Iran on the threshold: From engagement to comprehensive containment

Patrick Cronin Contributor
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Thirty-one years after revolution brought about an Islamic Republic, Iran is on the threshold of acquiring a nuclear weapon capability—if it chooses to do so. Despite a kinder, gentler U.S. policy of engagement during the past year, there is no credible evidence that the current Iranian regime can be dissuaded from crossing that fateful point to possessing the bomb.

If the Obama administration is serious about dealing with this threat, and not simply satisfied with just trying, then it needs to go beyond the twin levers of diplomatic engagement and toothless sanctions. Instead of waiting for those to fail and being faced with the worst-case scenario of having to consider launching military strikes, the White House should pivot to a comprehensive containment strategy—an effective defensive strategy that also has the promise of winning greater bipartisan support, reassuring regional allies, and possibly promoting internal regime change.

In addition to posing a direct military threat to allies and friends in the Middle East, allowing Iran to live on the nuclear threshold poses at least four related dangers to international security. First, Iran’s threshold status heightens the probability of regional nuclear proliferation. As Iran is permitted to go to or beyond the brink, the Arab world will wish to keep their future nuclear options open. Second, below the nuclear level, Iran as a threshold nuclear power is fostering a destabilizing conventional arms race as well as new areas of competition such as space and cyber domains. Third, Iran as a threshold power increases the risk of diversion because of the expansion of the potential black market in nuclear know-how and materiel, both of which are sought by al-Qaida and perhaps other non-state actors who will be far harder to deter than states. Fourth, and finally, Iran’s nuclear threshold status sows serious doubts about the effective command and control over military forces, not least because of the opacity of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that controls Iran’s nuclear program and the messianic character of Iran’s leaders. At a practical level, the nature of the regime lowers the point at which neighboring countries may have to act before it is too late to do so.

The sober testimony of the Director of National Intelligence, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Feb. 2, itemized Iran’s nuclear ambitions during the past year—a year in which the United States stepped back from a more confrontational policy and sought more concerted engagement with the regime under Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

• Iran is flouting the UN Security Council by swelling its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and installing more than 8,000 centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment plant;

• meanwhile, the clandestine enrichment facility at Qom, which was revealed last September, “fit[s] nicely with a strategy of keeping open to build a nuclear weapon;”

• as a consequence, there is a “real risk” of cascading proliferation as neighboring states seek “nuclear options” to counter the Iranian bomb;

• “Iran is technically capable of producing enough HEU [Highly Enriched Uranium] for a weapon in the next few years, if it chooses to do so;” and finally,

• Iran already possesses a variety of missiles on which to launch a nuclear warhead, including the Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile.

Just for good measure, shortly after this testimony, the Iranians fired a powerful new rocket, the Kavoshgar-3, which although apparently designed to carry satellites into space may one day carry far more than a rat and worms, which were part of Iran’s payload on this particular occasion.

In other words, while the United States, working closely with European countries and seeking a wider international concert with Russia and China, tries to offer Iran a path away from crossing the nuclear threshold, Iran is exchanging the extended hand of peace with a defiant fist. Iran has been playing for time.

Engagement would make sense if Iran were sincere about not pursing a nuclear capability and if Iran were being helpful on other critical security issues in the region. But Iran’s antics on the nuclear fuel swap and its other policies offer little evidence on which to pin hopes for effective engagement. Blair’s testimony, which received headlines for what he said about the threat from al-Qaida, also sketched out Iran’s other behavior in this past year of engagement:

• He said that judgments about Iran’s pursuit of other weapons of mass destruction, especially biological weapons, were classified and he could not discuss it in public (presumably, if there were no program, then there would be nothing to classify);

• in Iraq, Iran continues to arm and support Shia militant groups to put pressure on U.S. troops;

• in Afghanistan, Iran is supporting elements of the Taliban to counter American influence;

• authoritarian hardliners are using the current political crisis to consolidate their grip on power and expand Iran’s regional influence through support for terrorist groups; and

• softening oil prices and a political environment hostile to private investment have hurt Iran’s economy.

