Middle East that it remains firmly committed to preserving the balance of power in the region." But if Iran succeeds in obtaining deliverable nuclear weapons, these countries will have good reason to question the United States' commitment, given how little determination it will have shown in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear state and its defeat by Tehran in this struggle.

The authors do point out that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, "friends [of the United States] would respond by distancing themselves from Washington," and "foes would challenge U.S. policies more aggressively." Yet they do not draw the obvious conclusion: Iran would emerge as the most powerful regional player, and the United States would become greatly weakened in comparison. Revolutionary Islamist forces in the region -- taking note of Iran's power and perceived success -- would become more aggressive, and many Arab and European governments would try to appease Iran to survive or to avoid trouble. Lindsay and Takeyh dismiss the danger that Arab states will begin appeasing Iran because "pursuing that strategy would mean casting aside U.S. help and betting on the mercy of Tehran." Appeasement, however, need not be an all-or-nothing strategy. Iran's neighbors would likely accept U.S. security guarantees but then hedge their bets by limiting cooperation with Washington while trying hard to please Tehran.

Israel, of course, cannot and will not appease Iran. Lindsay and Takeyh think that "the Israeli government's calculations about Iran would depend on its assessment of the United States' willingness and ability to deter Iran." Since the Obama administration's efforts against Iran have been unimpressive and U.S. support for Israel has become so uncertain, Israel's calculations will not assume confidence in U.S. policy.

In such an environment, merely issuing warnings to Iran, selling more weapons to Persian Gulf Arab governments, and declaring that the United States will protect other states in the region will not be sufficiently convincing to maintain peace and stability. Will Iran believe that Obama would go to war, especially nuclear war, to constrain it? Will Arab rulers bet their regimes' and their personal survival on this expectation? Will Israel entrust its security to a U.S. administration that arguably is the least friendly to Israel in history? To all these questions, the likely answer is no.

The second flawed assumption Lindsay and Takeyh make is that Iran can be expected to act rationally and to respond to pressure with moderation. This could be accurate, but it certainly cannot be assumed. Tehran may not be suicidal, but it is prone to risk taking, and as a highly ideological regime that profoundly misunderstands the West, it is likely to miscalculate in ways that could lead to war. It might underestimate the chance that it will suffer a nuclear attack if it uses nuclear weapons, or it might think that it can go to the brink without setting off a conflict or that it can fool its enemies by secretly transferring arms to others. Iran's nuclear weapons will be controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country's most fanatical institution and the one with the closest ties to terrorist groups, and Iran's defense minister is an internationally wanted terrorist. The modern history of the Middle East is full of examples of less volatile regimes jumping off cliffs: Egypt provoked the 1967 war with Israel, Iraq attacked Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, and the Palestine Liberation Organization chose war over peace and statehood in 2000. Iran's regime is the farthest thing from a rational state that the United States has confronted since Nazi Germany. Any policy that assumes self-restraint on its part rests on a shaky foundation.

Lindsay and Takeyh's excessive faith in Tehran's common sense leads them to questionable conclusions. They suggest, for example, that Iran would be unlikely to transfer any of its nuclear weapons to Syria or various terrorist groups for fear of the United States' wrath. Yet so far, Washington has responded passively to Iran's cooperation with al Qaeda and to its transfer of conventional weapons to Hamas, Hezbollah, anti-American Islamist groups in Afghanistan, and radical Shiite militias in Iraq. Lindsay and Takeyh argue that Iran's support for militias and terrorists is limited: "Iran has not provided Hezbollah with chemical or biological weapons or Iraqi militias with the means to shoot down U.S. aircraft." This is true, but what about reports that Iran helped with Syria's nuclear program? Their analysis also seems to forget that Iran has already provided advanced antiaircraft systems to Hezbollah and bomb-making materials to Iraqi insurgents for attacking U.S. soldiers. Iran might never transfer weapons of mass destruction, but it is a greater possibility than containment optimists claim. If nothing else, a nuclear Tehran would undoubtedly escalate its transfer of other arms to its clients. Thanks largely to Iran, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently pointed out, Hezbollah has more missiles than practically any country.

A third misleading assumption made by Lindsay and Takeyh is that the threat posed by an Iran with nuclear weapons would be limited to the possibility that it would actually use those weapons. In fact, two other possible outcomes -- an upswing in revolutionary Islamism inspired by Iran's apparent power and Tehran's use of nuclear arms to engage in subversive aggression -- might prove to be far bigger problems.

