Containment Policy Promises Certain Failure In Iran

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The West faces mounting evidence that Iran is getting closer to possessing nuclear weapons capability.

In violation of six United Nations resolutions, Tehran continues to enrich uranium. According to The New York Times, intelligence agencies report that, "Iran in recent weeks has virtually completed an underground nuclear enrichment plant, racing ahead despite international pressure and heavy economic sanctions."

With President Obama’s re-election, the fundamental question for policymakers is: How should we deal with Iran's nuclear efforts?

The reflex for the West is to pursue policies designed to 'contain' the country.

And looking back on the last half century, it makes perfect sense to rely on such a strategy. Containment succeeded with the Soviet Union because the United States and its allies organized themselves to prevent the USSR — an ideologically extreme, totalitarian, and economically backward society largely unconnected to the global economy — from expanding its political, military, and economic sphere of influence.

If the West does not develop a new concept or strategy to deal with Iran — and fast — we will face untruly unpleasant circumstances.

So most believe that if containment defeated the Soviet Union, a nuclear-armed superpower, then surely it can curtail a much lesser threat, such as Iran.

However, what once worked well, is now failing. The strategy of containment is totally unsuited to dealing with the challenges posed by Iran or any modern threat because the today’s world is vastly different from its Cold War predecessor.


Today, we do not face an ideological foe on a scale even remotely comparable to the Soviet Union, and without such a foe, proponents of containment struggle to persuade countries that they should organize their policies to contain Iran.

Additionally, the sheer scale of global economics and the constantly accelerating telecommunications revolution renders containment an utterly useless enterprise. With global companies and consumers thriving in the world of commerce, containment policies seeking to limit economic discourse are outdated and impractical. The global economy thrives precisely because countries and firms freely engage in finance, trade, and commerce on a massive scale. Literally trillions of dollars of goods and services crisscross the globe instantaneously.

Policymakers may be confident that economic sanctions can restrict the flow of goods and services to effectively contain a state, but this policy instrument is grossly ineffective. For example, while the European Union targeted Iran's banks and gas imports and banned trading in metals, an Iranian official ran a money-laundering network to circumvent sanctions.

Meanwhile, countries such as Russia and China, which oppose expanded economic sanctions against Iran, have demonstrated that they are immensely capable of working to evade or undermine sanctions.

As another article in The New York Times recently reported, "harsh economic sanctions...may have hurt Iran, they have failed to slow Tehran's nuclear program. If anything the program is speeding up." Even with Iran's currency in free-fall and its oil exports down by half, economic containment policies are failing to achieve the only objective that really matters to the West: halting its nuclear program.

Iran's nuclear enrichment and warhead design efforts continue apace, as recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports attest. Further, Iran's ballistic missile program is significant, with regular tests of short-, medium-, and intermediate range ballistic missiles.

Recently, Americans announced one-on-one negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. But the risk for the West is that, despite policies designed to contain Iran, it actively pursues weapons that fuel existential worries in the Middle East and Europe.

Iran's government is stridently and virulently hostile to the U.S. Last Thursday, Iranian jets fired on a U.S. drone in the Persian Gulf; the country reportedly engages in cyber-attacks against American banks and Middle Eastern oil companies; Iranian agents allegedly plotted to kill the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. in Washington; and the country routinely uses reckless and highly provocative language about annihilating its enemies.

We should be deeply concerned because as the political and economic policies designed to contain Iran fail, the world is marching inexorably toward a potential nuclear crisis.

If the West does not move away from containment with alacrity — and develop a new concept or strategy to deal with Iran — we will face untruly unpleasant circumstances.

Ultimately, time is not on our side.

Editor's note: This piece was adapted from an article that originally appeared in The Diplomat Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

This program aired on November 9, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.