It Worked on Saddam

Why patience, not bombs, is the best way to defuse Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

As fears of a nuclear-armed Iran grow in Washington, partisans have clung even tighter to their preferred panaceas. The debate has broken down along predictable lines: Conservatives have advocated a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, while senior policymakers in Barack Obama’s administration continue to hope that "engagement" can convince the Islamic Republic to voluntarily give up its nuclear ambitions.

Both of these choices, however, ignore the most likely, and most promising, U.S. policy option with regard to Iran: containment. Though a hoary Cold War idea, containment served the United States well as a road map in its long struggle against the Soviet Union. The concept, which was first proposed by the staunch anti-Communist George Kennan, was defined as an ongoing effort to maintain a quiet stranglehold on the Soviet economy, its access to sensitive technology, and its influence abroad. When dealing with an Iranian regime that clearly sees more use in demonizing the United States than in engaging in a meaningful rapprochement, containment has to be the de facto U.S. policy.

Containment would allow U.S. policymakers to leverage the biggest advantage they currently have over the Islamic Republic: time. Despite Iran’s steady advances in mastering the uranium enrichment cycle, it still faces two significant impediments to creating a workable nuclear weapons program that are not likely to be resolved any time soon. Iran has repeatedly tried, and repeatedly failed, to build covert facilities beyond the watchful gaze of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, where uranium could be enriched to the level required to make a nuclear weapon. Such facilities will require a covertly-obtained supply of uranium — which Iran has also repeatedly tried, and repeatedly failed, to acquire. Iran’s current stockpile of uranium is closely monitored by the IAEA. Until Iran can successfully hide a centrifuge facility and then secretly lay hands on a large quantity of uranium to fuel it, its nuclear weapons program will remain stuck in neutral.

Furthermore, there is evidence that containment was not merely a one-time success story during the Cold War, but can also succeed in the context of modern Middle Eastern politics. I witnessed this firsthand as a member of the CIA’s Counterproliferation Division, which was charged with gathering intelligence on the state of Saddam Hussein’s rogue weapons of mass destruction programs, and taking covert actions to delay their progress. Before the 2003 invasion, the CIA knew that the multilateral sanctions imposed on Iraq were deeply flawed. "Dual-use" goods — items with both civilian and military applications — were being smuggled into Iraq from Turkey and elsewhere. As the smuggling continued, Saddam’s government was getting its hands on more and more products that could have been used for nefarious purposes.

Based on past experience with Iraq, the CIA made the reasonable assessment that the dual-use goods were probably being used for clandestine WMD programs. The Iraqi regime was smuggling these goods in illicitly, and nobody was prepared to give Saddam the benefit of the doubt.

The CIA, however, was wrong. Following the invasion, I served in two separate occasions on the Iraq Survey Group (ISG), which was tasked with locating Saddam’s WMDs. Despite the smuggled shipments of dual-use goods, the ISG definitively established that Saddam, under pressure from the combination of the U.S. sanctions, U.N. sanctions, and U.N. weapons inspectors, had abandoned his WMD programs.

In interviews with Iraqi government scientists at all levels of Saddam’s regime, we heard the same story again and again: Saddam wanted WMD, but didn’t think he could build them without getting caught. Saddam’s "intent to reconstitute" his previous WMD programs was undeniable – but so was the fact that, despite wide holes in the sanctions regime, Saddam was still so wary of international scrutiny that Iraq had no active nuclear, biological, or chemical programs, and had not had them for years.

Containment worked on the Soviet Union, and the ISG — tragically, only after the invasion — proved that it was also working on Iraq. As was the case with Iraq, the sanctions regime against Iran’s nuclear program has major holes — including, once again, major smuggling operations that pass through Turkey. But perfection is not a reasonable goal in an imperfect world. Flawed though sanctions and international scrutiny may be, they still serve to greatly complicate Iran’s attempts to build a nuclear weapon.

The repeated discovery of Iran’s attempt to construct covert enrichment facilities suggests that the combination of sanctions, international scrutiny, intelligence collection, and covert action are still doing major damage to its nuclear weapons ambitions, and will continue to do so.

