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Note: This is an updated and revised version of my article in the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs.
By Barry Rubin
What concerns me is that the mainstream debate regarding containment is being conducted in a flippant and sloppy manner, based on some questionable assumptions. Attempts to critique those concepts are blithely dismissed rather than seen as pointing out serious issues and necessary adjustments. At present, this seems an abstract debate. In future, though, the failure to consider and plan could be the source of a major tragedy.
In my view, the most likely outcome is not a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, or an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel. While these are, of course, real possibilities, too much focus has been devoted to them. I want to suggest two other scenarios that are more likely: a U.S.-Iran war based on American mistakes and Iranian miscalculations, or huge strategic gains for Iran and revolutionary Islamism in the Middle East.
Rational responses are not necessarily moderate ones. For example, based on his "rational" response that Iran was weak, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran and set off a long, bloody war. Based on his "rational" response that America would not intervene, Saddam invaded Kuwait setting off a world crisis and another war. Neither of these moves was "irrational," they were merely based on false perceptions and mistaken assumptions that were quite understandable given Saddam's world view and information.
If the extraordinarily large challenge this problem will pose is underestimated and the idea of containment is too narrowly defined, the resulting failure will bring disaster in the region and the biggest crisis of our era.
Yet to do so, there must be a clear understanding as to why these countries don’t believe this claim. As the authors point out, “Iran is determined to get nuclear weapons but the West, despite endless talk, is not determined to stop it from doing so” and Tehran’s success is a major failure for U.S. credibility. Given this U.S. defeat, “Friends and foes would openly question the U.S. government's power and resolve to shape events in the Middle East. Friends would respond by distancing themselves from Washington; foes would challenge U.S. policies more aggressively.”
“Iran has observed clear limits when supporting militias and terrorist organizations in the Middle East. Iran has not provided Hezbollah with chemical or biological weapons or Iraqi militias with the means to shoot down U.S. aircraft. Iran's rulers understand that such provocative actions could imperil their rule by inviting retaliation.”
That’s true up to a point, but what about possible Iranian involvement in Syria’s effort to build nuclear facilities? As for advanced anti-aircraft systems, Iran has already provided them to terrorist groups. The U.S. Department of Defense Quadrennial Report for 2010 warns: “Non-state actors such as Hizballah have acquired…man-portable air defense systems from Iran.” Equally, Iran provides bombs to Iraqi militias to “shoot down” American convoys.
The authors conclude U.S. policy can live with an Islamic Republic that abandons its nuclear ambitions and respects neighbors’ sovereignty. That’s fine in theory. But is there going to be such an Islamic Republic, at least before decades of bloody attempts to overturn the regional order? Containing the USSR took almost a half-century through numerous subversive campaigns and wars. And when the United States began that effort, the Soviet Union was far closer to being a cautious, status quo power than Iran is today.
But we are all going to face a nuclear Iran. To deal with this situation, the United States cannot merely take one element—nuclear umbrella and deterrence—from its Cold War experience as containment on the cheap. It must adapt an entire repertoire including a truly tough posture; readiness to contest every country and battle every revolutionary surrogate of Tehran in an appropriate manner, employing a full gamut of overt and covert military, diplomatic, and economic tools.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His books include Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran; The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East; and The Truth About Syria.