By Lesley McNiesh
Current debates about the necessity of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons hinge in major part on a badly flawed concept—that a nuclear-armed Iran can’t be contained.
Containment means keeping a state from causing harm to the core interests and safety of the world community. It represents a middle ground between direct conflict and treating Iran’s nuclear aspirations as a non-threat, providing time for sanctions and dialogue to produce a lasting solution even if Iran acquires nuclear weapons.
Containment is a well-development policy that worked during the Cold War to contain the brutal Joseph Stalin and his successors in the Soviet Union, as well as Mao in China.
A strategy of containment has at its core the threat of retaliation if Iran crossed an unacceptable threshold, such as attacking another state or assisting with a nuclear terrorist attack anywhere in the world. It could be supplemented by extending the nuclear security umbrella to neighboring Arab states, deploying U.S. troops in vulnerable regions to increase the credibility of threats to retaliate, supporting regional security agreements for mutual defense against any Iranian aggression, and both defining and communicating red lines that Iranian leaders believe they can’t cross without triggering serious retaliation.
On May 17, the House of Representative voted overwhelmingly in favor of H. Res. 568, which “rejects any policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran” and is modeled after a similar measure that has yet to be acted upon in the Senate, but already has 77 co-sponsors.
Iran is highly unlikely to attack even if it could conjure up a functioning and deliverable nuclear weapon today, because U.S. retaliation could wipe Iran off the map and Iran’s leaders care more than anything about self-preservation. The same is true for an attack on Israel: Israel has its own nuclear deterrent as well as a demonstrated history of striking back when attacked, even by non-state actors, such as in the 2006 Lebanon War. A military strike against Israel would also invite U.S. intervention.
All this isn’t to say there aren’t significant dangers associated with Iran building nuclear weapons. It might embolden the state to increase its sponsorship of terrorism or exert a stronger regional influence. Iran’s neighbors have said that they might seek nuclear weapons if Iran has them, although the history of nuclear weapons developments casts doubt on the domino theory of proliferation. Any nuclear program presents some risk of accident or theft, and Iran’s internal divisions and dangerous regional environment make this threat greater than most. Perhaps the greatest concern of all is that Iran, a country that is known to support terrorist groups, would give a weapon or highly enriched uranium to terrorists.
However, there is good reason to think Iran might be loath to part with fissile material or an intact nuclear warhead. Why would it give any of its comparatively scarce resources away? Iran would hardly be out of the woods regarding retaliation either: nuclear forensics might be able to reveal a tie to Iran or intelligence could reveal such a connection. The Iranian leadership is unlikely to risk that the United States, which possesses the most capable conventional forces on the planet and is armed with thousands of nuclear weapons, would blame it for a nuclear attack on its homeland or that of an ally.
Make no mistake, a nuclear-armed Iran makes the world a more dangerous place, but containment and continued sanctions are the best strategy to manage the risks. High-ranking U.S. military officials have cited intelligence estimates that a U.S. or Israeli attack would only delay Iran’s program, not permanently end it. A strike may only make the regime more fixated on developing a nuclear deterrent to prevent future attacks. In fact, threatening to use military force and doubling down on the “unacceptability” of a nuclear-armed Iran without a lasting plan to stop its program create the incentive for Iran to sprint to the finish line.
To stop Iran’s nuclear program, the United States and its partners will have to convince Iran to choose to give it up. That requires a mix of tough-minded diplomatic outreach, economic pressure, and measured military preparedness. In that regard the ongoing P5+1 talks in Baghdad provide a source for cautious optimism.