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.
If the White House shares these concerns, the president has never seen fit to voice them publicly. And that’s because professing them aloud would render his Iran policy absurd on the face of it. If the Iranians did not have to consider the combined military weight that Obama has at its disposal, and the prospect of a blow against the Islamic Republic that would obliterate the nuclear program and likely topple the regime, they would simply disregard American warnings. As for Israel, if Jerusalem was entirely bereft of hope that Obama if required would make good on his promise and stop the program with a successful military campaign, it would simply ignore the administration’s many stop signs. The fulcrum of Obama’s policy, holding off Iran with one hand and Israel with another, is America’s ability to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. If, as Kahl posits, the United States might not be able to do the job, then Obama is bluffing.
The Kahl report is useful insofar as it shows plainly the model that advocates of containing Iran have in mind. They say it’s patterned after containment of the Soviets, but it’s not. American Cold War strategy, the report argues, “aimed to deter the Soviet Union from launching a nuclear or conventional war on the West, to defend allies against invasion and subversion, to check the expansion of Soviet influence.” Containment of the Soviet Union was successful only because the Soviets understood that the United States was capable of delivering a knockout blow. Had Washington not been confident that, like Moscow, it could bring the other side to its knees, then any policy concerning the Soviets and their nuclear arsenal would have necessarily been conducted from a position of weakness. There would have been no need to talk, consult, or negotiate with Moscow except to work out the terms of an American surrender of Western Europe. Containment, in the view of its Cold War architects, is a function of power.
Iran, as the CNAS paper notes, “is a much weaker state, with or without nuclear weapons” than the U.S.S.R. was. And yet the thesis of the report ignores this fact. If the U.S. nuclear arsenal could turn the Soviet Union to ashes, as the Soviets were equally capable of leveling the United States, then there is no obvious reason why the United States cannot attack the Iranian nuclear program with nearly absolute certainty of destroying it. But Kahl’s premise is that maybe we can’t. Unless, we are to intuit that the United States is considerably less formidable now than it was during the Cold War, the CNAS report fails to explain why the United States cannot tackle the nuclear program of a much weaker state than the one with whom American policymakers wished to avoid a direct confrontation, including a nuclear exchange, that might have killed millions. CNAS’s containment then is just another term for appeasement.
Accordingly, the paper’s specific policy recommendations are largely irrelevant. If the White House’s containment policy is a consequence of the failures of the American intelligence community and the U.S. armed forces, why would regional partners, as the report recommends, make “commitments not to pursue independent nuclear capabilities” in exchange for protection under a “U.S. nuclear umbrella”? What kind of “U.S. nuclear guarantee” would convince Israel that the administration really intended to keep its word this time around? In short, why would allies entrust their national security to a president whose policy represents an accommodation with failure?
Containing Iran, the paper explains, “would integrate five key components: deterrence, defense, disruption, de-escalation and denuclearization.” A few examples of how specific policies would work to downgrade the Islamic Republic’s regional profile show instead that containment is not a serious option.
—Increase “aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces as a long-term check on Hezbollah,” the report suggests, apparently unaware that, under a Hezbollah-led government, Lebanon’s army, especially military intelligence, has essentially become a wing of Hezbollah.
—“Assist Palestinian security forces and institution building while promoting an Israeli-Palestinian accord,” the paper says, presumably in the belief that Israeli-Palestinian peace will isolate Iran, an assumption that even the administration seems to have abandoned, for the time being
—Promote “evolutionary political reform in the Gulf,” which is a useful goal, but one not likely to appeal to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies distrustful of a White House that has permitted a hostile power on their doorstep to build a nuclear weapon.
—Build “Egyptian and Iraqi counterweights to Iranian influence through strategic ties with Cairo and Baghdad.” It is hard to see how this might be accomplished since Obama’s policies—hastily ushering Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak out of power, and a complete withdrawal from Iraq without a Status of Forces Agreement—have left governments in Cairo and Baghdad that are much more willing to accommodate Iranian interests than were their predecessors.
More importantly, this last recommendation shows just how much this model of containment differs from what the Cold War architects had in mind. The Middle East was significant only to the extent that it was a venue in which to push back the Soviet Union. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s decision to jump from the Soviet side to the American column after the 1973 war mattered only because it stripped Moscow of an asset. Cairo was never a prize in its own right; it was never a counterweight to anything, but only evidence of all the goodies that were in store for other Arab states that turned against Moscow.
But as the CNAS paper shows, because advocates of containing Iran necessarily believe that the United States’ ability to project power is much smaller than it is in reality and Iran’s is much bigger, their gross distortions of nature also exaggerate the strategic significance of the region at large. Egypt, Iraq, the Gulf states, etc. are valuable only insofar as they can help Washington hold on to the region’s one prize, the Persian Gulf. The architects of Cold War containment understood that if this vital waterway fell into the hands of the Soviets it would change the balance of power, not least by affecting America’s ability to fight a land war against a formidable army. The United States could contain its Cold War adversary of nearly half a century only if the Soviet Union feared American strength.
The CNAS report instead assumes that containment will be the likely result of the United States’ inability to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program. But that’s wrong. If prevention fails, it is not because Obama is not able to stop Iran, it is because the commander-in-chief has chosen not to.