Containment by Other Means

When reading an article by Yousaf Butt I was struck by his concluding sentence: “A quick word from Obama in Catherine Ashton’s ear, and we could all look forward to a slow waltz between Jalili and Ashton at their next meeting.” Slow waltz–I found that to be a perfect descriptor of Washington’s bumbling, foot-dragging diplomatic process concerning the contrived Iranian nuclear controversy. It’s undoubtedly true that once the administration feels like seriously engaging Iran this rigamarole of negotiations could be wrapped up in a fortnight. But this sudden opening up on the U.S.’s part would signal not the beginning of the dancing session but its end. This dance is following choreography set by the U.S. which is leading the steps and Iran is eager to escape its partner’s embrace and cut a deal. Indeed, as Butt makes clear, all of the accusations and sanctions leveled against Iran are baseless and the U.S. must know this so why have international talks at all?

Iran has to be made to look like a suspicious, underhanded character—a ‘rogue nation’—so the U.S. doesn’t find a reason to stop demonizing the mullahs and makes nice with them instead. The thought of this petrifies the Israeli government and so they have to exaggerate the nature of Iran’s nuclear activities and threaten to unilaterally bomb Iranian nuclear plants so as to keep international pressure on their regional rival. The U.S., for its part, has its own interests in hobbling Iran and, even if there were no Israeli insistence, would still support some form of sanctions against the country just not over the nuclear issue. One reason, articulated by the Vice President himself, is to take the eyes of the international community off of Washington’s misdeeds.

As Joe Biden told the Rabbinical Assembly’s annual convention last year, “When we took office, let me remind you, there was virtually no international pressure on Iran. We were the problem, we were diplomatically isolated in the world, in the region, in Europe. We were neither fully respected by our friends nor feared by our opponents. Today it is starkly, starkly different.” In brief, Iran must be diplomatically isolated so that the U.S. is not the one in the hot seat, reviled by most of the world. Biden may as well have said that the Obama administration felt it had to distract the world from the U.S.occupation of Iraq and so dusted off the unsettled Iran matter and began making a sensationalist case out of it. A petty reason, to be sure, for inflicting on the Iranian people the toughest sanctions ever imposed, but avoiding international invective isn’t the whole story.

As I’ve written before, the U.S. is willing to settle the Iran nuclear issue because–after waiting long to do so–it yearns to pivot towards the Pacific. Just how desirous is the U.S. to pivot? The New York Times’ Mark Landler is convinced that it’s the unseen force that drove the President to announce and implement his new national security policy. Though “Left unsaid” in Obama’s speech on Thursday, Landler writes, the pivot “was one of the biggest motivations for his new focus,” adding that such a strategic shift “is a dream that has tempted presidents for a generation.” Landler apparently got the message which was hinted at by the speech’s author, Benjamin Rhodes, who commented afterwards “We’d like to leave office with a foreign policy that is not unnecessarily consumed with a militia controlling a piece of desert.” The administration is determined to pivot but there is some tidying up to do around the region beforehand—that’s where containment comes in.

The groundwork is already being laid for containing Iran. Recognizing that there’s an “unknown” new order emerging in the Middle East, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told a crowd from WINEP, “A common thread woven into the Middle East fabric is that the most enduring and effective solutions to the challenges facing the region are political, not military.” Hagel is admitting that diplomacy is the sole solution for preventing a nuclear Iran since it has always been obvious that the military option would be downright counter-productive. In time Obama will have to stop the charade, snap his fingers, and conclude the nuclear deal. But since that deal won’t lead to détente, Iran will remain a foe and so heavily arming our regional allies and organizing them into an alliance—a “moderate crescent”—will be required to check the Islamic Republic.

So the U.S.’s attitude towards Iran isn’t one of genuine antagonism. In the end, it’s nothing too personal, just business—all part of a Cold War aimed at China and U.S. global hegemony in general. Containment won’t be without its problems. For one thing, it will cost handsomely though one would think that for Washington D.C.—a place where as a rule spending soars ever higher—that wouldn’t be problematic. Also in exchange for having their inalienable right to nuclear enrichment under the NPT restricted Iran could periodically ask for various favors from the West or ignite a new dispute. Thus, as Gregory Koblentz at the National Interest sums up the dilemma, “Like many foreign-policy challenges facing the United States—from Syria to North Korea—there are no good options for dealing with Iran.” And yet it’s not so–there are a couple of available options.

One is to create the Nuclear Weapons Free Zone for the Middle East that Iran and Egypt among others have been calling for. The other is to do nothing–to not bother with containing Iran at all–because Iran has no intention of building a nuclear arsenal. The more we stand down the better because it’s the threat of attack that’s causing Tehran to even contemplate green-lighting a weapons program. This more laid-back posture could be called containment by other means.