The Only Sensible Iran Strategy Is Containment

The most effective plan against the Islamic Republic has always been the most obvious—and the one nobody in Washington seems willing to try.

Iranian clergymen watch the launching of a Shahab-3 long-range ballistic missile in the desert outside the holy city of Qom on Nov. 2, 2006.
Iranian clergymen watch the launching of a Shahab-3 long-range ballistic missile in the desert outside the holy city of Qom on Nov. 2, 2006. AFP via Getty Images

I trace my interest in the Middle East back to the Iranian hostage crisis—those 444 days of yellow ribbons, daily Nightline updates, and an unrelenting wave of anger that swept through the United States. People actually walked around with “Fuck Iran” buttons on their jackets, and a comedian named Steve Dahl wrote a song called “Ayatollah”—to the tune of the Knack’s “My Sharona”—that threatened the Iranians with nuclear annihilation. It was a confusing moment for a little kid who was just waking up to the world beyond soccer practice, the New York Yankees, and Wonderama.

The subject hasn’t gotten any less confusing since. In the past 40 years, U.S. policymakers have endlessly debated a central issue in U.S.-Middle East policy: What should the United States do about Iran? The answer has often proved to be elusive in large part because of domestic politics. The traumas of the late 1970s and early 1980s have rendered parts of the U.S. policy community needlessly bellicose, others credulously dovish, and the remaining wary of both in search of a “just right” strategy to modify Iran’s behavior.

But the central question has now taken on a new urgency. U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to kill Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani in a drone strike on Jan. 3 has raised fears of violent escalation—even war—between the United States and Iran. It’s time to directly address the question of what exactly the United States can do about Iran—and fortunately, there’s a good answer available, even if it’s not satisfying for anyone in Washington.

What’s already clear is that the current U.S. approach needs improvement. Despite his hit on Suleimani, it is not at all clear what the president wants to achieve regarding Iran. He has combined hawkish rhetoric with periodic offers to negotiate with Tehran while pursuing a “maximum pressure” policy that until recently did not employ military force. Depending on whom one asks or who is doing the asking, the administration is seeking either full-scale regime change or simply a more robust nuclear deal than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the agreement negotiated by the Obama administration, which set limits on Iran’s nuclear program. This confusion comes against the backdrop of the Democratic presidential primary, in which all the leading candidates have declared their intention to return to the JCPOA so long as Iran maintains its commitment to the agreement (Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren)—or, in the case of Bernie Sanders, without any conditions at all.

Yet just because the Trump administration and the politics of U.S.-Iran relations have imposed a binary choice on policymakers—regime change or the existing nuclear agreement—does not mean that there are no other possibilities. The U.S. government could pursue, for example, a “grand bargain” with Iran that would settle all the outstanding issues—notably, the nuclear program, Iran’s use of proxies to meddle in the region, and the release of Americans held in Tehran—between the two countries. Yet the most rational option under the present circumstances is another strategy that no longer goes mentioned in Washington: containment.

Consider the other potential strategies in turn. Regime change has, for obvious reasons, become a scary term and a policy one would think officials and analysts would want to avoid given the U.S. experience in Iraq, but it remains an option if only because influential people continue to advocate for it. It would not necessarily require a march on Tehran, but it would be costly, requiring the United States to provide far more military, political, and financial resources to Iran’s opponents around the region than current policy. This seems an unlikely scenario for two important reasons: 1) The potential for further regional chaos is high, and 2) the American people and Congress would likely be reluctant to support policies that would undoubtedly include augmenting the already sizable deployment of almost 45,000 American soldiers, sailors, and airmen in the Persian Gulf.

Returning to the JCPOA or negotiating a new nuclear deal that addresses some of the defects in the original agreement—for example, the failure to set limits on Iran’s ballistic missile program—is the flip side of Washington’s Iran debate. Reviving the JCPOA would mean acceptance of Iran’s alleged right to develop nuclear technology, sanctions relief, and the normalization of Tehran’s commercial ties with the world. It would also require implicit acceptance of Iran’s role in the region, especially its influential positions in Lebanon and Syria.

The problems with returning to the JCPOA or an enhanced agreement that addresses Iran’s missile program, for example, are similar to the one’s the Obama administration encountered, including opposition from regional allies and hawks in Washington determined to scuttle a deal, with one additional, notable challenge: Iran’s leaders would likely be reluctant to enter an agreement with the United States after the Trump administration breached the JCPOA in May 2018. The Iranians would also resist limits on their ballistic missiles given their reliance on those weapons for regional deterrence. There are also constraints on the U.S. side: In order for the Trump administration to make a new agreement work, it would need to convince its regional allies of its wisdom.

