Stephen M. Walt

How not to contain Iran

In the run-up to the war in Iraq, a critical moment came when moderates and liberals joined forces with the neoconservatives who had been pushing for war since the late 1990s. The poster child for this process was Kenneth Pollack, whose pro-war book The Threatening Storm (written under the auspices of the Council on Foreign ...

Tens of thousands of Iranians attend a rally to mark the 31th anniversary of the Islamic revolution in Azadi (Freedom) Square in southwestern Tehran on February 11, 2010. Iranian opposition leaders Mohammad Khatami and Mehdi Karroubi came under attack and their supporters clashed with police as vast crowds massed in the Iranian capital to mark the 1979 revolution. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

In the run-up to the war in Iraq, a critical moment came when moderates and liberals joined forces with the neoconservatives who had been pushing for war since the late 1990s. The poster child for this process was Kenneth Pollack, whose pro-war book The Threatening Storm (written under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations) gave reluctant hawks a respectable fig-leaf for backing the invasion.

Is a similar process occurring today with respect to Iran? A possible sign of slippage is a recent Foreign Affairs article (and accompanying Washington Post op-ed) by James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh (also of the CFR). Lindsay and Takeyh are well-known centrists who now seem at least partly infected by some of the alarmism about Iran that the neoconservatives have been trumpeting for years. Although their two articles sound a somewhat skeptical note about preventive war-they admit that "a preventive attack might not end Iran’s nuclear ambitions"-they recommend keeping all options "on the table" and in general depict the Islamic Republic as a looming threat to all that is Right and Proper. Their central lesson: the United States had better get serious about preparing for a military response to a wide array of possible Iranian actions.

Lindsay and Takeyh reach this conclusion by incorporating a series of worst-case assumptions and by employing the familiar alarmist rhetoric that has been a staple of hawkish commentary for decades. Despite some significant qualifications (some of which contradict their central point), the overall impression is ominous, and likely to strengthen the hand of those who are in favor of an ever-tougher approach to Tehran.

For starters, the very first line of their WaPo op-ed describes Iran as "relentlessly moving toward acquiring a nuclear weapons capability." They offer no concrete evidence that this is the case, however, and it is worth remembering that the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate which concluded Iran had no active nuclear weapons program has yet to be rescinded. Iran may be trying to build a working nuclear weapon, but there is as yet no clear sign that a definitive decision to go nuclear has been made. Of course, so long as Iran has the capacity to enrich uranium, it is by definition "moving toward" having the potential to build a weapon at some point in the future. Insofar as its nuclear program goes back decades, however, it doesn’t seem to be moving very fast. Unfortunately, using words like "relentlessly" and portraying the decision to get a bomb as a done deal makes Tehran sound especially dangerous and further devalues any possibility of a diplomatic deal that might head off weaponization.

Next, they argue that Iran "views nuclear weapons as the means to regional preeminence" and warn that a nuclear shield "would give Iran freedom to project its power in the Middle East." They believe Iran "would not be subtle about brandishing the nuclear card" and predict it "would probably test U.S. resolve early." Indeed, they think America will face a "momentous credibility crisis" if it fails to stop Iran from getting the bomb, warning that "even close US allies would doubt Washington’s security guarantees."

Are you scared yet? All these ominous claims might be true, but neither the Foreign Affairs article or the WaPo op-ed contain any evidence to back them up. But Lindsay and Takeyh are just getting started. They also think Iran might increase its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, do more to subvert the Gulf sheikhdoms, demand that these states evict U.S. troops, and maybe even give nuclear technology to other countries. And if that isn’t enough, they invoke the old nightmare that Iran might "give fissile material to a terrorist group."

Of course, alert readers with good memories will notice that these are the same arguments that pro-war hawks made about Iraq. And though each of the warnings is hedged in various ways-i.e., they don’t say Iran will do these things, only that it might-the cumulative effect of all these scary scenarios is to suggest that an Iranian bomb would be major turning point in world history (and not in a good way).

