Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Thinking responsibly: Why containing Tehran is both plausible and practical

By Elbridge Colby Best Defense containment bureau chief In a widely-reported speech on Nov. 8 to the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bluntly reasserted his view that "[c]ontainment will not work against Iran" and therefore that "the only responsible policy is to prevent [Iran] from developing atomic ...


By Elbridge Colby
Best Defense containment bureau chief

In a widely-reported speech on Nov. 8 to the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bluntly reasserted his view that "[c]ontainment will not work against Iran" and therefore that "the only responsible policy is to prevent [Iran] from developing atomic bombs in the first place." Netanyahu left no doubt that he advocates the use of military force to achieve that goal. Nor is Netanyahu alone in promoting this view, not only in Israel and in the United States but elsewhere — for example, the UAE’s ambassador recently did so.

Without question, preventing an Iranian nuclear capability should be the objective of Washington and the international community, but is Netanyahu right that seeking to contain a nuclear Iran would be worse than taking military action to prevent Tehran from acquiring such weapons? 

Most arguments against using military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program focus on the costs to us, but the truth is that a bombing campaign is not actually necessary. Rather, there is good reason to believe that Washington, Tel Aviv, and their associates can deter Iran from transgressing their vital interests even if Tehran gets a nuclear weapon. Why? Containment or deterrence requires, inter alia:

  • A regime whose behavior can be substantially influenced by credible threats and which values certain things that can be held at risk of damage or destruction;
  • That the demands of the deterring party are tolerable to the targeted country, given the scale of the threat issued;
  • And that this threat is backed by real capability and will.

U.S. and Israeli containment of a nuclear Iran would satisfy these criteria. First, the Iranian regime is malevolent, but it is not crazy. The regime in Tehran is dangerous, but experience and common sense indicate that it is sufficiently rational to understand the calculus of cost and benefit. Second, Tehran is vulnerable — that is, the Iranians have much that they value that the United States and Israel can hold at risk. Third, the United States, Israel, and their associates clearly have the capabilities to follow through on their threats; indeed, the military balance, especially at the higher levels of warfare, is drastically tilted in the West’s direction. Fourth, what we would ask for is reasonable; the vital interests that Washington, Tel Aviv, and their associates would demand a nuclear Iran not transgress are essentially status quo and would not need to involve the forced transformation of the Iranian regime. 

Let’s explore these points:

The Iranian Regime’s Basic Rationality: While Netanyahu correctly set out the hostile and in many cases despicable actions of the Iranian regime, he does not show that it is irrational. Classical deterrence — the threat of violence upon provocation — does not require some kind of optimal, neo-classical economics rationality. In its pure form, it requires the rationality of Darwin. If one’s (real) red lines are crossed, one’s opponent should fear death or destruction. The available evidence certainly suggests that the Tehran regime exhibits this kind of rationality. After all, they’ve held on to power in a tough neighborhood for over thirty years, indicating that they know how to stay alive despite being under threat from stronger states. Reports suggest that China and Russia, Iran experts, and the U.S. intelligence community all view the Iranian regime as fundamentally sensitive to cost-benefit calculations. Thus, if Tehran is credibly threatened with harm if it takes some aggressive action, there is very good reason to think the Iranian regime’s behavior will be channeled away from such action.

Iran’s Vulnerability: For deterrence to work there must be something that the deterring party can strike after a provocation. Iran has such targets in score. The regime is not a stateless terrorist organization, but rather an ethnically-grounded state, with a plethora of leadership, military, political, economic, and other facilities that the United States, Israel, and their associates can hold at risk. Indeed, so substantial and variable are Iranian targets that the West would have substantial leeway to shape its deterrent posture according to the kind of provocation the Iranians might undertake.

The West’s Great Strength: In the Cold War, the West worried about whether deterrence could work once the Soviets matched and in some respects exceeded NATO’s military strength. No such problem afflicts the Iranian equation. The United States and Israel grossly outmatch Iran at every level of capability save, in the Middle East itself, the lowest. The peerless capabilities of U.S. air, maritime, special operations, and nuclear forces (the last naturally reserved for the gravest circumstances) mean that the United States can inflict crushing damage on Iran, with the only real limit on damage set by Washington itself. U.S. capabilities also allow Washington great selectivity in imposing such damage, meaning that the West’s retaliatory threats would not be limited to inaction or annihilation. In addition, U.S. missile defense means that Iran could never be confident it could deliver nuclear weapons successfully with ballistic missiles.

The West’s Reasonable Demands: Finally, what the West would demand of Iran would be essentially defensive and status quo in nature, demands that Tehran could meet without humiliation or abandonment of its own core interests. Basically, the West would presumably require that Tehran not invade or use military (especially nuclear) coercion against protected states (e.g., Israel, the GCC, as well as NATO and other allies of Washington). For the equation to balance, the West would have to guarantee that it would not use military force to overthrow the regime, thus giving Tehran a strong incentive to stick with the status quo. The essential choice Iran would face would be to embark on aggression that would likely prompt tremendous retaliation or respect the West’s boundaries and enjoy immunity from invasion. While Netanyahu implied that an Iran armed with a weapon would be far more aggressive, this calculus instead suggests it would be boxed in. How, precisely, could they aggressively use their nuclear weapons that would make sense?

Containing a nuclear Iran is an eminently plausible and practical objective. Of course, such a course would not be perfect — deterrence is not a catch-all nor is it easy, and it is likely that Iran would continue to be a serious adversary at lower levels of violence. But deterrence could reasonably promise to negate the truly grave consequences of Iranian acquisition. Moreover, containment is certainly not the best outcome — successfully preventing Iranian acquisition is. But if the only way to do that is to embark on a probably futile attempt to military suppress Iran’s nuclear program, or, God forbid, invade Iran, the hard work of containment offers a least bad option.

Elbridge Colby has served in several national security positions with the U.S. Government, most recently with the Department of Defense working on the follow-on to the START Treaty and as an expert advisor to the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission. The views expressed herein are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of any institution with which he is affiliated.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1