This would be a hard sell—not only because the Israelis, Emiratis, and Saudis continue to have zero trust that the Iranians would uphold their commitments in a deal but because leaders in Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh are no longer confident that Trump would hold Tehran accountable for whatever violations might occur. This is especially the case after the Trump administration’s halfhearted response to Iran’s provocations during the summer of 2019, culminating with the attack on Saudi oil processing facilities. A return to the nuclear agreement or a new JCPOA would create the same dynamics as the original deal, in which the authors and signatories have incentive to overlook violations or other related problems, such as Iran’s irredentist approach to the region. This gives other regional powers incentive to push back on their own, thus further destabilizing the region.

The inadequacy of an updated and expanded JCPOA raises the possibility of a grand bargain. In this scenario, Iran would relinquish its nuclear capabilities for an explicit U.S. recognition of the country’s role as a regional leader and a partner in developing the regional rules of the road. The underlying assumption of a grand bargain is that once Iran’s demands for a seat at the table are recognized, it will end its malevolent activities around the region. It’s a tempting thought—but entirely unrealistic, given the utter absence of trust in the region. The safeguards that would be needed to persuade Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates of the wisdom of such a deal—including an end to Iran’s support for allies around the region, restrictions on its military, and a clear statement from Tehran renouncing territorial claims on its neighbors—would render it anathema to the Iranians, who would likely view it as little more than regime change by another name. The United States, of course, could forgo restrictions on Iran that would satisfy its allies and instead pressure Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to accept a grand bargain. But that would not diminish the ability of U.S. allies to leverage their political clout in Washington and make mischief regionally in an effort to undermine a grand bargain. In other words, a grand bargain would likely meet the same fate as the Obama administration’s JCPOA or a JCPOA 2.0.

That leaves the United States with the most realistic option: containment. The record over the last four decades indicates that the United States cannot change Iran’s behavior through either coercion or incentive. And it does not have the kind of influence to force other countries in the region to alter their own approaches to Iran and the broader region. Under these circumstances, anything that’s possible is better than aspirations that bear little resemblance to reality—and what’s possible is containment. Containment, which guided Washington in its confrontation with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, is a way in which the United States can restrain Iran and its effort to undermine U.S. policies and goals in the region. The Clinton administration pursued this policy—along with containment of Iraq—with success in the 1990s. Sure, there were problems with Tehran at the time, but the relationship between the United States and Iran was more stable in that outright conflict and escalation were less likely. That is because the United States and Iran established an equilibrium of sorts in which everyone understood some basic rules of the game that made it possible to manage crises. Containment requires U.S. forces in the region, and possibly the application of violence, in order to demonstrate what is acceptable. It is not risk-free for the United States. But the approach does reduce the possibility of escalation because U.S. policymakers would cease to consider regime change an option.

With both the idea of regime change and the necessity of defending a flawed nuclear deal taken off the table, the stakes for the U.S.-Iranian relationship will be demonstrably lower, thereby stabilizing Gulf. This leaves the gnarly issue of what to do about an Iranian nuclear program unfettered by any international agreement. But containment is capable of handling any outcome that produces. Indeed, that is precisely what U.S. policy has been toward nuclear-armed North Korea. Nobody would argue that this has been an ideal outcome, but it has been better than any easily identifiable alternatives—and it’s hard to understand why it should be anathema when it comes to Iran. Indeed, the Gulf states are less worried about Iranian nukes and more concerned about its desire to extend its influence around the region. The Israelis would eventually need more security assistance, but that shouldn’t be a deal breaker for containment, given the other available policy options.

Containment would not preclude dialogue between Iran and the United States and may even improve it, given the way it would produce implicit but well-understood rules for behavior. It would also provide the United States some much needed diplomatic room to help manage regional crises like Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. The Iranians are more apt to press their advantages in these places so long as they believe the United States might end their regime or look the other way. Most important, containing Iran represents the most realistic assessment of what either U.S. or Iranian politics can bear.

It is not as romantic as the idea of secret meetings in Oman or long negotiation sessions in Vienna. It lacks the bravado of bringing down leaders of a system that has vexed, maimed, and killed Americans. Containment is nevertheless the best option. It simultaneously reduces the risk of war, protects Americans, and renders the U.S. presence in the region less expensive. It would be foreign-policy malpractice not to embrace it.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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