Monday, March 29, 2010

Can the US Contain a Nuclear Iran?


by  Emily B. Landau

With any hope of a new round of UN Security Council sanctions on Iran now postponed until June, and the understanding that if at all, these will be weak and ineffective measures, Obama's diplomatic initiative is slowly grinding to a halt. Taking into account Iran's steady progress in developing fissile material, its work on producing a nuclear warhead, and its ever-improving missile capabilities -- together with low expectations that anything in this dynamic will impress upon the Obama administration the need to ultimately take military action -- part of the discourse on this topic is changing track. Instead of focusing on the stinging failure to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, some are arguing that it's now time to move on. They say that in the likely scenario that Iran becomes the next nuclear state, the US will simply resort to its ultimate strategy that has worked in other cases: it will contain a nuclear Iran.

But will the US indeed be able to contain a nuclear Iran? The answer to this question involves two levels: first, US credibility vis-à-vis Iran, and second, what the US will be seeking to contain. On both counts, there is little room for optimism.

Containment (and deterrence) of an adversary necessarily depend on a state's ability to transmit to the adversary credible threats of consequences for certain behavior on the part of the adversary. In this regard, the idea that the US can contain Iran cannot be divorced from what has transpired over the past year vis-à-vis the diplomatic initiative that Obama has pursued from his first day in office. The lesson that Iran has learned from the Obama administration is that while there has been no shortage of threats of consequences, there have been little to no actual consequences. Iran has seen that the US sets red lines and deadlines that in practice are virtually meaningless. The US has undermined its own ability to present a credible threat by saying outright that it has no intention of taking military action because it is overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it has clarified through its actions that broad multilateral agreement is more important than demonstrating resolve to Iran in the economic realm as well. Why should we assume that the US will be any more successful in projecting credibility toward Iran when this state becomes a nuclear state than it has been in the period before Iran crossed this line?

One could argue that while it is difficult to deter a state from advancing a nuclear program within its own borders, it's a different ball game altogether when we consider the scenario of Iran contemplating attack of another state. Here the threat of US consequences will still be credible, regardless of its past record. There is reason to believe that this is indeed the case. The problem is that a potential nuclear attack is not the major cause for concern with regard to Iran becoming a nuclear state.

This brings us to the second level of analysis. What the US might expect to contain depends on the assessment of what Iran will likely seek to achieve with its nuclear capability. Here too it is instructive to first consider how Iran has behaved since 2002 in the unfolding nuclear crisis. Iran has learned over the past eight years of dealing with the international community that the best way to advance its goals in the nuclear realm is very carefully, even if it takes a little more time. Being very careful has the double advantage of no one action sparking too strong a reaction from strong international actors, and gradually conditioning the international community to accept the inevitability of the new reality that it is establishing on the ground. Unlike North Korea, Iran is not prone to crisis-creation or clear brinkmanship – it will resist provocations until it has tested the waters and is fairly certain that they will not engender a harsh response.

This is likely to be the Iranian approach as a nuclear state as well. Not only does this seem to be the preferred Iranian tactic, but it also fits well with Iran's expected strategic goal in the nuclear realm. If one accepts the premise that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons capability for the much enhanced regional clout that it will gain thereby yet that the likelihood of its actually using nuclear weapons against one of its neighbors is quite low, Iran will not be prone to crossing a clear line in the nuclear realm that might elicit a nuclear response. Rather, Iran will prefer to continue to work in more indirect ways, passively depending on the image of nuclear capability that it will acquire to underscore its new regional standing.

How does one contain Iran from consolidating its hegemonic hold over the Arab Gulf states due to their fear of their now much stronger neighbor? Does it even make sense to talk about containment in such a scenario? And how will the US contain Iran from having a seriously negative impact on Israel's ability to defend itself in a war provoked by Hizbollah or Hamas, with the backing of Iran?

These are the likely scenarios of Iran going nuclear, not nuclear attack. In these scenarios, recognizing its inability to have any influence on Iran, the US is unfortunately more likely to fall back on attempts to look for solutions elsewhere, such as targeting the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the  source of regional tensions and troubles. Until the US has real answers to containing these kinds of Iranian threats, there is not much value to talking about US containment of a nuclear Iran. Containment is certainly not a "solution" to the severe implications of Iran becoming a nuclear state. 


Emily B. Landau
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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