Do you think that the U.S. is on the verge of striking the Iranian nuclear program? Think again. President Bush's speech to the United Nations this week did not even refer to Iranian defiance of the Security Council's Aug. 31 deadline for ceasing and desisting from uranium enrichment. Instead the President praised Iranian culture and offered friendship to the Iranian people--following a new strategy that tacitly accepts an Iranian nuclear bomb as all but inevitable.

Resident Fellow David Frum
Resident Fellow David Frum
What is this new strategy?

David Ignatius, a journalist who often reflects the thinking of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, described it thus in a January column in the Washington Post: "The administration hopes [the European allies, Russia and China] will work with Washington to change Iranian behaviour on issues such as terrorism and regional stability. Officials don't like the Cold War term 'containment,' believing that it connotes a static policy, but the word suggests the strategic commitment they want on Iran."

Three years of negotiations with Iran have definitively failed. The U.S. and its allies offered Iran trade benefits, weapons technology, even civilian nuclear reactors. No sale. The Iranians want a nuclear bomb more than they want anything the West can offer them.

Rice's big idea is based on the experience of the Cold War, when the U.S. isolated, deterred and challenged the legitimacy of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was surely a more dangerous adversary than Iran. If containment worked then, why not now?

But the advocates of today's neo-containment are deluding themselves. They cannot hope to isolate Iran. No American ally will sign on to such a plan. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that total trade between Iran on the one hand and France, Germany, Russia and China on the other has increased from $18-billion to $22-billion in the past year. Germany is Iran's number one supplier; France, number two. President Jacques Chirac only last week urged that the Security Council "renounce" all economic sanctions against Iran.

Deter Iran? After the Khobar Towers terror attack of 1996, in which Iran killed 17 U.S. service personnel, the Clinton administration threatened war if Iran ever did such a thing again. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration safeguarded Kuwaiti oil tankers against Iranian missiles by reflagging them as U.S. vessels. But America will not find it so easy to defend its friends against an Iran that can threaten nuclear retaliation against the U.S. The problem is not to deter Iran; it is to prevent Iran from using its nuclear weapons to deter the U.S. from protecting its friends.

As for challenging the legitimacy of the mullahs' rule, that is not likely to happen either. Over the past few weeks, former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami has been honoured with invitations to deliver a lecture at Harvard and a sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington. Iran's current President, the fanatically anti-Semitic Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has addressed the Council on Foreign Relations and was invited to lecture at Columbia. (That last invitation was ultimately withdrawn.) The Iranians are honoured participants in the "dialogue of civilizations" organized by the United Nations.

More ominously, many of those who advocate a "containment" policy--such as former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski--go on to argue that U.S. should offer Iran "security guarantees": a promise that the U.S. will not support military action against Iran or aid those who seek to topple the Iranian regime.

Now this is the very opposite of a containment policy. Containment as it was understood during the Cold War recognized the dangerous nature of the Soviet regime--a danger (in the words of George Kennan, the man who gave containment its name) which "cannot be charmed or talked out of existence."

Containment's goal, Kennan continued, was not "permanent happy coexistence," but rather "to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power." Substitute "Iranian" and "the mullahs" for Soviet and the Kremlin, and you might have the beginning of a workable alternative policy toward Iran.

But that is not the policy toward which the U.S. is now being directed. Unless containment seeks to promote the breakup of the Iranian regime, it is not containment at all. It is simply...accommodation.

Iran is going nuclear. Sanctions will not be imposed. The U.S. hesitates to strike. And the Bush administration's new big idea will not work. Brace yourselves.

David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.

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About the Author


  • David Frum is the author of six books, most recently, Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again (Doubleday, 2007). While at AEI, he studied recent political, generational, and demographic trends. In 2007, the British newspaper Daily Telegraph named him one of America's fifty most influential conservatives. Mr. Frum is a regular commentator on public radio's Marketplace and a columnist for The Week and Canada's National Post.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
The Constitution as political theory

Please join us for the third-annual Walter Berns Constitution Day Lecture as James Ceasar, Harry F. Byrd Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, explores some of the Constitution’s most significant contributions to political theory, focusing on themes that have been largely unexamined in current scholarship.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014 | 8:10 a.m. – Thursday, September 18, 2014 | 1:30 p.m.
Third international conference on housing risk: New risk measures and their applications

We invite you to join us for this year’s international conference on housing risk — cosponsored by the Collateral Risk Network and AEI International Center on Housing Risk — which will focus on new mortgage and collateral risk measures and their applications.

Thursday, September 18, 2014 | 2:15 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Speaker of the House John Boehner on resetting America’s economic foundation

Please join us as Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) delivers his five-point policy vision to reset America’s economy.

Friday, September 19, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Reforming Medicare: What does the public think?

Please join us as a panel of distinguished experts explore the implications of the report and the consumer role in shaping the future of Medicare.

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