President Ahmadinejad’s ambiguous statement in early February that Iran might accept the Russian-backed plan for Iran to ship its enriched uranium out of the country to be sent back in a form that would be harder to produce weapons was not a sign of caving in but once again a clever way to avoid harsh international pressure. When he saw the West would not bite at this deception, he promptly reversed course and announced an accelerated program within Iran to enrich uranium up to 20 percent, placing Iran within a close distance to realizing weapon-grade nuclear fuel. The policy of soft engagement has run its course. As Ashton Carter pointed out in an earlier report, without a “turbocharged carrots-and-sticks” policy, there was scant chance Iran’s government under Ahmadinejad would alter course.

To be sure, the Obama administration was not wrong to extend an olive branch. The United States needed to demonstrate anew that it was not reckless but a responsible steward of international and regional security; it needed to regain political capital, especially in Europe, in order to mobilize allies into common action; and it needed to try to push the reset button with Russia and even China to test the limits of major-power cooperation. But as of February 2010, well after the deadline for serious Iranian action on coming clean with its enriched uranium, it has become patently obvious that Tehran is more interested in obstruction than cooperation; China has seemed more interested in sanctioning the United States than Iran (although there are new signs suggesting China may be softening on sanctions, provided the impact on their commerce can be limited); and Russia has consistently shied away from sanctions that could really hurt Iran.

While diplomatic engagement can remain on the table, we need a third way between the extremes of watered-down sanctions and a military strike with certain costs and uncertain benefits. We should adopt a strategy of comprehensive containment, which in turn should comprise five elements: physical, economic, moral, societal and psychological.

First, the prudent response to Iran’s growing threat to the region is the vigorous geographic and physical containment of the country. The Pentagon’s new Quadrennial Defense Review advances the concept of “geographic containment” as a means of coping with a potentially failing nuclear weapon state or a state that might transfer nuclear weapons to terrorists. The report calls for physical steps, namely deploying, “an integrated, layered defense network in multiple geographic environments” that could help deter an attack but also help a response should an attack occur. In the midst of escalating tensions this year, the administration announced that that the United States was providing missile defenses to four Gulf countries, in addition to Saudi Arabia and Israel which already had acquired them.

Secondly, comprehensive containment certainly means even tighter and smarter economic sanctions. New sanctions with teeth that bite the IRGC can no longer ignore Iran’s energy sector, given that hydrocarbons account for 80 percent of the state’s revenues. Although Iran has stockpiled oil and struck deals with China and Venezuela to prepare for such a contingency, sanctions on the energy sector during a time when Iran needs to be focused on its internal situation will help to apply pressure on the leadership. Obviously U.S. officials will have to examine closely the tradeoffs between tougher sanctions and the benefit of China’s support. Meanwhile, serious sanctions would further circumscribe Iran’s access to financial markets, which in turn means coming to grips with the critical role played by Dubai.

Thirdly, a comprehensive containment policy should have a moral dimension. At the tenth annual global security conference in Herzliya this year, President Shimon Peres, invoking the thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr, spoke of the moral corruption of the Iranian regime. That regime is currently locked into a potentially vicious cycle of oppression to consolidate power, which in turn opens up greater interest in embracing civil resistance in Iran. This is also a human rights issue that can be supported on both sides of the aisle in Congress.

Thus, fourthly, at the societal level, we should leverage trends in Iranian domestic politics towards regime change and find new ways to support this spontaneous pre-revolutionary moment. While we should be circumspect about what is done publicly to support the Green Movement, which, while advocating a strong national Iran, remains the only realistic way to halt a dangerous Iranian nuclear military program. No one knows if it can succeed, but looking ahead to the June 12 anniversary of last year’s fraudulent election in Iran that changed the calculus, many members of the movement who expect our support deserve better from a great power that has always looked out for the little guy.

Finally, comprehensive containment should have a psychological component. Clearly the administration needs to keep its focus on the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the situation in each of these will continue to shape regional and global views on the capacity and staying power of the United States. Thus everything reasonable must be done to ensure that the drawdown in Iraq and the surge in Afghanistan lead to greater security rather than to opening a further vacuum of power into which Iranian influence can meddle.

Meanwhile, a comprehensive containment strategy does not mean completing giving up on engagement. Negotiation can remain on the table for that day if and when Iran wants to get serious. But if the past year of engagement has taught the administration anything, let us hope that it understands the costs and limitations of engagement. In sum, if Iran insists on living on the nuclear threshold, then it should be prepared to live on the threshold of international isolation and internal regime change.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.