The U.S. Looks to Contain Iran but Avoid Airstrikes

Secretary Clinton with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (State Department photo). Russia would like to avoid a military confrontation with Iran but it is open to another round of UN sanctions against it.

Among the various policy options in the Iranian nuclear crisis, two of them -Containment and airstrikes- seem to be getting the most public attention. President Obama appears to favor Containment but exclude airstrikes under any condition.

Containment was a useful strategy during the Cold War. In 1946, George Kennan first outlined Containment in his now famous “Long Telegram” to the State Department. It involved containing the spread of communism through diplomatic, economic, and even military means. The Marshall Plan and the Vietnam War are two examples of Cold War-era Containment policies.

Containment has been the dominant US policy towards Iran since Jimmy Carter’s presidency. However, after years of containing Iran, today Iran is closer than ever to developing its first nuclear weapon.

The factors that have frustrated the containment of Iran have been Iran’s powerful regional status, its lucrative business opportunities, and its position as the world’s fourth largest oil exporter. These factors have led to competing political and economic interests in the international community, which have effectively weakened US resolve to contain Iran. Containment has hurt Iran’s economy but has not been able to stop its nuclear program.

An analogy of the US Containment effort of Iran since the 1979 Iranian Revolution would be a runner in a 100-meter dash that must run through a set of tires to get to the finish line. The runner will finish the race but with a higher time than someone running without the tires obstructing the way. In the same way, the US has created obstacles for Iran, such as sanctions, but these hindrances have not and will not alone stop Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. Iran will achieve what it wants to, it just may take a little longer to get there.

The new version of Containment under President Obama will continue applying diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran. It will also attempt to fill in some of the gaps of the old Containment strategy, which Iran has exploited.

However, the new Containment strategy, according to Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution, also recognizes that by refusing to conduct airstrikes, Iran will get the bomb eventually. Therefore, the focus of containing Iran in the future is really to stall Iran’s development of the bomb for as long as possible and then to limit Iran’s ability to make a lot of nuclear weapons after-the-fact.

The question is why go with Containment only and forego airstrikes altogether, since Containment by itself will lead to the very thing that the US does not wish for? The short answer is that the US wants to avoid a military confrontation with Iran.

Supporters of a Containment-only strategy argue that airstrikes would likely destabilize the Middle East and South Asia (Afghanistan and Pakistan) by infuriating the Muslim world with yet another dramatic US military intervention in its region. Pro-American Sunni states such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia could find themselves in fierce struggles to save their governments from mass uprisings and coups in the aftermath of US airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In addition, the US fears an Iranian retaliation at a time when the US military is deeply entrenched in the Middle East already in what is generally perceived by the larger Muslim public as a US policy to secure oil for America and to protect Israel’s interests.

The US government thinks that Iran would retaliate against American interests around the world through its own channels or through militant proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas. For instance, Iran could boost its support for the Taliban, which so far has been limited to mostly supplying the group with small arms and roadside bombs. However, if attacked, Iran could start supplying Afghan militants with anti-aircraft missiles -and more- so that US casualties in Afghanistan would skyrocket.

An escalation of the Afghan conflict could turn American public opinion against the Afghan war similar to what happened in Iraq before the 2007 Surge. Today, the Afghanistan anti-war effort in the US is muted. However, this could change if US troops started to sustain heavy losses as a result of Iran’s increased interference in Afghanistan.

Iran also could decide to effect a radical change in Iraq. Today, the Shiites control the Iraqi government, as they are the majority of the population. However, the Iraqi Shiites are a divided ethnic group. Some are secular while others have strong ties to Iran.

Moktada al-Sadr’s political party, which is pro-Iranian and vehemently anti-American, sharply increased its political influence in the recent election. If Iran wanted to, it could work through al-Sadr’s followers to spark a new civil war or even to overthrow the current government.

An Iranian retaliation in Iraq and Afghanistan alone are illustrative of the serious financial implications of US airstrikes. Realistically speaking, when one considers that the US has spent almost a trillion dollars in Iraq alone, and is likely to do the same in Afghanistan, responding to an Iranian retaliation would demand huge financial resources at a time when the US is running never-before-seen-levels of deficit spending.

Containment-only supporters also note that airstrikes would have a short-lived effect on Iran’s nuclear plans. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has stated that Iran’s nuclear program would be back up on its feet one to three years later. So if the US attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities, it would need to attack them again later -if it insisted on stopping Iran from getting the bomb. A second round of airstrikes would have the effect of sending a second round of shockwaves throughout the region, and touch off a second Iranian retaliation.

Choosing Containment-only and excluding the possibility of airstrikes altogether are not without serious long-term risks. Containment-only is really the politically expedient route: less short-term risk, less financial cost, less public anger, and overall less immediate turmoil. However, the benefits of Containment-only must be weighed against an honest assessment of permitting Iran to get the bomb, which will alter world security forever.