Nuclear Summit Aims to Start Iran’s Containment

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran (Reuters: Morteza Nikoubazl)

The April 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC may go down in history as President Obama’s first indirect foreign policy act signaling that he has yielded to Iran’s ambition to acquire nuclear weapons and has shifted to contain Iran. The nuclear summit should be viewed as a major initiative in President Obama’s new Containment strategy of Iran (and North Korea.)

Officially, the nuclear summit’s goal is to help countries secure their nuclear facilities and materials from either attacks or theft. In the latter case, enriched uranium or separated plutonium could end up getting channeled to terrorist organizations. This week President Obama identified nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists as the greatest threat to America’s national security.

While securing nuclear sites and materials is the subject of the summit, Iran will be discussed among the attendees. In all, the nuclear summit is timely because by uniting such a large number of international leaders and discussing the growing nuclear threat posed to the international community, world leaders are sensitized to the danger of nuclear proliferation and are able to place their countries in a better readiness posture to help contain Iran’s nuclear arsenal once that country acquires its first nuclear bomb.

There is growing evidence that President Obama has ruled out airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities and has accepted that Iran will eventually get nuclear weapons. The administration cannot openly state that it has ruled out airstrikes for strategic and political reasons, so outsiders must look for signs of what it is thinking.

The most recent sign was Michael O’Hanlon’s April 11 Fox News interview with Shannon Bream. O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a colleague of Bruce Riedel who headed the Afghanistan and Pakistan policy review for President Obama last year. O’Hanlon is not part of the Obama administration but he has strong ties with it through his acquaintances.

In his recent interview located on the Fox News website, O’Hanlon infers that US airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities are unlikely and submits the rational for a Containment strategy instead. A part of the interview is worth quoting at length.

“Iran is more likely to get a bomb than not if it really wants the bomb. And even if we elected to use military force -which I doubt we will- I think Iran will just be set back a year or two. …The policy may evolve more into containment and try to limit the damage, limit the number of bombs Iran can build, limit the strength of Ahmadinejad, so that over time Iranian politics can change. And maybe even if they have already built one or two bombs -at that point -give them up. But you know the odds are against us if we are literally trying to stop Iran from getting even one nuclear bomb. But if the goal here is to limit the damage -move into a policy of containment- and try to create incentives for future Iranian leaders to be more conciliatory or reasonable I think we have a better chance viewed in that lesser light.”

On what does O’Hanlon base his doubts that the Obama administration will not employ airstrikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities as well as the rational for hindering Iran’s capacity for developing a large number of nuclear bombs? O’Hanlon is too professional to base his doubts on his personal preference, which is known. His opinion on what the administration is likely to do is probably founded on what he has heard directly from Obama officials or from his colleagues who also have contacts with the Obama administration.

If O’Hanlon is correct then the president has already given up hope on stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons and has shifted to a policy of containing Iran as much as possible in anticipation of the day when Iran detonates its first nuclear bomb. The further containing of Iran will be achieved through another round of UN sanctions and through diplomatic initiatives of which the Nuclear Security Summit will lay the foundation for such future efforts.

It should be noted that O’Hanlon also states in the interview that he does not believe that the nuclear summit is a “high strategy” move but a “technical” one in order to secure existing nuclear facilities around the world.

Let us hope that the president is right about Iran. One would think that America and the world would be a safer place if Iran never develops nuclear weapons in the first place than if it did and the world had to work 24/7 to make sure that Iranian nukes do not get funneled to terrorists.

If in fact O’Hanlon is speaking from what he has heard then it must be pointed out that the biggest flaw in the new Containment strategy is that it assumes that today’s current Middle East stability (relatively so) will remain intact indefinitely. The reason for this assumption is that most agree that once Iran acquires nuclear weapons, other Middle East Sunni states will do likewise in order to counter Iran’s nuclear arsenal.

Put simply, Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is not an end in itself. It is the spark that sets off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. All it would take then would be for just one of these new nuclear Arab powers to be overthrown in an Islamic militant coup and the world would regret forever having let Iran get nukes in the first place.

Since Iran’s nuke quest is putting the world in such mortal danger and since Obama has singled out nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists as the single greatest threat to America, then why yield now to Iran on its nuclear ambitions? This would seem to dramatically increase the odds of terrorists obtaining a nuclear bomb.