But what about the regime itself? While containment delays Iran’s nuclear ambitions, U.S. policymakers should be happy to watch the Islamic Republic implode due to its own domestic and economic tensions. The Iranian government has badly mismanaged the country’s economic, and falling oil revenue has only exacerbated the crisis. The official inflation rate currently hovers around 10 percent, while unemployment is officially close to 12 percent, but private economists estimate the real unemployment figure is closer to 20 percent, with the number rising as high as 30 percent among young workers and women.

Economic tensions have already sparked domestic dissent: A recent attempt to raise government revenue by imposing a 70 percent business tax on merchants resulted in a strike in Iran’s bazaars, forcing the government to back down. Recent rumors have also suggested that the government may be preparing to cut its expensive subsidies on food and gas — a move that risks reigniting another round of civil unrest, similar to the 2007 gas protests that rocked the country. Perhaps the most ominous hint of the state of the Iranian economy comes from the government itself — its central bank has not reported the country’s official growth rate since 2008.

The discontent with Iran’s theocratic regime was overestimated in the wake of the riots following the 2009 presidential election, but is nevertheless widespread and growing. The majority of Iranians alive today were born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and have no ideological stake in maintaining the current regime. As they move into "middle management" in the coming years, that same rot of deep disaffection that destroyed the Soviet Union will spread with accelerating speed through the public and private sectors of Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s grip on power may be tight today, but he cannot halt this demographic trend. The only event that could revive the ayatollahs’ dimming fortunes is a military attack from the United States or Israel, which would produce a "rally around the flag" effect in the country.

In order to limit the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, the United States should keep doing what it has been doing: squeezing Iran with sanctions and using every nonviolent means available to it to block Iran’s nuclear progress. This does not mean that the United States should cease efforts to "engage" with Iran, but its expectations for success should be severely limited. The history of failed, foiled, and false negotiations with Iran suggests that the chief value of earnest U.S. attempts at negotiation is to demonstrate conclusively to the international community that Iranian intransigence to the blame for the lack of a resolution to this standoff. Having lost the moral high ground in much of the world’s eyes with the invasion of Iraq, the United States can only be he
lped by continued efforts to engage Iran, which will allow it to win back some of its reputation as a responsible member of the international community.

In an uncertain world, it is impossible to say that there are absolutely no circumstances under which the use of force against Iran would be appropriate. If Iran develops a bomb, and if the U.S. intelligence community develops reliable information that Iran intends to use the bomb, or put it in the hands of some group that intends to use it, then that would certainly be sufficient grounds for armed intervention.

But outside these narrow and extraordinary circumstances, U.S. policymakers should shelve their plans for a quick fix to the Iranian threat. Rather, the United States should rely on the long-term trends that are working in their favor to thwart the Islamic Republic’s plans. The disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq and the CIA’s errant assumption also should not distract from the fact that containment did successfully dissuade Saddam from pursuing his WMD programs. When it comes to Iran, the United States should not walk away from a concept that has repeatedly proved its worth.

Containment, however, is not the only lesson relevant to Iran from U.S. history with post-Soviet Russia and Iraq. Hope for Russia as a budding democracy fizzled as Russia has backslid slowly into autocracy. Before the invasion of Iraq, the State Department had the foresight to create a "Future of Iraq" project, which projected problems the United States was likely to face building democracy in post-invasion Iraq. Unfortunately, due to political infighting, the prescient work in the Future of Iraq project was ignored by the Coalition Provisional Authority that administered Iraq, initiating a series of missteps whose consequences haunt U.S. efforts at nation-building in the country to this day.

Now is the time to turn the same focus and intensity that produced the Future of Iraq project to planning for that day, perhaps a year from now, perhaps a decade, when the theocratic regime in Iran collapses under its own weight. A "Future of Iran" project, taking a serious look at how to support a fledgling Iranian government establish democratic norms and build civil society, is a crucial step.  If the United States simply stands aside and waits for the collapse, then throws a poorly coordinated patchwork of aid and development programs at the country, we may see post-theocracy Iran slipping backwards as hard-line clerics fight to reassert their control, as apparatchiks have in post-Soviet Russia. Containment, while it has proven useful at helping usher shaky regimes into collapse, is only half of a strategy. It’s time to start planning for the other half.

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