The Hidden Cost of Containing Iran
September is crunch time for the Obama administration on Iran. The pressure is mounting for the administration to show progress in peacefully steering the Islamic Republic from its nuclear path.
But what if the Islamic Republic proves recalcitrant?
During her swing through Asia in July, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at the contours of the administration’s strategy in an interview on Thai television. "If the U.S. extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf, it's unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer because they won't be able to intimidate and dominate as they apparently believe they can once they have a nuclear weapon."
The idea behind such a containment scheme is simple: if Iran is boxed in by militarily superior neighbors with the backing of the United States, it would be less tempted to embark on any dangerous adventurism. Just as important, although unsaid by Secretary Clinton, is that an explicit American nuclear guarantee to its Middle Eastern allies would dissuade states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt from acquiring their own nuclear weapons, thereby diminishing the odds that the entire Middle East would suddenly be bristling with atomic arms.
On the surface, containment seems like a sensible strategy should Iran successfully develop a nuclear weapon, particularly when compared to the costs of waging a war against Iran. But as the U.S. learned during the Cold War, containment is not a cost-free option. Its price tag can be steep and hide a multitude of unintended consequences. Before embarking down that road with Iran, it’s worth considering those costs.
The principle danger in any containment scheme is that the U.S. will set in motion forces it does not understand and cannot control. The most relevant example, of course, is American support for the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s. What began as an effort to covertly bloody the Soviet Union, gradually, and unintentionally, spawned a transnational terrorist movement that eventually struck the U.S. homeland on September 11, 2001. Many of the same Afghan militants who proved useful to the U.S. in the 1980s have now turned their guns on America.
The law of unintended consequences was also at play in an earlier U.S. effort to contain Iran. Washington’s desire to hem in a revolutionary Iran landed it in bed with Saddam Hussein when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980. After plying Iraq with intelligence and aid, Hussein returned the favor by stampeding into Kuwait. The U.S. was forced not only to eject Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War but to further commit resources to contain him lest he make another stab at regional dominance. Over the course of containing Saddam’s Iraq, America stationed troops inside Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest place – a move that famously inflamed Osama bin Laden and drove recruits into the arms of al Qaeda.
Indeed, the rise of al Qaeda points to the singular danger of any Iranian containment regime: it could stir up a Sunni jihadist whirlwind. The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, would not only need arms to keep Iran in check militarily, but would step up an ideological campaign to undermine the legitimacy of its Shiite theocracy in the eyes of the Muslim world. This ideological conflict would put the U.S. in the absurd position of supporting the same theological forces which have propelled al Qaeda terrorism.
What’s more, given the recent protests in Iran, does Washington want itself associated with anti-Persian, anti-Shiite demagoguery if Iran’s "Green Revolution" eventually prevails? To date, Iran is one of the few nations in the Middle East, outside of Israel, whose population is not anti-American. That is not the case with the citizens of the countries Washington is scrambling to defend. A 2008 Pew Research poll, for instance, found that a mere 22 percent of Egyptians had a favorable view of the United States.
None of this is a coincidence. America's allies in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, govern as unjustly as Iran. But unlike Iran, they do so with the explicit support of the United States. Those who resent the depredations of their government eventually view its foreign sponsors as a problem too. We should remember that it was citizens of the Gulf states and Egypt who flocked to al Qaeda - not Iranians. More importantly, many of the regimes America is proposing to defend have either turned a blind eye toward, or actively propagated, anti-Western and anti-Semitic Islamic doctrine.
But beyond the risks an Iranian containment strategy would run, it's worth stepping back and asking a more fundamental question: is it even necessary to "contain" Iran, at least in the militarized form currently envisioned by Washington?
When containment was developed, the Soviet Union had armies beyond its borders, in Eastern Europe and bisecting Germany. Western Europe and East Asia - the two engines of the industrial world - were devastated by World War II and were no match for an encroaching communist superpower. Unlike Iran’s revolutionary Shiite faith, Communism wooed legions of adherents in the Western world, including a number of influential sympathizers and opinion shapers. The Soviet Union’s network of spies poached American nuclear secrets and burrowed into allied governments around the world.
In Soviet Russia, a globe-spanning ideology combined with the industrial base to realize its grandiose ambitions.
Whatever revolutionary dreams Iran's leadership may still harbor, their capacity to recognize those dreams is sorely limited. As recent protests have illustrated, Iran's leadership is increasingly viewed as illegitimate by its own people. Its upper echelons are openly feuding. Militarily, Iran is a non-entity with an economy suffering from 28 percent inflation and declining oil revenues. To the extent that Iran can project its power beyond its borders, it does so indirectly, through terrorist proxies. Unlike the Soviet Union, it can’t roll tanks into neighboring nations to crush uprisings or unseat disfavored leaders. What threat Iran does pose to the United States hinges more on its ability to influence world oil prices.
And what of Washington’s other major worry – that America’s regional allies would scramble to develop nuclear weapons of their own? Such fears, while legitimate, may be overblown. Most of the states of the Persian Gulf, in addition to Egypt, are signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. At a minimum, they would have to pull out of that treaty or develop (at great expense) clandestine, illegal nuclear facilities. Purchasing weapons “off-the-shelf” from Pakistan is another option, but a recent study by the Middle East Institute’s Thomas Lippman argued that, in the case of Saudi Arabia at least, the regime would steer clear of such a perilous course.
It’s also worth asking what America would accomplish by obligating itself to wage a nuclear war on behalf of nations like Saudi Arabia.
After years of living under the American defense umbrella, Germany, South Korea and Japan developed strong market economies and democratic institutions. Their citizens may have resented various American policies, but never got it into their heads to plow commercial airliners into American office buildings and launch an international terrorist war against Western interests.
After a similarly long stretch under America’s wing, the same cannot be said of Saudi Arabia. Unlike the American umbrella over Western Europe and Asia, the U.S. defense posture in the Middle East isn’t rooted in democracy against encroaching Communism. Instead, it’s based on the defense of incumbent autocrats against regional rivals to safeguard a global commodity.
Fortunately, oil is fungible and must be sold to be of any value. Even if prices soar, they’re easily calculated and the U.S. can adapt. The costs of a militarized containment of Iran, however, are hidden. They will rear their head suddenly and, if past is prologue, catch us by surprise. If we’re intent on reprising a Cold War-era strategy for Iran, we should at least be mindful of those consequences.