Burkle Center Visiting Fellow Dalia Dassa Kaye and Eric Lorber explain containment strategy and whether or not this is an effective policy towards Iran.
by Dalia Dassa Kaye and Eric Lorber
Dr. Kaye is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and currently a visiting professor and fellow at UCLA's International Institute and Burkle Center. Mr. Lorber is a PhD candidate in political science at Duke University and a JD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Even before the onset of the Arab Spring of 2011, leading analysts spoke of containment as the dominant prescription for America's Iran policy.1 Yet the Arab uprisings have sharpened concerns about Iran and its nuclear ambitions, with many believing that Iran is well placed to capitalize on the turmoil to enhance its regional position.2 Not surprisingly, "containment" options again feature prominently in Washington assessments about how to address the Iranian challenge.3 Growing debate about military options,4 and even an actual attack against Iran, would not reduce the salience of containment in U.S. strategy, given that such a strike would be unlikely to halt Iran's program and may even accelerate it.5
Containment, of course, provides a familiar way for analysts and policy makers to think about Iran policy. The definitive U.S. grand strategy during the Cold War, containment is increasingly touted as the best available option for dealing with hostile states like Iran, where neither war nor peace appears an attractive or viable alternative. Containment during the Cold War was not a panacea; its variations were plagued with theoretical inconsistencies, difficulties in application and many close calls, when the Cold War almost became hot. Despite these challenges, containment did ultimately contribute to what many view as a successful strategy in eroding Soviet power. But can this approach work with adversaries like Iran?
In order to answer this question, we need to understand what containment means. The concept has proven to be problematically broad and ill defined. Scholars and practitioners have, under its mantle, advocated a range of policies, including rollback, internal intervention, punitive sanctions, deterrence, and even accommodation and acceptance of problematic behavior.6 As Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis observed, "Containment is something with which most people in the national security community have spent most of their lives.... We have become so accustomed to it that we rarely stop to consider what its precise goals are supposed to be.…"7
The lack of clarity about containment — both its means and its goals — is particularly astonishing with respect to U.S. Iran policy. The United States has arguably pursued de facto containment of Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but a review of U.S. policies over the last 30 years suggests that the understanding of containment has varied significantly — so much so that proponents of the strategy occasionally call for completely contradictory policies, from preventing an Iranian nuclear capability to living with one.8
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Published: Friday, March 23, 2012
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