Consider the effect of millions of Muslims concluding that mighty Iran got it right: that revolutionary, anti-American Islamism works and wins. Islamist movements everywhere, including in Europe, would likely become more violent and reckless. Lindsay and Takeyh contend that a U.S.-backed Israel would keep radical groups in the Middle East "in check." Tehran, they claim, "will not risk a nuclear confrontation with Israel to assist" Hamas and Hezbollah. But Iran is already helping those groups at no cost to itself and can ramp up its support without any prospect of a nuclear confrontation with Israel.

Moreover, Israel has no leverage to defeat revolutionary Islamist groups outside the West Bank. Israel cannot overthrow Hamas in the Gaza Strip, thanks to a U.S. policy that in effect protects that regime by restraining Israel's efforts against it. In Lebanon, where Israel has no ability to roll back Iranian influence, the United States will not battle to stop Iran and Syria from taking over by using Hezbollah and other proxies. Once Iran is emboldened by its nuclear weapons and its growing popularity on the Arab street, the Palestinian Authority and other Arab governments will be too fearful of it to move toward peace with Israel. If somehow they do make progress, Iran and its allies will be far better able to sabotage these efforts.

The second tremendous strategic threat will be that Iran would use its nuclear umbrella to protect itself and its clients in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Yemen, and elsewhere from any attempts at deterrence by the United States or others. As Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, the general manager of the al Arabiya television network, has written, "An Iranian bomb . . . will not be put to military use; it will be used as a way to change the rules of the game." Iran would not need to attack anyone; it would merely need to ensure that no one else threatened or pressured it as it stepped up its support for terrorism and its efforts to subvert neighboring governments.

A nuclear Iran might engage in brinkmanship, too, using the threat of a disastrous war to intimidate others into doing what it wants. As the Kuwaiti newspaper editor Ahmed al-Jarallah has put it, Arab states would be "hostage to fears of rash actions by Iran that could cause nuclear catastrophes." They would do everything possible to keep Iran happy in order to avoid any risk of being obliterated. This would be true no matter what the United States promised: it would be cold comfort for these countries to know that Iran would also be flattened if it incinerated them.

Finally, Lindsay and Takeyh mistakenly assume that Washington can "persuade the Iranian ruling class that the revisionist game it has been playing is simply not worth the candle." There is little chance that the current rulers could be convinced that they are losing when they clearly seem to be winning. It is far more likely that the revisionist game will yield fruit and that the bomb will make Iran more powerful, respected, and influential. This is especially so since the containment policy being proposed in the U.S. policy debate would cost Iran almost nothing compared to the gains it could be enjoying.

The authors conclude that Washington could live with an Iran that abandoned its nuclear ambitions and respected its neighbors' sovereignty. This is fine in theory, but such an Iran will not exist anytime soon. It took half a century and many proxy wars to contain the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union was a far more cautious, status quo power at the beginning of the Cold War than Iran is today.

One fundamental problem with the plan for containment as put forward by the authors and the current U.S. government is that it is in basic conflict with the Obama administration's strategy to date. The plan is to contain Iran by scaring it -- by persuading Iran's rulers that the U.S. government is so strong and daring that it will smash them if they cross its "redlines" -- and by reassuring Arab regimes threatened by Iran that they are secure under the United States' nuclear umbrella. But the current U.S. government cannot project such an image of itself when it has decried the United States' past use of force and generally rejected the idea of strong U.S. leadership in the world. Without the requisite credibility and genuine toughness, a containment strategy is extremely dangerous. If a nuclear Iran acted aggressively, either the United States would fail to deter it (which would bring a strategic disaster) or it would surprise an understandably skeptical Tehran by retaliating in response to a move that Iran thought it could get away with (which would mean war).

Successfully containing Iran would be extraordinarily difficult and would require major changes in the U.S. government's thinking and behavior. It would first require understanding the inescapable conflict between U.S. interests and revolutionary Islamist movements and recognizing that a regional alliance led by Iran would be an extremely dangerous adversary, one more determined and more ruthless than the United States itself. To contain a nuclear Iran, the United States would have to do more than apply merely one element of its Cold War experience, nuclear deterrence. Instead, it would need to adopt a truly tough, energetic, and comprehensive posture; contest every country allied with Tehran and battle every revolutionary surrogate of Tehran; and employ a gamut of overt and covert military, diplomatic, and economic tools. Given the U.S. government's failure to contemplate such measures so far, it is all the more essential to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. And if Iran does obtain nuclear weapons, the United States is going to have to invoke a containment policy far costlier and bolder than what is now being considered.

BARRY RUBIN is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and Editor of The Middle East Review of International Affairs.

LINDSAY AND TAKEYH REPLY

Barry Posen and Barry Rubin offer two spirited, and diametrically opposed, critiques of our article. But their criticisms are unpersuasive. Posen underestimates the difficulties of containment, and Rubin overestimates them.

