The Fog of Containment

George Kennan shouldn't be our Cold War guide to dealing with Iran. Try Richard Nixon.

Behrouz Mehri/AFP
Behrouz Mehri/AFP

In the coming weeks, the United States may well be joining a new round of nuclear negotiations with Iran. But, rather than working to promote their success, most commentators seem to be consumed with explaining their anticipated failure. And their follow-up policy prescriptions seem designed to do more harm than good. Take Karim Sadjadpour’s article, "The Sources of Soviet Iranian Conduct," in the November issue of Foreign Policy. Sadjadpour seeks to adapt George Kennan’s famous 1947 "Mr. X" article — which proposed the outlines of the Cold War "containment" strategy used against the Soviet Union — for America’s current Iran debate.

"Like the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic is a corrupt, inefficient, authoritarian regime whose bankrupt ideology resonates far more abroad than it does at home," Sadjadpour writes. "Also like the men who once ruled Moscow, Iran’s current leaders have a victimization complex and, as they themselves admit, derive their internal legitimacy from thumbing their noses at Uncle Sam." It’s a clever conceit, but it would be a disaster for U.S. interests if Sadjadpour’s piece attains anything close to the level of influence achieved by Kennan’s.

That’s so for three main reasons. First, Sadjadpour’s reading of the drivers of Iranian foreign policy is profoundly at odds with the historical record of the Islamic Republic’s actual conduct. Second, his policy prescriptions would keep the United States from acting in its own best interests to pursue a comprehensive realignment of U.S.-Iranian relations. Third, his policy prescriptions would lead ultimately to a U.S.-initiated military confrontation with Iran.

Sadjadpour uses a highly selective exegesis of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s rhetoric about the United States as a basis for arguing that the Islamic Republic’s very survival requires antagonism with America. This is a politically convenient argument, absolving Washington of any responsibility to engage seriously with Tehran, until the deus ex machina of "regime change" solves the Iran problem.

It is, however, incorrect. In his role as supreme leader since 1989, Khamenei has approved multiple Iranian initiatives to reach out to the United States, across the Rafsanjani, Khatami, and Ahmadinejad presidencies. These initiatives include Iranian assistance to free American hostages in Lebanon in the late 1980s and early 1990s, coordination with Washington to provide weapons to beleaguered Bosnian Muslims in the mid-1990s, extensive cooperation with the United States over Afghanistan and al Qaeda following the 9/11 attacks, U.S.-Iranian ambassadorial talks regarding Iraq in 2007, and offers of comprehensive talks with the United States in 2003, 2008, and 2009.

If Khamenei is deeply suspicious of America’s ultimate intentions toward the Islamic Republic, this is perhaps because, in every one of the cases just cited, it was the United States that cut off ongoing tactical cooperation with Tehran or rejected serious overtures aimed at realigning U.S.-Iranian relations.

Indeed, Khamenei is still open to rapprochement. In response to U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2009 Nowruz (Persian New Year) message, Khamenei said: "You change [your policies toward the Islamic Republic], and we shall change as well." That is not, as Sadjadpour implies, a "cynical response" to Obama — it is an invitation to put a serious and substantive agenda on the table aimed at realigning U.S.-Iranian relations.

These are things that Obama, to this day, has never done. Sending vague letters to the supreme leader while ignoring letters sent to Obama by Iran’s elected president (something that Sadjadpour advised the White House to do) came across in Tehran as yet another crass attempt to manipulate the Iranian political system. And as we have previously pointed out, Obama has done this while continuing Bush-era covert operations meant to destabilize the Islamic Republic and expanding anti-Iranian sanctions.

As Sadeq Kharrazi — a former senior Foreign Ministry official who is both an outspoken reformist and a relative of Khamenei — said recently, "The road to Washington passes through the supreme leader’s office… The leadership has set the terms and conditions, and he is not against détente between Iran and any other country, even the U.S. What he opposes is resumption of ties based on pre-revolution arrangements."

Kharrazi’s words should be taken seriously — as testimony that U.S.-Iranian realignment is possible and as an indicator of what is required from the U.S. side to achieve it. But Sadjadpour’s contrived analysis leads inexorably to dismissal of a realignment of relations between Washington and Tehran of the sort that the United States and the People’s Republic of China achieved in the 1970s. Instead, Sadjadpour draws out an analogy between the Islamic Republic and the Soviet Union, with an accompanying policy recommendation that the United States use militarized containment against Iran until fundamental political change — encouraged by Washington — occurs.

To develop this analogy, Sadjadpour quotes liberally from Kennan’s "Mr. X" article, striking through references to the "Soviet Union" to replace them with the "Islamic Republic," substituting the "party" with the "supreme leader," and so on.

Borrowing Sadjadpour’s method, we find it instructive to go through a similar exercise with a pair of historically significant chronicles of Sino-American rapprochement. One is the chapter on President Richard Nixon’s opening to China in Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy. The other is a 1983 article, "The Process of Rapprochement" (published in the volume Sino-American Normalization and Its Policy Implications) by retired U.S. diplomat Chas Freeman, who, as Nixon’s interpreter in Beijing, was "present at the creation" of the modern U.S.-China relationship.

