Don't Bomb Iran, Contain It (Like the USSR)

02/15/2012 04:33 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2012
  • MJ Rosenberg Worked on Capitol Hill for Democratic Senators and House members for 20 years

It's hard to imagine anyone would come up with a worse idea for dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue than this.

Senators Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) are pushing a Senate resolution that can be best described by words emblazoned on Lieberman's website: "All options must be on the table when it comes to Iran -- except for one and that is containment."

The senators elaborate in a joint statement:

The resolution we intend to introduce will put the Senate on record as opposing containment in the strongest and clearest terms, detailing why the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran cannot be 'contained' like the threat of the Soviet Union.

Forget for a minute that there is no clear evidence that Iran has decided to build nuclear weapons, let alone even the slightest indication that Iran is prepared to commit national suicide by using any possible weapon it develops. Focus only on the fact that these senators are seeking to rule out all options other than war in dealing with the eventuality that the Iranians succeed in developing a bomb.

Containment, of course, is how the United States responded to nuclear weapons in the hands of every other unfriendly regime that has developed them.

Americans were stunned when, four years after the United States used nuclear weapons on Japan, the Soviet Union tested its own atomic bomb. For four years, the United States had enjoyed a nuclear monopoly and the idea that the Soviet Union (Stalin of all people!) now had a nuclear arsenal was met with horror.

The horror was even more pronounced when the nation then known as Red China tested its first nuclear weapon in 1964. The Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung was so extreme an ideologue that the Soviet Union had broken with its former ally.

The belief that his regime consisted of maniacal fanatics brought Americans and Soviets together in common terror at the prospect that he would have access to the bomb. In fact, just prior to the Chinese nuclear test, President Lyndon Johnson authorized government officials to contact the Soviets about collaborating on a military strike against the Chinese reactors. But to no avail.

In the end, with both the Soviet Union and the even more radical Chinese, the United States decided that there was no alternative to containment. Containment was not desirable, to be sure, but it was infinitely preferable to war.

For some reason, the Iranian case is different. In the senators joint statement opposing containment, they specifically assert that "a nuclear-armed Iran cannot be 'contained" like the threat of the Soviet Union. They do not explain why. As if the answer is obvious.

And to some, most notably neoconservatives and other Islamophobes it is. Their thinking is that unlike Stalin's Russia, Mao's China and North Korea's Kim Jong Un, the Iranian regime is suicidal. Although use of an atomic weapon would lead to its own annihilation by Israel (which possesses dozens of nuclear weapons), the hawks claim Iran would happily commit suicide for the sheer pleasure of taking Israel down with it.

But no nation has ever committed suicide and Persians, whose pride in their own culture and sense of nationalism knows no bounds, are clearly among the least likely candidates for the course of self-immolation. But, even assuming they hate Israel so much that they would happily self-destruct, there is also the matter of the Palestinians who would also die in any nuclear attack on Israel. It is hard to believe that in the name of Palestine, Iran would slaughter a few million Palestinians.

No, the fear campaign that surrounds Iran is about Israel's intense worry that a nuclear Iran would inhibit Israel's freedom of action throughout the Middle East, taking away its ability to do whatever it wants whenever it wants to. Israel fears precisely what happened to the United States after the Soviets got the bomb, that both countries would be constrained by fear of the other. A balance of terror, as it was called during the half-century that the two nuclear superpowers avoided war.

There is no alternative to containment.

After all, even if Israel and/or the United States attacks Iran's nuclear facilities, the attack would only set back the country's nuclear program by a few years. It would also probably end any debate inside Iran about developing a nuclear deterrent; having just been attacked, the regime would almost surely commit to building a bomb as soon as possible. And they would succeed. (Even Iranians opposed to the regime support Iran's nuclear program.)

Then what? Iran would have a bomb and we would have no choice but... containment.

So the only question is whether we adopt the policy of containment before a war or after. The answer should be obvious. Although, with neoconservatives pushing so hard for war, it isn't.

Of course, we might be able to avoid the question of containment altogether if we commenced comprehensive negotiations with Iran with a goal of preventing development of a bomb (while permitting enrichment for civilian purposes), normalizing U.S.-Iranian relations, calling on Iran to end its support of terrorism against Israel or anyone else and dropping the sanctions that largely punish ordinary Iranians.

That is, in fact, what we would do if policy could be made without heavy-handed input of a powerful lobby that fears diplomacy more than war -- and is so effective at hamstringing U.S. policy with devices like the Lieberman-Casey-Graham resolution.