What the Successful Containment of Iran Will Look Like

By Robin Wright
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This post is part of our forum on Jeffrey Goldberg's September cover story detailing the prospects and implications of an Israeli strike against Iran. Follow the debate here.

At the end of his post this morning, Nick Burns gets to the key question that we should be debating now: What are the viable alternatives to military strikes on Iran? It's ultimately a more interesting subject than the likelihood or potential success of such strikes. It's also a more dynamic issue, given the global nuclear dangers and the faltering treaty on proliferation
 
First, Burns concludes that "The price is just too high" to justify a conflict with Iran initiated by either Israel or the United States. The alternative, he notes, is to "imprison Tehran in a vise of sanctions and military pressure -- containment -- without resort to open armed force." Over the next year, Western powers and the United Nations are likely to spend far more time discussing containment than war. And Israel will very much be part of those discussions, too.
 
Frankly, military strikes are -- at least initially -- the easier and faster option. But in the long term, they may also be a dangerous option for the many military, political, and economic reasons laid out in the course of this debate by Karim Sadjadpour, Gary Milhollin, James Fallows, and Burns.
 
The harder but more enduring policy challenge is to figure out what kind of containment policy might actually work against resource-rich Iran. Even the policy makers (including Burns) who crafted the six UN resolutions scolding or sanctioning Tehran acknowledge that these sanctions almost certainly do not impose sufficient pressure to stop Iran from doing whatever it wants. After three decades, Iran's regime is sanctions-savvy. Every time one bank or one company tied to the Revolutionary Guards is sanctioned, the regime simply shifts business to another bank or sets up a new front company. 
 
Containment takes many forms. And to really work, it needs two things: international consensus and an effective enforcement mechanism, possibly including military resources -- such as ships to cordon off Iran and prevent the transport of sanctioned or illicit goods. 
 
So what provisions does a viable containment policy need to have? As one of the early steps, for example, should containment include trying to cut off Iranian access to foreign refineries, which Iran needs, given that it doesn't have enough refineries of its own to process oil for its domestic market? Sounds easy, but to work it needs full international cooperation -- in principle at the United Nations, and in practice from countries or companies servicing Iran -- as well as an enforcement mechanism to prevent smuggling. That's only one option of many, and we should imaginatively be thinking through others before racing into military action.
 
Containment is complicated and frustrating. It's slow. Seepage can be a serious problem. But it is also the option that's most likely to lead Iranians, both the public and the regime, to fully understand the costs of their controversial nuclear program. As Burns points out, dealing with the complex problem of Iran's nuclear program is a marathon, not a sprint.

The debate continues here.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/08/what-the-successful-containment-of-iran-will-look-like/61770/