On Monday, the Center for New American Security published an 84-page report, called “If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear-Armed Iran.” The subject matter is particularly noteworthy given the report’s provenance. CNAS is a think tank close to the Obama administration that, among other things, advised the White House early in its first term on Afghanistan policy. Several of its scholars joined the administration, including CNAS founder Michelle Flournoy who served as undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009-2012; and Colin Kahl, formerly the Obama administration’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, who is lead author of this latest CNAS report.
The document is part of an ongoing in-house series about the nuclearization of Iran (“Risk and Rivalry: Iran, Israel and the Bomb” was published last June, “Atomic Kingdom: If Iran Builds the Bomb, Will Saudi Arabia Be Next?” came out in February), but the subject of this particular paper, containment, is likely to raise eyebrows—and perhaps cause some consternation in the White House. Why, when everyone knows that CNAS feeds the administration, are they coming out with a report about moving to containment? The last thing the White House wants is to send messages, even unintended, to its regional partners that it may abandon its policy of prevention. On the other hand, it’s possible that’s precisely the point of the paper. Maybe it’s a trial balloon the administration floated to see what happens in expectation of the inevitable: Iran has the bomb, so what next?
Since leaving the Pentagon in December 2011, no former administration official has defended Obama’s steadfastness and sincerity on the Iranian nuclear issue more avidly than Colin Kahl. “Obama has repeatedly stated that an Iranian nuclear weapon is ‘unacceptable,’” Kahl wrote in August. “And he has committed to using all instruments of U.S. power—economic, diplomatic, intelligence, and military—to prevent, not contain, this outcome.”
Kahl’s CNAS report asserts that prevention is still the policy. Obama, the paper argues, has “made clear that, on matters of war and peace, ‘I don’t bluff.’ There are good reasons to believe Obama means what he says.”
Sure, Obama believes it, but what if he can’t make his belief a reality? What happens, asks the CNAS paper, if the administration has to move to containment? “This is not because the United States wants to find itself in a situation in which containment becomes necessary,” the report says. “But rather because prevention – up to and including the use of force – could fail, leaving Washington with little choice but to manage and mitigate the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran.”
But if Obama is determined to stop Iran from building a bomb, how could the Islamic Republic force him to adopt a policy of containment? “Tehran,” the paper explains, “may be able to achieve an unstoppable breakout capability or develop nuclear weapons in secret before preventive measures have been exhausted. Alternatively, an ineffective military strike could produce minimal damage to Iran’s nuclear program while strengthening Tehran’s motivation to acquire the bomb.”
In other words, as much as Obama would like to stop the Iranians from getting the bomb, we should entertain the possibility that despite the commander-in-chief’s most ardent efforts maybe he can’t. There are too many variables. In spite of Obama’s assurances that the White House has a good reading on the state of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the U.S. intelligence community might be blind on certain key parts of the program. And despite claims that the United States is in a much better position than Israel to conduct successful strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, maybe the massive firepower of the American armed services will come up short.