So what should the U.S. do in response? According to Lindsay and Takeyh, the United States needs to draw several lines in the sand: 1) no initiation of conventional warfare, 2) no use or transfer of nuclear weapons, material, or technologies, and 3) no stepped-up support for terrorist or subversive activities. If Iran does any of these things, the United States should be ready to respond "by any and all means necessary." If we aren’t ready to retaliate, they write, "the damage created by Iran’s going nuclear could become catastrophic.

Time to chill, guys. Iran is an important security issue, and the United States should take appropriate steps to maintain a balance of power in the region. Unfortunately, the drum-beat of alarmism that pervades their article-and even more in the op-ed version-is both misleading and possibly counterproductive.

First, their depiction of a swaggering Iran armed with nuclear weapons grossly overstates Iran’s actual capabilities. According to the IISS Military Balance, Iran’s military budget in 2008 was around $9.5 billion dollars (less than 2 percent of U.S. defense outlays) and Iran’s actual capabilities reflects this paltry investment. It has no conventional power-projection capabilities, outdated air, naval and armored forces, and primitive electronic warfare capabilities. Iran’s population and economic potential raise the possibility that it might one day be the dominant power in the Gulf, but it is nowhere near that capacity now. Getting a nuclear weapon won’t change that fact, because nuclear weapons are only useful for deterrence and confer little positive leverage over others. (Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge this latter point in the Foreign Affairs version, but if they genuinely believe this, then many of their other arguments are irrelevant).

Second, Lindsey and Takeyh misunderstand the sources of U.S. credibility. The United States has been actively engaged in Persian Gulf security for decades, because Persian Gulf oil is a vital U.S. national interest. That vital interest won’t change no matter what happens in Iran, which is why our local allies can count on us to back them up. The reason is simple: it is in our own self-interest. And the good news is that Iran almost certainly knows this too.

Third, they overstate Iran’s capacity to subvert or blackmail its neighbors. Iran’s capacity to export its version of Islamic fundamentalism has declined steadily since the 1979 revolution (and it wasn’t very great back then), and the regime is a far less attractive model today than it was under the more charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini. The brutal crackdown following the elections last summer has undoubtedly tarnished Tehran’s appeal even more. Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge this point as well in the long version of their article, but they fail to draw the obvious conclusion: if Iran cannot subvert its neighbors, then the danger it poses is modest and their article didn’t need to be written.

Furthermore, a nuclear Iran could not blackmail its neighbors (or compel them to expel U.S. forces), because it could not carry out a nuclear threat without facing devastating U.S. or Israeli retaliation. The mighty Soviet Union could not blackmail any US allies during in the Cold War; indeed, it wasn’t even able to blackmail weak and neutral countries. American leaders have found it equally difficult to translate our vast nuclear arsenal into meaningful political leverage. Yet Lindsay and Takeyh imply that Iran could perform this miracle today, even though it is far weaker. They never explain why or how, however; it’s just another convenient bogeyman.

Fourth, fears that Iran will give weapons or technology to terrorists are even more far-fetched. One cannot rule out the possibility that Iran might share nuclear technology with a few other governments (much as Pakistan did), but there are good reasons to doubt it. Among other things, it is hard to believe that Iran would want to see more countries get nuclear weapons, especially in its own region.

More importantly, Iran is not going to give fissile material to terrorists. Having labored long and hard to acquire an enrichment capability, would any regime just hand weapons-grade uranium over to extremists over whom it had no control? Giving fissile material to terrorists is a potentially suicidal act, and Iran’s leaders show every sign of wanting to retain power permanently and to live as long as they can. They could never be sure the hand-off would not be detected and that they would not be blamed (and punished) for whatever the terrorists did. There’s no sign that any of Iran’s leaders has a death wish, which is why they won’t be giving any bombs away.

Fifth, Lindsay and Takeyh’s redlines are too vague and elastic. The United States is already committed to opposing conventional aggression in the Gulf region (unless we’re the ones doing it, of course), and U.S. leaders have already made it clear that they will respond to blackmail or nuclear use as well. As Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge, the United State remains a powerful presence in the Gulf region today and will stay there long after the withdrawal from Iraq is completed. In short, the essential ingredients of containment are already in place.

