War by another name

Containment vis-a-vis Iran is gaining in popularity, but the strategy will almost certainly result in an equally destabilized Mideast,

revolutionary guards 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
revolutionary guards 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
While sanctions have so far failed to end the Iranian nuclear program, there is again increasing debate on how to approach the conflict over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The debate gathered some momentum following Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent article in The Atlantic, in which he discussed the prospect of a military campaign.
At the same time, there is increasing support for a containment strategy as a fall-back option. This school of thought gained momentum with James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh recently arguing in Foreign Affairs that a nuclear Iran could be deterred, and more importantly contained, if only a couple of credible red lines would be drawn. In light of an inconclusive debate on the merits of a military campaign, a strategy of containment appears increasingly credible.
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Tempting as it is to resort to such a strategy, there are some serious problems. Containment requires a rational adversary. The Islamic Republic of Iran, however, is anything but a rational actor; nuclear capability in its hands will only foster its irrational course. But perhaps more importantly, the very design of containment makes it a far less attractive option than its proponents want us to believe.
WHEN ARGUING in favor of containment, one should note that the international community has been doing so ever since the Clinton administration decided to pursue what it called dual containment – a strategy announced in 1994 to contain both Iraq and Iran – with anything but reasonable success. So while many observers are looking at the Iranian leadership to understand how a nuclear Iran would behave, it might be more illuminating to look at the development of Iran’s foreign policy in general.
Despite efforts to contain it, Teheran managed to defy the US and its regional allies for 15 years. It has supplied missiles to Hizbullah, turning this non-state actor into a formidable military force. It constantly treats the waters of the Persian Gulf as its private domain, occupying islands also claimed by the United Arab Emirates, and threatens others, such as Bahrain, that are sovereign states. It has meddled in the internal affairs of Afghanistan and Iraq, and went as far as to more-or-less openly wage a proxy war with the US in Iraq, and repeatedly captured British sailors outside its own territorial waters and held them hostage.
Clearly, containment of Iran has not been a success so far. Its failure is largely due to the Iranian elite’s worldview. This elite believes in spreading the Islamic republic’s model beyond its own borders. It perceives its Islamic revolution as ongoing, and with mounting domestic problems, a more aggressive foreign policy holds the promise of galvanizing an otherwise increasingly disenfranchised population.
But perhaps more importantly, the eschatologically-inspired outlook of Shi’ism makes war a less frightening prospect for the Iranian leadership than for any rational actor. To the contrary, it is amid the ensuing chaos that the Iranian president expects the 12th imam to return and establish new order. Indeed, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is said to believe that he himself is that hidden imam. Against the backdrop of an already faltering containment strategy, it might well be argued that a nuclear capability would give the Iranian leadership even more room for reckless foreign policy maneuvers.
CONTAINMENT WAS a successful strategy when applied to the Soviet Union. Moscow, however, was a rational actor, so containment was feasible because direct war would have meant total destruction for all of civilization. But to make containment work for over four decades, numerous wars had to be fought on what is so wrongly referred to as the periphery. These wars, from Afghanistan to Angola, claimed the lives of millions and exposed the dictatorial rule of socialist, quasi-socialist and communist states.
The same holds true for Iraq, the second case in which containment was employed. Since the liberation of Kuwait, the US tried to contain Saddam Hussein’s regime. Containment, however, required constant enforcement of sanctions and the two no-fly zones imposed following the liberation of Kuwait. Containment of Iraq nonetheless eroded continuously and the US repeatedly had to launch military operations to re-enforce it, most notably with Operation Desert Fox in December 1998. Since Saddam Hussein continued to challenge the allies’ resolve, air strikes against military targets had to continue until Iraq was finally liberated in 2003. By then, however, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had been slaughtered by Saddam’s regime. Contrary to what its proponents want us to believe, containment is by no means a less warlike strategy just because it is not called war.
Moreover, containment is a strategy to reach a certain end, not an end in itself. During the Cold War, containment, as put forward by George F. Kennan, was designed to keep the Soviet Union in check. But its ultimate goal was a democratic change in the Soviet Union itself by increasing the reach of freedom and democracy. And with the spectre of a nuclear war with a formidable adversary looming, containment helped to avoid this war. But it should not be forgotten that mankind nonetheless repeatedly stood at the threshold. With a more aggressive and less rational adversary like Iran, this threshold could well be crossed.
The writer is visiting professor at the Center for European Studies, University of Economics Prague, and a lecturer in international relations at the Otto-Suhr-Institute of the Freie Universität Berlin. This article first appeared as BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 123 and is reprinted here with permission.