Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Why there can’t be a Nixon-to-China moment in Tehran

By Michael Singh As engagement with Iran gained political momentum in the United States during the 2008 presidential campaign, some of its advocates were quick to cite the analogy of Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China in portraying outreach to Tehran as a similarly bold policy stroke. The experience of the past year, which has ...

By , a senior fellow and the managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

By Michael Singh

As engagement with Iran gained political momentum in the United States during the 2008 presidential campaign, some of its advocates were quick to cite the analogy of Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China in portraying outreach to Tehran as a similarly bold policy stroke. The experience of the past year, which has seen Iran's leaders crack down at home and spurn outreach from the West, has exposed the superficiality of this comparison. As political scientist Michael Mandelbaum has observed, Chairman Mao was motivated, after all, not by American charm but by Soviet belligerence. China in the early 1970s had recently lost a border war to the USSR and faced a Soviet army massing on its border, pushing it into Washington's arms. The Iranian regime, on the other hand, has been eager to keep America at arm's length.

With negotiations with Iran making frustratingly little progress and hopes for strong international sanctions restrained by the reality of Chinese and Russian reluctance, a new analogy is gaining traction in U.S. national security circles -- containment. Its enthusiasts liken America's Cold War containment of the Soviet Union to the hypothetical containment of a nuclear Iran in the future. Just like the Nixon-to-China comparison, however, the containment analogy is fatally flawed.

By Michael Singh

As engagement with Iran gained political momentum in the United States during the 2008 presidential campaign, some of its advocates were quick to cite the analogy of Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China in portraying outreach to Tehran as a similarly bold policy stroke. The experience of the past year, which has seen Iran’s leaders crack down at home and spurn outreach from the West, has exposed the superficiality of this comparison. As political scientist Michael Mandelbaum has observed, Chairman Mao was motivated, after all, not by American charm but by Soviet belligerence. China in the early 1970s had recently lost a border war to the USSR and faced a Soviet army massing on its border, pushing it into Washington’s arms. The Iranian regime, on the other hand, has been eager to keep America at arm’s length.

With negotiations with Iran making frustratingly little progress and hopes for strong international sanctions restrained by the reality of Chinese and Russian reluctance, a new analogy is gaining traction in U.S. national security circles — containment. Its enthusiasts liken America’s Cold War containment of the Soviet Union to the hypothetical containment of a nuclear Iran in the future. Just like the Nixon-to-China comparison, however, the containment analogy is fatally flawed.

Those who argue in favor of containment generally have in mind nuclear deterrence — that is, preventing Iran from actually using a nuclear weapon. And history suggests that they have a point — no nuclear power besides the United States has ever employed the bomb, and a combination of missile defenses and a declaratory policy promising retaliation could prove powerful deterrents to Iran doing so. While we should not count too heavily on the Iranian regime’s rationality — its officials have, after all, mused about destroying Israel — neither should we exaggerate the likelihood that Iran would initiate a nuclear conflict that would prove its own demise.

The possibility that it would use a nuclear weapon is, however, only the beginning of the dangers that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose. Of perhaps greater concern is that Iran would transfer its nuclear know-how to other countries or, far more alarming, to terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. This scenario is not far-fetched — nuclear powers have regularly transferred their technology to others, and Iran in particular has been generous in sharing advanced military hardware with its proxies, like the advanced rocketry employed by Hezbollah against Israel or IEDs used by Iraqi insurgents against American troops. Even if they were denied the ultimate weapons by Tehran, these groups would surely feel emboldened under its nuclear umbrella to step up their activities against Western and Arab interests.

Added to this danger is the likelihood that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would fundamentally change the security landscape in the Middle East. Iran’s neighbors would be faced with a grim choice — pursue a nuclear weapons capability of their own, or resign themselves to Iranian hegemony for the foreseeable future. Given their longstanding mistrust of Tehran, it is likely that those which could pursue the nuclear path would do so. Such a development would leave the United States not simply to contain a nuclear-armed Iran, but to manage a broadly nuclearized Middle East and its implications for the already-shaky global nonproliferation regime. These are threats against which even the most advanced missile defense or the strongest declaratory policy afford no protection.

The victory of the United States and its allies over the Soviet Union was a historic success, but not an unqualified one, and certainly not a costless one. The containment of the Soviets required massive overseas military deployments and two major military conflicts. While the USSR did not use nuclear weapons, it transferred nuclear technology to other states, the consequences of which trouble us greatly to this day. What’s more, the United States and Western Europe were left with little recourse as the Eastern bloc fell under Soviet sway and human rights and economic progress were stamped out for five decades.

This is not the sort of success we should hope for against Iran. As the Obama administration weighs how best to respond to Iran’s continued nuclear defiance and its repression of a courageous opposition, "containment" should be crossed off the list of policy options.

Michael Singh is a senior fellow and the managing director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was a senior director for Middle East affairs at the U.S. National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @MichaelSinghDC

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.