Containing Iran

Cold War strategies might help us handle Tehran’s nuclear ambitions

Boil away the verbiage, and Americans’ reaction to Iran’s apparent drive for nuclear weapons amounts to: “Oh, no!” It’s a reasonable reaction. A bitter enemy appears determined to acquire fearsome weapons, or the capability to produce them (which comes to the same thing). A preventive military strike might do little more than buy a couple of years, and at a steep price. Iran might drop a bomb on Israel; it might give the bomb to terrorists; it might use the bomb to blackmail and dominate the Middle East; it might feel emboldened to export terror and insurgency without constraint.

“Iran armed with a nuclear weapon poses a grave threat to the security of the world,” President Bush said in January. Various other assessments make Bush’s sound comparatively low-key. In September, Congressman Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona, called Iran a “diabolical threat to Western civilization” whose ambitions, if not stopped, “will lead to a disastrous situation with catastrophic consequences worldwide.”

The ascendancy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gives particular cause for alarm, not least because he has called the Holocaust a myth, renewed Iran’s commitment to eliminate Israel, and declared that anyone who objects to Iran’s achieving nuclear capability should “be angry and die of this anger.” Writing in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph, the historian Niall Ferguson imagines the upshot: Iran and Israel engage in a devastating nuclear exchange; the resulting “Great Gulf War” marks the end of the oil age—even, perhaps, “the twilight of the West.”

Maybe. To repeat: “Oh, no!” is a reasonable reaction. A uranium- enriched Ahmadinejad is a prospect the United States should seek strenuously to avoid, even if the cost is high. But if resignation is the wrong attitude, so is panic. If Iran emerges as a nuclear state, one country in the world will be providentially equipped with decades of applicable experience and a proven strategic template. The country is the United States, the experience is the Cold War, and the template is containment.

Here are some things we have seen before: a nuclear-armed country with a brittle and aggressive ideology, world-revolutionary aspirations, and a belief in the historic inevitability of its triumph against a decadent and ultimately hollow West. In that country, an unpopular and divided regime, with hard-liners and relative pragmatists squabbling for influence. A crumbling, resource-dependent economy. A paranoid worldview in which America is an omnipresent military and ideological threat. A tactical predilection for supporting and manipulating insurgent proxies around the world, instead of engaging in direct confrontations. Above all, a belief that nuclear weapons are strategically essential to deter the United States and maintain national prestige.

Yes—but the Soviet Union was deterrable. Would the same be true of a nuclear Iran? No one knows, and no one wants to find out, and Ahmadinejad’s trash-talking is alarming. Still, that Iran will be “a suicide bomber with a radioactive waist” (as one commentator put it recently) is not a given. The Brookings Institution’s Kenneth M. Pollack, the author of The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America, points out that Iran has been aggressively anti-American “but not reckless.” He explains, “These guys try to press the edge of the envelope, but if they find they’ve pressed too far, they pull back.” Behaviorally, if not rhetorically, the Iranians seem more akin to the opportunistic Nikita Khrushchev of the Cuban missile crisis than the delusional Saddam Hussein of the Kuwait invasion and the Iraq War.

One can hardly count on predictability from the likes of Ahmadinejad. But the presidency is only one of a number of competing Iranian power centers; the supreme ruler is Iran’s top cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. The fact that Ahmadinejad and his energetic faction are vying for control is not reassuring, but it is worth remembering that Stalin and Khrushchev were not reassuring figures either. Only in hindsight is it evident that they were deterrable.

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Jonathan Rauch is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.

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