Kissinger sets the strategic context for Sino-American Iranian-American rapprochement:

For Nixon Obama, the anguishing process of extricating America from Vietnam Afghanistan and Iraq had, in the end, been about maintaining America’s standing in the world. Even without the purgatory, a major reassessment of American foreign policy would have been in order, for the age of America’s nearly total dominance of the world stage was drawing to a close. America’s nuclear superiority post-Cold War global hegemony was eroding, and its economic supremacy was being challenged by the dynamic growth of Europe and Japan China and the rest of rising AsiaVietnam Afghanistan and Iraq finally signaled that it was high time to reassess America’s role in the developing Muslim world, and to find some sustainable ground between abdication and overextension…

Nixon Obama found himself in the position of having to guide America through the transition from dominance to leadership… Nixon Obama sought to navigate according to a concept of America’s national interest — repugnant as that idea was to many traditional idealists… Nixon Obama said: ‘We will regard our Communist adversaries the Islamic Republic first and foremost as nations a nation pursuing their its own interests as they it perceive perceives these interests, just as we follow our own interests as we see them’."

In this context, Kissinger underscores the indispensability of a top-down, comprehensive approach to Sino-American Iranian-American rapprochement:

By the summer of 1969 fall of 2010, Nixon Obama concluded that the U.S. needed "to concentrate on the broader issue of China’s Iran’s attitude toward dialogue with the United States," instead of letting grievances determine the relationship. "If relations did not improve, the traditional agenda would remain insoluble. In other words, the practical issues would be resolved as a consequence of Sino-American Iranian-American rapprochement, not chart the path toward it."

Similarly Freeman, to illustrate how a transformational foreign-policy president does not let nonstrategic perturbations become obstacles to achieving his strategic goal, recounts how "Nixon Obama approved a resumption of the Sino-American ambassadorial talks in Warsaw agreed to negotiate with Iran over the refueling of a research reactor in Tehran. The meeting, scheduled for February 20, 1969, was abruptly canceled by the Chinese Iranians accepted the Administration’s proposal on refueling the reactor ‘in principle’, but wanted to negotiate some aspects of the arrangement…While expressing disappointment, the new Obama administration pledged ‘new initiatives to re-establish more normal relations with Communist Chinathe Islamic Republic…The United States quietly ended the Seventh Fleet’s 19-year patrolling of the Taiwan Strait CIA covert operations intended to destabilize the Islamic Republic…In later describing the steps his administration had taken over the course of 1969 2010 to demonstrate U.S. seriousness to engage the PRC Islamic Republic, Nixon Obama wrote that they were ‘specific steps that did not require Chinese Iranian agreement but which underlined our willingness to have a more normal and constructive relationship’."

Freeman chronicles how this strategic commitment continued into the Carter Administration even after the Democrats’ 2010 midterm election defeat. He cites Richard Holbrooke, Carter’s Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan as saying that the United States should be prepared "to acknowledge our national interest in the development of a strong, secure, prosperous, and friendly China Iran that could play a legitimate and constructive role in the Asia-Pacific Middle East region and ultimately in the world."

According to Freeman, even after China invaded Vietnam in February 1979  Iran’s contested June 2009 presidential election, Vice President Walter Mondale Joseph Biden traveled to China in August 1979 to proclaim proclaimed America’s support for "a strong and secure and modernizing China Iran… despite the sometimes profound differences between our two systems, we are committed to joining with you to advance our many parallel strategic and bilateral interests. Thus any nation which seeks to weaken or isolate you in world affairs assumes a stance counter to American interests."

If the Obama administration had the kind of strategic seriousness toward Iran shown by those Nixon-era officials in their dealings with China, Washington would use a comprehensive realignment of U.S.-Iranian relations to channel the Islamic Republic’s regional influence to support important U.S. interests in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Israel and Palestine. But Sadjadpour would have us forgo all that and, instead, work to "contain" Iran.

In contrast to the Cold War’s U.S.-Soviet standoff, America’s pursuit of a containment strategy toward the Islamic Republic would be inherently unstable, leading eventually to a U.S.-Iranian military confrontation. This would be the case for at least two reasons.

First, while America and the Soviet Union were roughly at parity in their military capabilities, the United States is and will remain vastly superior to Iran in every category of military power, conventional or otherwise — as senior Iranian officials publicly acknowledge. Absent a strategic understanding with Washington, Tehran will continue to assume and act as if the ultimate objective of America’s Iran policy were the Islamic Republic’s overthrow.

Second, in an atmosphere of ongoing uncertainty about America’s ultimate intentions, Iranian leaders will continue working to defend their country’s core security interests through cultivation of proxy allies in neighboring states and elsewhere, along with the further development of ‘asymmetric’ military capabilities. Such moves will inevitably be interpreted in Washington as highly provocative. No U.S. administration, of either party, would be able to maintain domestic support for containment as the Islamic Republic pursued these policies.

For over 30 years, Washington pundits have hoped that the Islamic Republic is on the verge of collapse, and that a successor political order would inevitably be more malleable to U.S. purposes. That same ungrounded hope skewed the judgments of almost all U.S.-based Iran "experts," including Sadjadpour, about the Islamic Republic’s 2009 presidential election and its aftermath. But the reality is that the majority of Iranians inside Iran today — even those who want the Islamic Republic to evolve significantly — do not want to abandon the country’s current political order for a Western-style secular democracy.

Ultimately, a strategy of containing Iran will lead to a U.S.-Iranian military confrontation — a far cry from Sadjadpour’s dream of the Islamic Republic’s strategic and political collapse.

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