Courtesy Reuters

The Containment Conundrum

How Dangerous Is a Nuclear Iran?

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

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