Only a few months before the historic agreement between the West and Iran in Geneva this past November, former CIA intelligence analyst and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, Kenneth M. Pollack, published Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy. This discerning and articulate book defends and supports containment policy toward Iran. Once containment proved favorable in light of its success with the Soviet Union during the Cold-War era, at any point that a nation has been perceived as hostilely unwilling to engage in a placatory relationship with the United States (for example, note North Korea, Cuba, Libya, Iraq, Nicaragua, Angola, Ethiopia, or Afghanistan), the western power has responded by swiftly adopting a strategy of containment, and Iran has been no exception.
For more than three decades, since the inception of the Islamic Republic, containment has functioned as America's default policy for dealing with Iran, particularly as a key part of the United States' agenda to prevent Iran from obtaining access to further nuclear weapons capability.
It was George Kennan who first introduced the idea of containment, though then the focus was on the Soviet Union. Kennan's opinion was based on the assumption that the United States and the Soviet Union would be political adversaries indefinitely. It was also widely accepted that the United States couldn't risk the potential extreme cost of war to extinguish the Soviet communist regime in light of nuclear proliferation. In order to temper political expansion, cause economic discord, and stave off military aggression, containment served as a method of suspension until the Soviet fell on its own in the early 1990s.
In this same manner, the containment of Iran functions under similar assumptions. The United States is unwilling to take out the Tehran regime by force due to the anticipated cost of life and actual monetary investment. Since Iran seems disinterested in an irenic relationship with America, containment would directly serve the purpose of restricting Iran's economic growth, crippling Tehran's efforts to develop an adept military, and curtailing Tehran's geographic power.
Despite these arguments, though, containment is not the answer. This method of responding to foreign powers will lead to the very thing it attempts to quell. First, American thought-leaders do a grave disservice in assuming that it's unthinkable for Iran to have a productive, amicable relationship with the United States. On numerous occasions, Iran has reached out to the U.S. with conciliatory attempts at forging a more stable connection only to be met with a lack of reciprocity. In 2003, the United States rebuffed a chance for direct dialogue after Afghanistan's Taliban regime was toppled. At that time, during the rule of Iranian's reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, the United States abandoned the possibility of more intensive bilateral dialogue before significant strides toward amicability were ever achieved.
Second, the goal of containment as recourse for weakening Iran's political and economic power is futile. Though this method may have eventually worked with the Soviet Union, Iran is still a leading power in the Middle East even after three decades of containment policy. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif explains that, a decade ago, Iran was discovered to have 164 centrifuges. After years of sanctions within that intervening time period, 19,000 additional centrifuges have been freely installed. Clearly, containment is not functioning in the way the powers-that-be have hoped.
Through reductio ad absurdum reasoning, it's demonstrated that even if containment might be in some ways successful, it is not desirable as a form of serving the United States' interests. By deriving an absurdity from supposing that containment does, in fact, work, the opposite policy, engagement, must be accepted due to the fact that the consequences of containment make it untenable.
The containment of Iran actively threatens the United States' national security. The truth is, many U.S. policymakers seem to lack a robust and comprehensive understanding of Middle Eastern history. In the 1980s, the last time the United States was able to rally the Arab world in order to contain Iran, the U.S inadvertently facilitated the rise of Sunni militancy. This milieu, in turn, produced the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and there's nothing to say that similar consequences wouldn't occur at this juncture.
Containment will act as a mobilizer of Sunni extremism, the ideological barrier to a current Shiite Iran. During the Cold War, communism could clearly be confronted as an adversary of capitalism and democracy -- easy sells to a downtrodden and disheartened public. But here, in the Middle East, the trade is the promotion of Sunni extremism. The reality is that this leaves Washington's containment strategy in direct confrontation with the global objective of defeating radical Islam.
In seeking the containment of one of the most powerful countries in the Arab region, the United States aims to establish an order that contradicts natural political balance. Even if, in excising Iran, an artificial climate could be produced, it would only survive for as long as the United States was willing to invest in its upkeep. This investment grows increasingly arduous for Washington to shoulder. As Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel explains in his book, America, Our Next Chapter: "Iran is not going away and, whether we like it or not, there will be no peace or stability in the Middle East without Iran's participation. Iran has been a central power in the Middle East for centuries and will remain so."
The larger issue, of course, is that a more probable outcome of containment is a regime collapse rather than the change for which the United States remains hopeful. As the Arab Spring helped demonstrate, an uprising in Iran is not on the horizon. A far likelier scenario is that, under the mounting pressure of international sanctions, Iran will fail completely and, in turn, transform into an even more impressive threat to the rest of the world. We do not need a North Korea amidst the Middle East.
Iran is a powerful country. But perhaps more significant than this fact is the reality that to attempt political containment of this Middle Eastern powerhouse inadvertently aids Russia and China. Just as Iran served as a buffer to the United States against the Soviet Union before its collapse, so too could Iran serve now as an intermediary between the United States and both China and Russia.
China, which has swiftly risen to become one of America's greatest challengers in an attempt to shift the global balance of power, continues to pivot into the Middle East. While America leads the charge in fighting, the door has been opened for China to lead in the business realm, and China has not hesitated to rise to the occasion. As a result, the Middle East has been pushed further into China's hands, and this had cost America in important ways. For example, even after the United States spent the last decade pouring money into the country over while working to stabilize Afghanistan and eradicate the Taliban at the price of American lives, and even after U.S. and NATO involvement in the region finally made economic actions such as geological exploration safer and more feasible, it was China, not the United States, that was granted the first mining contract. Because both Russia and Iran share several key interests, namely the desire to keep the United States out of the Caucasus and Central Asia, an added consequence of containment is the abetment of Russia's dominance over Europe's energy supplies. Where, for much of the Cold War, the United States boasted efforts to keep Western Europe from forming a dependency on Russian energy, the United States now appears to be encouraging Europe's reliance on Russian energy as a means of pressuring Iran to submit.
As the United States continues its dogged pursuit of Iran's containment, China and Russia are able to stake their claim to the Middle East. It's possible that, without more consideration and care regarding the possible long-term consequences, Russia and China will together emerge as a global giant prepared to challenge America's power in the Middle East. Once this happens, it will be difficult to go back. The global threats we stand to face in light of that power struggle far dwarf the dangers the West currently sees in Iran. The United States would be wise to wake up and view Iran as a valuable participant. For a variety of reasons, Iran is the only country in the Middle East that has the capability to help contain Russia and thwart China's intrusion into this region, and the focus should be on engagement rather than on the subsidization of China's and Russia's rise to power as a misguided method for containing Iran. In doing this, the United States misses the greater threat.
This piece was initially published on Foreign Policy Blogs with some revisions.