By Kenneth M. Pollock
This week, Iran’s new president, Hasan Rouhani, will address the U.N. General Assembly. His message is likely to be a sharp change from his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr. Rouhani is a genuine reformer, but his desire to move Iran in a new direction should not blind the United States to the difficulties of achieving a diplomatic solution.
Mr. Rouhani has hinted that he is willing to compromise on aspects of Iran’s nuclear program. But he has also warned that he cannot hold off his hard-line rivals forever. Ultimately, it is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who would make the final decision on a deal. He has shown little inclination for one.
If it cannot reach a diplomatic deal, the United States will face a choice between using force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal or containing a nuclear Iran until its regime collapses.
It is going to be a difficult choice. For that reason, we need to start thinking about it now.
I favor containment over military operations, understanding that each option has more drawbacks than advantages, that there are circumstances when a military strike would be preferable, and that those who advocate the military option merit a hearing.
The military option would have to stop with air power. But there is a considerable risk that air strikes alone would not strip Iran of its nuclear program.
We may not know where all of Iran’s nuclear facilities are, and some are so heavily defended that we may not fully destroy them. A second concern is that the Iranians almost certainly would retaliate. They might fire missiles at U.S. bases in the Middle East, or persuade allies like Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to fire rockets at Israel. But my biggest fear is that they would embark on a prolonged terrorist campaign against Americans. If Iran retaliated, and killed Americans, the president would almost certainly have to respond, if not escalate.
Containment is hardly a perfect policy, but I see the costs and risks as more easily mitigated than those of war.
Containment is not appeasement. It would not mean simply letting the Iranians do what they wanted. That is not how we contained the Soviet Union, or Cuba, or North Korea or even Iran in the decades since the 1979 revolution.
Properly understood, containment would put pressure on Iran, to keep it on the defensive and to encourage the end of the regime. It would hold in place painful sanctions. It would include covert assistance to the Iranian opposition, cyberwarfare in response to Iran’s support for terrorism and continued diplomatic isolation.
The Iranian regime has shown itself to be vicious, murderous, anti-Semitic and anti-American. It has taken some real risks. But it has never shown itself to be irrational, reckless or suicidal. It has repeatedly shown great respect for American (and Israeli) military power and demonstrated a willingness to back down in the face of military retaliation. The Iranians have supported terrorism since 1979 and possessed weapons of mass destruction since 1989, but have never mixed the two for fear of retribution.
Nevertheless, there are real issues with containment. Three are the dangers of crisis management with a nuclear Iran, the risk of additional proliferation and the likelihood that Iran will become more aggressive in promoting instability, insurgency and terrorism. None of these should be dismissed, but none should be seen as deal-breakers.
The United States’ massive military superiority over Iran constitutes a huge advantage. In the case of proliferation, the central problem is Saudi Arabia (and possibly the United Arab Emirates), not Egypt or Turkey, and persuading the Saudis not to seek nuclear weapons should not be assumed to be impossible. And there are ways to fight state-sanctioned subversion and terrorism. Despite efforts since 1979, the Iranians have never managed to overthrow a foreign government or start an insurgency or a civil war. At most, they made bad situations (like Iraq) worse.
If diplomacy with Iran does not triumph, we will have that terrible choice to make. But the worst choice would be to refuse to decide and instead have a strategy forced on us.
Kenneth M. Pollock is a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He wrote this for The New York Times.