In particular, threatening retaliation against "subversive activities" risks either an unnecessary war or a further challenge to US credibility. For example, many well-informed observers believe Iran has substantial influence in Iraq today, and may be actively trying to affect the outcome of the March 7 elections. Is this the sort of "subversive activity" that should trigger a US response? How about a single shipment of mortars to Hezbollah, or the capture of an Iranian intelligence agent operating in Bahrain or Dubai? In a world where the United States, Israel, and plenty of other states are conducting covert, "subversive" operations in assorted foreign countries-including targeted killings and assassinations-this item hardly seems like a redline we can or should try to enforce.

It is also worth remembering that the U.S. and its allies didn’t threaten to retaliate against the USSR for the "subversive activities" that were a central part of Soviet communism’s international agenda from 1917 to 1986. The United States and NATO made it clear they’d respond to traditional acts of aggression, but we knew better than to make "subversion" a key "redline" in our overall strategy of containment. The goal was prevent Soviet expansion and to out-perform the USSR over time, so that communist subversion failed to find root in any countries that mattered. As 1989 proved, that strategy was a smashing success.

Sixth, a hair-trigger, forward-leaning approach to containment will give Iran an obvious incentive to acquire a deterrent of its own. No matter how much they hedge, Lindsay and Takeyh are announcing to the world that Iran’s acquisition of a small nuclear capability at some point in the future would have significant positive effects on its regional position. I certainly hope Iran isn’t listening to them, because it’s hard to think of a better way to convince its leaders to go ahead. Moreover, overheated talk about the need for a more robust containment strategy is likely to reinforce Iran’s desire for a deterrent shield that can take the threat of regime change (an option Washington has never renounced) "off the table." But if we don’t much like the idea of an Iranian bomb (and I don’t), shouldn’t we doing everything we can to convince Tehran that a bomb would be of little value? Perhaps unintentionally, Lindsay and Takeyh are sending precisely the opposite message.

Seventh, like most Americans writing about Iran these days, Lindsay and Takeyh never consider the one approach that might actually have some small chance of heading off an Iranian bomb. That approach would be to take the threat of regime change and preventive war off the table and accept Iran’s enrichment program-on the strict condition that it ratifies and implements all elements of the NPT Additional Protocol. At the same time, the United States would engage in serious and sincere discussions about a range of regional security matters, including a public U.S. guarantee to forego regime change.

This is the sort of "grand bargain" that others have proposed in the past, and there is of course no guarantee that it will work. Moreover, many people would find any dealings with the current regime objectionable, for understandable reasons. But if an Iranian bomb is such a scary prospect, shouldn’t we be pulling out all the stops to see if an acceptable diplomatic solution is possible? As near as I can tell, the sort of grand bargain sketched in the previous paragraph has never been tried; instead, we’ve made rhetorical gestures and incremental take-it-or-leave-it offers-all of which predictably fail-and we falsely conclude from these half-hearted efforts that more ambitious diplomacy is unworkable.

Finally, it’s possible that I’m being too hard on Lindsay and Takeyh. Perhaps they are sheep in wolves’ clothing, and their article is in fact a plea for a moderate and sensible strategy of containment dressed up in a lot of tough rhetoric intended to make it more convincing. If so, I fear their approach is too clever by half. Despite their apparent rejection of preventive war and assorted other qualifications, the Lindsay/Takeyh articles unintentionally reinforce an alarmist view of Iran that has been the neoconservatives’ bread-and-butter for many years.

Don’t forget: between 1998 and 2003, the pro-war party took an extreme position on Iraq and stuck to its guns (literally), looking for every opportunity to advance its program. 9/11 opened the door, and they were quick to seize the moment. Over time, both liberals and moderates were dragged rightward, adopting hawkish rhetoric and tortured rationales in order to show how "serious" they were. Former doves jumped on the bandwagon, the center of gravity swung inexorably to the hard-line position, and the results were disastrous. Something similar seems to be happening again; to paraphrase Yeats, "the centre cannot hold."

Why? Yeats also gives us the answer: because "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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