Containment Contained No Longer

There have been reams of retrospectives reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the illegal invasion of Iraq–which General William E. Odom pronounced “the greatest strategic disaster in our history”–and in them is a sense that the gross campaign of fraud will repeat itself, this time leading to war with Iran. But all these commentators can rest easy because the steady campaign of scaremongering over a nuclear Iran is little more than a most skillful bluff. Though it is scarcely discussed by pundits (at least publicly) as a possibility, there is one, Professor Stephen Walt, who is open to thinking that the Obama administration is indeed pulling a fast one and fervidly hoping this is the case. Walt also notes that the White House is bluffing on a separate level when it insists that, despite all options being on the table, containing Iran is unthinkable:

“[D]eclaring that Washington will never use containment or deterrence isn’t credible, because these options are always there if we need them, and they make a lot more sense than the alternatives. In this regard the US is bluffing, and the main risk is that they will feel compelled to follow through if the bluff gets called.”

There used to be risk in Washington being forced to follow through with containment in the event a nuclear Iran was able to call their bluff, but no longer. Ever since the debate about how to manage Iran within the administration ended last March, the approach taken by the President has been constrained by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At the time, Netanyahu was making noises about striking Iran and Obama feared “If Netanyahu went ahead, the U.S. could be dragged into a war on Israel’s terms, long before options to avoid conflict had been exhausted,” according to Massimo Calabresi. To head off Netanyahu, Obama decided to make a public commitment to a military option in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg even though “by speaking out,” Calabresi observes, “he would be putting the U.S.’s credibility on the line.” Thus was Netanyahu able to contain Washington’s use of containment as a policy choice.

These confines don’t apply anymore, however, as Israel has been emitting signals that it is finally content to cede the operation of the Iran war to the U.S. By passing the baton, Netanyahu has guaranteed that now, in the words of Mitchell Plitnick, “The struggle over an attack on Iran will be fought in Washington, not Jerusalem.” In my last post, I wrote how once the U.S. assumes command “the campaign to keep Iran in check will undergo a shift in tone and subject” and, lo and behold, that shift has already begun. In his annual Nowruz (Iranian New Year) message, President Obama, giving a foretaste of coming attractions, tempered his rhetoric by not mentioning a military strike. Instead of tacit threats of having their nuclear facilities bombed, the President just warned Iranians that if their government “continues down its current path, it will only further isolate Iran.”

After all the stink Netanyahu has made for years about Iran’s nuclear program, many who have been keeping track of his Iran rantings must be wondering what in the world is he thinking? How can he simply shift responsibility to the U.S. in the face of a supposedly dire threat, especially after repeatedly insisting that Israel’s security can not be turned over to even Israel’s best of friends? It is no giant leap for Netanyahu because his posturing on Iran has always been part of an elaborate pageant aimed not at thwarting the mullahs from getting nukes but against the possibility of U.S.-Iran rapprochement. This scenario is what the Israeli government really fears most and it has fought doggedly to guard against such an unpleasant development. To that end, Israel is pretending to feel threatened by Iran which then forces the U.S. into a somewhat reluctant confrontation with the Islamic Republic in order to avoid alienating Israel.

This stratagem is working like a charm and so long as it does Netanyahu will have no qualms about having Washington handling the Iran non-issue however it chooses which means containment is officially, if not publicly, back on the table. The White House is paralyzed no more by the prospect of a unilateral Israel strike as that ship has left port. According to Crispian Balmer, Israeli General Giora Eiland has said “Pressure from Washington… had forced Israel to drop its strike plan.” So whenever we hear Netanyahu making noises about Israel going it alone note that it’s to keep the U.S. from going soft on Iran and settling the nuclear dispute prematurely. In fact, I suspect that Israel actually prefers the option of U.S. containment because it can prolong tensions with Iran for years to come at minimal risk and includes plummy perks.

Those perks explain Israel’s earlier objection to containment. Perhaps Israelis were worried that what Washington meant by containment was the U.S. was going to shoulder the burden alone, leaving all their regional allies to sit idly on the sidelines. But if, say, Israel were to be able to participate in addressing the Iranian menace by getting an unprecedented arms deal, they’d fondly embrace containment. Washington wised up to what Israel was driving at and began last year to painstakingly put together the second largest U.S. arms package ever to the Middle East. With that deal having been reached last week, Israeli rhetoric has begun to mellow. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is warning about inflating the Iranian threat and calling for “quiet” cooperation with America. Former major general Amos Yadlin is scoffing at drawing red lines. Israel accepting this generous deal (and more aid in future) means fully coordinating with the U.S. on Iran is the order of the day. In short, it looks like containment will cease being contained.