Containing Iran is to do the unthinkable

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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During the crucial months of debates that preceded the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kenneth Pollack, a liberal hawk who had worked as an analyst at the CIA and the National Security Council (NSC) published “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq” which provided the intellectual underpinnings, particularly to the reluctant liberals for “a full-scale invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam (Hussein), eradicate his weapons of mass destruction, and rebuild Iraq as a prosperous and stable society.”

Eleven years later, Iran and its potential nuclear menace has replaced Iraq as the Middle Eastern country that could be at the receiving end of America’s military might if it continues to challenge Security Council resolutions and pursue its clandestine nuclear program. President Obama has pledged repeatedly that he will use the full spectrum of U.S. options available to prevent the emergence of a nuclear Iran including the military option, while insisting that containment is not one of those options.

Ironically, Pollack the unreconstructed hawk, who has thrown himself once again in the ongoing sharp debate raging in the country about the best way to deal with the threatening Iranian nuclear storm, finds himself now swimming against the tide to the other bank opposite the military option. This time, Pollack is not brandishing a sword but a new well-argued book with a title demonstrating the difficulty of his task: “Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy.”

Containment can take many shapes, some confrontational, some far more passive. One of the keys to making containment work will be "determining how assertive or reserved to be at any time.”

Hisham Melhem

In more than 400 pages of cogent, clear and crisp analysis of all the possible options available to the United States (and Israel) to neutralize Iran’s nuclear program and ambitions, he argues, after observing that all the “choices are awful” that containment, warts and all, is the least bad option. Pollack told me that his goal is nothing short of rehabilitating the concept of containment which has become a dirty word in the contemporary political lexicon in America, synonymous with the dreaded and loaded word of “appeasement.” Pollack devotes time, space and intellectual rigor in the third part of the book aptly titled: “Containment,” explaining, wrestling with and justifying “the strategy that dare not speak its name.”

Pollack’s reversal of roles from supporting the military option against Iraq in 2002 and his current defense of a policy of containment towards Iran, both of which are controversial and susceptible to misrepresentations explain this caveat in the introduction: “In the past, my views on various issues have been misrepresented. I tried to write a balanced, nuanced book about Iraq in 2002 only to find it caricatured by people who read nothing but the subtitle—or cherry-picked lines from it.” Later in the conclusion he says “I supported a war against Saddam, albeit not the one that the Bush 43 administration waged.” To insulate himself against those who would distort or misrepresent his views, Pollack writes a crisp one page summary of his thesis in the introduction and in the conclusion a full comparison of the advantages/disadvantages of the military option and of containment.

Carrots and sticks

Pollack believes that the U.S. should offer Iran attractive, substantive inducements to reach a deal in return for serious concessions on its nuclear program that would include robust and intrusive inspection regime. Concomitant with that, and in order to ratchet up the pressure, the U.S. should support Iranian opposition group, and even raise the specter of regime change. If a diplomatic deal is beyond reach, then the U.S. will come to a fork in the road and will be forced to make a decision and chose either the path of military force to deprive Iran of a nuclear arsenal, or the path of containment and make the unthinkable, thinkable and relevant.

Pollack gives the military option a fair hearing, and he stresses that he does not oppose it in the absolute, but sees it necessary under certain circumstances, but he deeply believes that a military strike is very likely to turn into a war with Iran, and war in his view will not resolve the problem and will lead to many unforeseen ramification. Pollack reviews all military options available to the American president from air strikes (the most likely option) to a blockade and finally an invasion. And since Iran is very likely to retaliate “it would be irresponsible for a president to order air strikes against Iran without having accepted that doing so may mean committing the United States to an eventual invasion.”

Pollack sees many disadvantages to air strikes beginning with Iran’s likely withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which will lead to the termination of the work of the inspectors of The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which in turn will allow Iran to rebuilt its nuclear infrastructure without anyone reporting on it. Air strikes, may lead to an Iranian escalation that could target Israel and or the Gulf Cooperation council (GCC) states; and if air strikes are not that successful, Iran will go back to rebuilding its capabilities and the U.S. will go back to containment anyway.

Pollack is very dismissive of Israel’s ability to inflict serious damage to Iran’s nuclear facilities. He does not believe that Israel has a credible military option. He told me “historically, every time the Israelis had military options they exercised them, without talking about them. Look at how they destroyed the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear reactors.” Moreover, Pollack believes that from an American perspective an Israeli strike is a “terrible idea” and it might be “disastrous for the United States, Israel, and our other allies.”

He goes further, stating that “Israel’s ability to cause meaningful damage to the Iranian nuclear program has now diminished to the point where it should not be a driving consideration in our approach to Iran”. Finally, Pollack addresses the notion that is at the core of the belief of Israeli leaders and their supporters which claim that the religious ideology of clerical establishment in Iran could drive them to trigger a nuclear Holocaust. Pollack sees nothing in past actions by Iranian leaders (notwithstanding the outrageous rhetoric of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) “that comport with this notion, whereas much that they have done runs against it.”

Containment and its discontent

Pollack goes to great lengths to explain containment, showing that it is as old as civilization, citing Thucydides’ description in the Peloponnesian War of how Sparta tried to contain the power of its chief rival Athens. Of course he touches on the most successful containment strategy in modern times, when the U.S. adopted the intellectual framework put forth by George Kennan’s to contain the rising power of a belligerent Soviet Union after the Second World War, a strategy that was employed also against China, Cuba and Iran itself.

Pollack is fully aware of the limitations and disadvantages of containment; he even devotes a full chapter describing “the problems of containment”. Containment of a nuclear Iran will not stop it from continuing to subvert America’s allies, or prevent these allies from seeking their own nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran could wreak havoc in the oil market, and could encourage other nations to opt out of the NPT.

For all these reasons, Pollack’s version of containment is anything but passive. One of his many concerns is to stress that containment” does not mean appeasement, or even acceptance of a nuclear Iran. Containment can take many shapes, some confrontational, some far more passive. One of the keys to making containment work will be "determining how assertive or reserved to be at any time.” However, the most important aspect in a strategy of containment is that it seeks to prevent a hostile nation like Iran from undermining America’s interests and the interests of its allies and prevent it from committing aggression beyond its border, and maintaining the pressure on it “until the structural flaws in its political system bring an end to the regime itself.”

Again and again, Pollack returns to weighing the risks and costs of war vs. containment only to stress that “I do not believe that the containment of Iran, including a nuclear Iran, will be easy or painless, just preferable to the alternative”. Pollack’s book went to the presses before the election of President Hassan Rowhani, and before the beginning of the negotiations between the P+5 and Iran and the bilateral U.S.-Iran talks. While the road ahead is fraught with huge obstacles, this process could be promising. However, if the efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution crumble to Iran’s nuclear challenge, which is a realistic prospect, Pollack’s book will then be a crucial intellectual framework for those who seek a rational, realistic and effective, if not perfect strategy of containment.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on Sept. 26, 2013.


Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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