The Iran X-Files

George Kennan wanted to invade Iran, not contain it, Martin Kramer argues.


Karim Sadjadpour wishes to present U.S. diplomat George Kennan as a prophet “anticipating today’s Iran” who would instruct America to “remain ‘at all times cool and collected’ — and allow the march of history to run its course” (“The Sources of Soviet Iranian Conduct,” November 2010).

Perhaps it is only fair, then, to ask what Kennan did say about Iran during his lifetime. In 1952, when Iran’s nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh challenged the West’s control of Iranian oil, Kennan wrote to Secretary of State Dean Acheson urging that the West show Iran “the cold gleam of adequate and determined force.… Had the British occupied Abadan [Iran’s oil fields and refinery], I would personally have no great worry about what happened to the rest of the country.”

During the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980, Kennan told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States should declare war on Iran and “hold in readiness means of unilateral pressure on the Iranian regime, not excluding the military one.” William F. Buckley praised Kennan’s uncharacteristic tough talk, adding, “I can imagine that the senators stared at [Kennan] as if he had just been entered by an incubus.”

In sum, when Kennan did offer his wisdom on Iran, he expressed views opposed to those Sadjadpour would attribute to him. Why? Iran was no Soviet Union, and Kennan held its pretensions in contempt. It’s not far-fetched to imagine a resurrected Kennan suggesting that the United States bomb Natanz. That Sadjadpour turns him into a posthumous supporter of “containing” Iran is amusing — or would be, if it weren’t so misleading.

Martin Kramer
Wexler-Fromer Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Washington, D.C.

Karim Sadjadpour replies:

I thank Martin Kramer for his sober response. My intent was not to endorse George Kennan as a foreign-policy prophet but to note the striking parallels between Kennan’s characterization of the Soviet regime and that of the current Iranian regime. Furthermore, while I found Kennan’s views toward Iran in 1952 and 1980 interesting, given how dramatically the political context has changed they don’t tell us much about how he would have approached Iran in 2010. Recall that Donald Rumsfeld warmly embraced Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 1983; 20 years later he organized a massive “shock and awe” military campaign against him.

Today’s Iran is central to at least a half dozen major U.S. foreign-policy challenges: Afghanistan, Iraq, the Arab-Israeli conflict, terrorism, energy security, and nuclear proliferation. Bombing Iran would likely severely exacerbate, not ameliorate, these challenges.

Also in contrast to 1952 and 1980 is that today’s Iran has the most vibrant and promising democracy movement in the Islamic Middle East. There exists a near-universal consensus among Iranian democracy activists that military action could render their movement stillborn and entrench the Iranian regime’s most radical elements for many years to come.

Finally, Kennan appreciated that military adventures were not to be entered into lightly. A few years before his death in 2005 at age 101, Kennan was asked what advice he would give then-President George W. Bush and his national security team in dealing with Iraq. “Whenever you have a possibility of going in two ways,” Kennan said, “either for peace or for war, for peaceful methods or for military methods, in the present age there is a strong prejudice for the peaceful ones. War seldom ever leads to good results.”

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