Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran
Questions for Strategy, Requirements for Military Forces

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    Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran
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Containing and deterring a nuclear iran

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Executive Summary

It has long been the policy of the US government that a nuclear-armed Iran would be unacceptable. Yet, whether the conventional and nontraditional means of US and Western policy can secure the end of keeping Tehran from fulfilling its longtime nuclear ambition is far from clear. While it is possible military action will deprive Iran of its nuclear option, that the current regime in the Islamic Republic will be overthrown, or that sanctions will bring the regime to the table with meaningful concessions, there is also every possibility that none of these scenarios will come to pass. Moreover, if there is a rising consensus that sanctions ultimately will fail, there is an equally strong belief among the foreign-policy establishment in Washington and other Western capitals that preemptive military action is unappealing, leading many to suggest that containing a nuclear Iran is a reasonable option. Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, all the tools used heretofore will remain on the table, but there will be a new layer of strategic challenges and constraints—not simply the day after but also well into the future.

The broad embrace of containment and deterrence appears to be based primarily on an unwillingness to analyze the risks and costs described.Containment is hardly a cost-free policy, but aside from a small handful of policy sketches, little thought has gone into what an effective containment and deterrent regime will require of the United States and its allies. The public discussion of containing a nuclear Iran has been conducted in a haze of good feeling about the successes of the Cold War, but containing the Soviet Union was hardly simple. The successes of the Cold War policy certainly provide a framework for thinking about the difficulties of a nuclear Iran, even allowing for the unique circumstances of the two situations and the different and unique ideologies embraced by both adversaries. A deeper examination of the original Cold War policy choices is necessary.

Throughout the Cold War, the policy of containment oscillated between periods of strategic expansion and contraction, but the underlying policy remained remarkably consistent. Those principles are essential components of a coherent Iran containment policy: that it should seek to block any Iranian expansion in the Persian Gulf region; to illuminate the problematic nature of the regime’s ambitions; to constrain and indeed to “induce a retraction” of Iranian influence, including Iranian “soft power”; and to work toward a political transformation, if not a physical transformation, of the Tehran regime.

A further essential characteristic of Cold War containment applicable to Iran is that such a policy demands a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach driven by consistent diplomacy. Containing Iran requires effecting the isolation of the Iranian regime, disconnecting it from great power patrons, limiting its ability to peel off neighbors and regional players to serve its agenda, limiting its use of proxies, and more. The isolation of Iran should not be intended as a punishment for nuclear transgressions, but rather as a means of limiting Iranian exploitation of its newfound status as a nuclear power. The US government will need to build and institutionalize coalitions to box Iran in to deny it the opportunity to project power.

Beyond diplomacy and sanctions, containing a nuclear Iran will require increased efforts on other fronts, to include but not be limited to competing with and disrupting Iranian regional and global economic strategy, working with allies to diminish Iranian influence in energy markets, and supporting effective opposition groups. But as Cold War precedent reveals, and as many advocates of containing Iran acknowledge, the keystone of any containment policy is a military strategy of deterrence.

The United States has been practicing a loose form of deterrence against Iran for the better part of three decades, yet the range of possible conflict points has mushroomed. What might be called the canonical military threat from Iran—the closing of the Strait of Hormuz—remains a serious concern, as do a variety of direct Iranian threats such as regular harassment of US shipping by Iranian small boats. Further, the dangers of Iranian irregular combatants or proxies are a critical and possibly existential worry to the United States’ newest allies in the region: Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, the shadow of Iran’s nuclear program casts a pall from the Persian Gulf to Europe, Central Asia, and South Asia. A central question for a strategy of deterrence is which Iranian leaders, groups of leaders, and institutions are the objects and targets of deterrence. Iran’s diffuse leadership structures and constant domestic power struggles make the job of deterrence extremely challenging. Taken in sum, even without a nuclear weapon of its own, Iran is difficult to deter; the current de facto deterrence regime does not prevent Iran from isolated acts of military aggression or aggression by Iranian proxies.

While there can never be certain deterrence, Cold War presidents often had confidence that the United States had sufficient military power to support a policy of containment through a strategy of deterrence. For most of the period they felt deterrence was assured. Assured regime-change capability is required to have confidence in a policy of containment and a strategy of deterrence toward Tehran. An Iran policy of containment based upon a strategy of deterrence must meet the basic Cold War standard of credibility, which included three criteria. The deterrent posture depends on an adequate US nuclear arsenal of offensive systems; a substantial investment in forward-deployed and reinforcing conventional forces, and the preservation of strong alliances that permit relatively good policy integration, military cooperation, and basing and access for US forces.

The success of this inherently complicated endeavor demanded—as a similar effort toward Iran would demand—an immense and sustained US effort. Adopting a policy of containment and a policy of deterrence would have implications for US nuclear policy and forces. Current policies and plans, however, do not reflect such considerations, and current US nuclear forces are not well prepared to provide deterrence against a nuclear Iran. A serious policy of containment and strategy of deterrence calls for constant and significant conventional force presence around Iran’s perimeter, yet the deterrent value of US conventional forces is uncertain, if only because US policy and posture throughout the region is in flux.

Two questions require analysis: What kind of force is operationally capable of conducting a regime-change campaign in Iran? What kind of threat would be understood by the Iranian regime as a credible deterrent? Current US defense planning is entirely devoid of such analysis, and the military posture required for containment and deterrence cannot be assumed. In both nuclear and conventional realms, the United States and its “containment coalition” partners are likely to lack the military means to make a deterrent posture credible either to the Iranians—who are inherently difficult to deter—or to ourselves. This reprises a recurring Cold War lesson: empty attempts at containment and deterrence are not just half-answers but positive incentives to an adversary ambitious for power and predisposed to discover weakness and regard itself with a historic destiny.

For containment and deterrence to succeed, the United States will need to demonstrate that it can deter both Iran’s use of nuclear weapons and aggression by Tehran’s network of partners and terrorist proxies. The United States also has a concomitant requirement to assure its allies in the region and around the world of its commitment to stability in the region. Underlying all of this is the classic requirement that the United States be capable of demonstrating its ability to execute a declaratory policy to respond to a possible Iranian nuclear attack. The United States has neither the forces available nor the capability under current projections to do so.

 In conclusion, we find that though containment and deterrence are possible policies and strategies for the United States and others to adopt when faced with a nuclear Iran, we cannot share the widespread enthusiasm entertained in many quarters. Indeed, the broad embrace of containment and deterrence appears to be based primarily on an unwillingness to analyze the risks and costs described. It may be the case that containing and deterring is the least-bad choice. However, that does not make it a low-risk or low-cost choice. In fact, it is about to be not a choice but a fact of life.

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About the Author






  • Maseh Zarif is the deputy director and Iran research Team Lead for the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. He works on national security issues related to the Middle East and South Asia, with a particular focus on Iran’s nuclear program and its regional activities. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, National Review Online, and Foreign Policy, among others, and has appeared on CNN and Fox. Before joining AEI, he worked for several years in corporate finance as an analyst and a consultant.

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