Posen accepts our central argument that if Iran goes nuclear, Washington could and should pursue a policy of containment and deterrence. Curiously, however, he misinterprets aspects of what we wrote. He argues that we undercut our measured claims with an excessively martial tone about the consequences of a nuclear Iran; he guesses that we must be playing to domestic politics. But it would in fact be a grave matter if Iran were to cross the nuclear threshold. It would inject new perils into an already volatile Middle East. And given that successive U.S. administrations have insisted that they would not accept a nuclear Iran, it would be a blow to U.S. power and credibility worldwide. Proponents of containment do no one a favor by dismissing these problems.

Having failed to grasp our motivation, Posen spends time arguing against a preventive military strike by the United States or Israel against Iran. Wherever one comes down on the wisdom of preventive military strikes, however, we began our article with the explicit assumption that neither military nor diplomatic options had kept Iran from getting the bomb. Our goal was to examine whether a policy of containment could work at that point, and if so, how.

Posen raises alarms about our argument that the United States should be willing to use any means necessary, including nuclear weapons, to contain a nuclear Iran. He agrees that the threat of nuclear force must play some role in U.S. strategy, but he suggests that we are too cavalier in our recommendation to use it. We agree that disproportionate threats will not work, which is why we emphasized that U.S. policy should be to use any means "necessary."

But more problematic than Posen's selective reading of our argument is his failure to show how taking military options off the table would strengthen containment. In fact, doing so would likely undermine it. As the Obama administration's recent Nuclear Posture Review correctly stressed, only states that violate their nonproliferation obligations and misuse nuclear technologies for military purposes need to be concerned with such retribution. Moreover, Iran's entry into the nuclear club would alter the political dynamics in the Middle East. Iran would probably believe that it had gained the upper hand in the region, and U.S. allies and adversaries alike would doubt Washington's word. Tentative measures and convoluted declarations would only make matters worse.

Unlike Posen, Rubin believes that Iran cannot be contained. Too often in his response, however, Rubin seems more concerned with President Barack Obama's supposed failings than with what we actually wrote. He is, of course, entitled to his views on the Obama presidency. But it is a mistake to link the Iranian challenge to any one administration. It is a problem that began before Obama's presidency and could extend well beyond it.

Rubin begins with one point we made: that the failure to prevent Iran from going nuclear would damage Washington's credibility and complicate any containment strategy. However, he stretches the point too far in implying that the damage to the United States would be permanent and would render containment impossible. Should Iran go nuclear, U.S. interests in the Middle East would not evaporate, and Washington would not be at a loss for responses. Contrary to Rubin's claim, in seeking to navigate the turbulent politics of a region that had just become more dangerous, the United States would likely garner help from its European and even its Arab allies. They would share its concern about Iran's newfound power. U.S. allies would have to choose: help the United States address the challenge of Iran or appease the Islamic Republic. With a deft and committed diplomatic effort, the United States would ensure they opted for the former; that is the outcome they prefer.

Rubin's pessimism about containing Iran is rooted in his belief that Iran's leaders are irrational. Such claims should always be taken with caution. The fact that Iran might miscalculate its advantage is not a sign of irrationality. Deterrence can fail even with rational actors.

The critical question is whether Iran's leaders show evidence of being impervious to the costs of their behavior. Here the answer is no. The Islamic Republic is an aggressive, ideological, and even revisionist state, but its leaders' principal quest has consistently been to remain in power. A nuclear Iran would likely press its presumed advantages, assist its radical allies, and intimidate other states in the region. But it would still observe essential boundaries if it were convinced of the likelihood of retaliation by the United States. In other words, Washington faces the challenge of deterring a state that is aggressive but rational. This is hardly a cause for celebration, but it is a qualitatively different challenge from the one Rubin outlines.

Rubin contemplates Iran establishing a "nuclear umbrella to protect itself and its clients in Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Yemen, and elsewhere." How would such a nuclear umbrella be enforced? What would Iran do if Israel were to strike southern Lebanon or the Gaza Strip? Does Rubin really believe that Iran would wage nuclear war with Israel to protect terrorist enclaves in Lebanon or Gaza? Does he believe that Iran would wage nuclear war with the United States if Washington used force in Yemen? In fact, despite its radical pretensions, a nuclear Iran would learn the lesson that other nuclear states have, that it is difficult to use nuclear weapons to gain strategic leverage.

Posen's and Rubin's comments highlight a point we made in our original article: that containing a nuclear Iran would not be easy. This is why, as we initially argued, it would be best if Iran did not obtain nuclear weapons.

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