In his disproportionate praise of the six-month agreement with Iran, Barack Obama said: “For the first time in nearly a decade, we have halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program.” But if the program, now several decades old, had really been “halted” shortly after U.S. forces invaded Iraq, we would not be desperately pursuing agreements to stop it now, as 10,000 or so centrifuges spin to enrich uranium.
If Denmark wanted to develop nuclear weapons, we would consider that nation daft but not dangerous. Iran’s nuclear program is alarming because Iran’s regime is opaque in its decision-making, frightening in its motives (measured by its rhetoric), and barbaric in its behavior. “Manes,” writes Kenneth M. Pollack of the Brookings Institution, “from whose name the word manichean derives, was a Persian who conceived of the world as being divided into good and evil.” But Pollack says suicidal tendencies are not among the irrationalities of Iranian leaders, who are not “insane millenarians.”
In “Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy,” Pollack argues that Iran’s nuclear program has been, so far, more beneficial to the U.S. than to Iran. Because of the anxieties and sanctions the program has triggered, Iran is more isolated, weak, impoverished and internally divided than at any time since it became a U.S. adversary in 1979. And one possible — Pollack thinks probable — result of Iran acquiring a nuclear arsenal would be Saudi Arabia doing so. Pollack considers this perhaps “the most compelling reason” for Iran to stop just short of weaponization.
Writing well before the recent agreement, Pollack said that, given Iran’s adamant refusal to give up all enrichment, it will retain at least a “breakout capability,” the ability to dash to weaponization in months, even weeks. Hence the need to plan serious, aggressive containment.
In 2012, the Senate voted 90-1 for a nonbinding resolution “ruling out any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.” The implication was containment is tepid and passive. But it was not such during the 45 years the U.S. contained the Soviets. And containment can be more than mere deterrence of Iran, against which the U.S. has waged cyber warfare.
Were it not for Israel “repeatedly sounding the alarm,” Pollack says, Iran “probably would have crossed the nuclear threshold long ago.” But if a nuclear Iran is for Israel unthinkable because it is uncontainable, Israel’s only self-reliant recourse, a nuclear attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, is unthinkable. And, Pollack thinks, unnecessary. The existence of Israel’s nuclear arsenal is a sufficient deterrent: Iran’s leadership is “aggressive, anti-American, anti-status quo, anti-Semitic, duplicitous, and murderous, but it is not irrational, and overall, it is not imprudent.”
There will be no constitutional impropriety if Congress votes to impose even stiffer sanctions on Iran. The president has primary but not exclusive responsibility for foreign policy. It is time for a debate about the role of sanctions in a containment policy whose ultimate objective is regime change. For many decades before 1989, humanity was haunted by the possibility that bureaucracy and propaganda technologies could produce permanent tyrannies impervious to change. In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” George Orwell wrote, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.” But since 1989, tyrannies seem more brittle. And Pollack believes “the basic ingredients of regime change exist in Iran,” which “today is a land of labor protests and political demonstrations.”
Pollack may be too sanguine when he says that, since the brutal smashing of the Green Revolution of June 2009, “the Islamic Republic has been delegitimized and is starting to hollow out.” His fear is that even massive U.S. air strikes would only delay the danger that provoked them, and thus might “prove to be nothing more than a prelude to invasion, as they were in Iraq and almost were in Kosovo.”
The logic of nuclear deterrence has not failed in the 64 years since the world acquired its second nuclear power. That does not guarantee certainty, but, says Pollack, “the small residual doubt cannot be allowed to be determinative.” His basic point: “Our choices are awful, but choose we must.” Containment is the least awful response to Iran’s coming nuclear capability.