The Magazine

The Failure of Containment

U.S.-European Iran policy reaches a dead end.

Sep 26, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 02 • By AMIR TAHERI
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By overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Baath in Iraq, the United States has destroyed the two most determined foes of the Islamic Republic. By driving Syria out of Lebanon, the United States has left Iran as the sole major regional influence in Beirut. Even the weakening of traditional Arab despotic regimes has helped the Islamic Republic, which is busy reviving its networks in Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and even Egypt and North Africa. The Iranian message is simple: "The Americans will run away, but we shall always be there!" That message is finding increasing resonance, even among the new leaderships in Kabul and Baghdad.

"The tide is turning in our favor," says Shariatmadari. "Even Katrina is working for us!"

Tehran's new cockiness is largely due to the Bush administration's failure to develop a coherent Iran policy. This has conceded to Iran the initiative, while the United States is playing catch-up and damage control, especially in Iraq.

Washington has three options. First, it can try to engage Iran in the hope of changing aspects of its behavior in exchange for diplomatic and security concessions. This would be a new version of the "grand bargain" that President Bill Clinton tried to sell to the mullahs in 1999. Clinton's attempt failed because the Tehran leadership at the time was too divided. Such a bargain has a better chance this time if only because the Iranian side now speaks with one voice. But it would mean sacrificing prospects of democratization in Iran in the name of short-term considerations of realpolitik.

The second option is to accept a mini-version of the Cold War, this time with Iran as the chief adversary. This mini-Cold War could last decades and, like the big one fought against the USSR, would almost certainly include low-intensity wars fought through proxies in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Caspian Basin, the Persian Gulf, and Israel-Palestine. The Islamic Republic will lose in the end, just as the USSR did. But the cost of achieving victory over years, if not decades, could be enormous, especially for the United States' regional allies including Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The third option is a policy of regime change. This need not mean military invasion as in Afghanistan and Iraq, although the use of force should never be ruled out. The Islamic Republic is a fragile structure in no position to play a costly power game at the high table. Its leadership has lost the confidence of perhaps a majority of Iranians, while the factional feuds of the past could return to plague it at any moment. More important, Iran has a strong domestic potential for a grassroots democracy movement that could challenge the bellicose vision of the present leadership. Such a policy may not succeed before the end of the Bush presidency. But it would have the immense merit of putting the mullahs on the defensive and might even put the fear of Mammon, if not God, in them.

Amir Taheri is the former editor in chief of the Iranian newspaper Kayhan.