Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Containment of a Nuclear Iran: Sounds good but it's a risky and possibly losing strategy

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By Barry Rubin

It is truly disconcerting (a fancy word for scary) to see that those charged with the protection of the West, democracy, and the world are so resolutely barking up the wrong tree. In this case, this involves the U.S. strategy toward Iran nuclear weapons.

The short-term goal—whether it is being implemented well enough is another matter entirely—is to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. If this fails, however, the United States discards any military response and goes to containment.

Containment means that the United States would strengthen missile defenses in Europe, which is nice but will have no actual effect on any real-world situation. The second and more important policy would be to strengthen relations with Gulf states, notably Saudi Arabia, threatened by Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons.

A typical defense of containment comes from General John Abizaid who commanded U.S. forces in the Middle East between 2003 and 2007. Iran, he explained, would make rational judgments. "The historical evidence would suggest that Iran is not a suicide state. So it's my military belief that Iran can be deterred."

There are three problems with this overall strategy.

First, for containment of Iran to work, the United States must have credibility with both allies and enemies. That means the Iranian regime has to believe that any use of nuclear weapons or aggression will bring a full-scale American military response including even the use of nuclear weapons. Does a government led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believe that about a government led by President Barack Obama given everything it has done or said? The answer seems closer to “no” than to “yes.”

Equally important, the Gulf Arab states must believe—and believe it very very firmly—that the United States is going to be reliable as a protector. Can the Saudis and the others hold that view of Obama’s administration? Remember that it doesn’t matter how many speeches Obama makes about how he loves Arabs, Islam is great, and he cares a lot about the Palestinians. They don’t want to know that he will apologize; they want to know he will fight.

Which is why one Arab from a Gulf state remarked privately: We don’t want Obama to act like an Arab. We want him to act like an American.

Faced with the choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, Gulf Arabs are going to hedge their bets and hedge them heavily with appeasement. They will reduce cooperation with America while simultaneously demanding it will protect them. They won’t do anything to offend Iran, including any real steps toward peace with Israel.

The second problem related directly to Abizaid’s statement. Yes, on balance it seems more likely than not that Iran is not a suicide state, but would you bet your life on it? The statement is equally true that the Iranian regime will be by far the closest thing to a non-rational state of any major power during the last 60 years. If any country in the world today is a suicide state it’s Iran—though Libya and North Korea are in contention.

What Abizaid expresses is at best a greater likelihood and most likely a hope rather than a firmly established proposition. And of course the Tehran regime may think it has found a way around the “suicide” problem, say by providing weapons of mass destruction to a terrorist group. In addition, given the highly factional nature of Iran’s regime, a specific group within the overall structure might be ready to take greater risks.

Remember that the nuclear weapons will be controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the most fanatical of the fanatical and those responsible for maintaining liaison with terrorist groups. And who is the top man? The Iranian minister of defense, that’s who, and he also happens to be a wanted terrorist in his own right.

So this arrangement is far less secure than U.S. policymakers are pretending. You can literally see the inner workings of their brains: Iran is rational; balance of terror will work; American credibility is great. Hey, no problem! Wrong.

Third, and perhaps ultimately most important, Iran’s increased power in having nuclear weapons will not consist merely of firing them off. The mere possession of such weapons will bring Arab and European appeasement to hitherto unprecedented heights.

Moreover, the picture of Iran as a great power before which the rest of the non-Muslim world trembles will be a massive recruiting incentive for Islamists, both pro- and anti-Iran ones throughout the Middle East and Europe. The level of internal instability in each Arab state will rise, while terrorism would probably go up in Europe as well. Iran would be seen as the wave of the future by hundreds of thousands of Muslims, a bandwagon onto which they would want to jump.

To pretend then that Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons will be neutralized by U.S. guarantees to Gulf Arab states is a fantasy.

After all, this line of reasoning would have you believe as follows: Iran never intends to use nuclear weapons any way but U.S. containment would prevent them from using these weapons. But the Iranian regime knows all of this already, so why is it spending huge amounts of money, stupendous political capital, and at the greatest costs. Why?

It’s true that part of the rationale is defensive, to ensure that the United States (which has no intention of doing so any way) doesn’t attack. Yet a large part of the reasoning to make such a risky choice is the idea that having nuclear weapons will make Iran a far more powerful player in the region, able to project its influence better. That’s the main aspect and will take effect even if there is an effort at containment.

In addition, perhaps extremist fanaticism, or pure miscalculation, or a small crazed faction would lead to nuclear war in the Middle East and massive deaths. If anyone is capable of getting into a nuclear war by such means, it’s Iran’s government.

That’s why it is so important to stop Iran from ever obtaining nuclear weapons. If this does happen, as appears likely, the entire regional picture will change and it will require a lot more than assurances to Gulf Arab states to keep the situation from eroding further.

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 latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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