Photo: Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service (EEAS) Enrique Mora and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani wait for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA Joint Commission in Vienna, Austria November 29, 2021. (credit: EU DELEGATION IN VIENNA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Published in the Jerusalem Post on December 13, 2021.

Prof. Hal Brands, writing in The Wall Street Journal, makes a case for a strategy of containment against China, as George Kennan advocated with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

It got me thinking: If America does not have the will, and Israel determines that it does not have the means to stop Iran’s march to nuclear weapons capabilities, is containment a possible strategy with a nuclear Iran?

Containment would mean economic sanctions and military actions against Iranian expansionism, short of attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities.

This month Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns said the CIA “doesn’t see any evidence that Iran’s supreme leader has made a decision to move to weaponize.”

Are we to think that enriching to 60% has a civilian use? The same CIA never knew about Iran’s secret enrichment facility in Fordow and claimed that Iran had stopped weaponization in 2007. 

This is important because it is likely that Iran will walk up to, but not cross, the threshold for a nuclear weaponization program, knowing that it can hoodwink the West into claiming it has not joined the nuclear club.

Israel, however, has a different red line of nuclear weapons capabilities, which Iran is fast approaching. Threshold status would likely not garner American support for an Israeli preemptive strike, which is why the issue of containment becomes relevant, as the West will advocate it.

Of course, this is not ideal. But after speaking with some leading Israeli military and political thinkers who said it might be too late to change Iran’s nuclear trajectory, or that Israel could live with a nuclear Iran, I started to think about what Iranian containment would entail.

If Israel’s security cabinet concludes that it is too late in the game to stop Iran, could a grand bargain with the US come into place? That would encompass everything from putting Israel under America’s nuclear umbrella to giving Israel the means to attack Iran’s deeply buried nuclear facilities. However, there is no guarantee Congress would go along.

In other words, can Israel and Iran develop an uneasy Cold War where Israel continues to strike at sites of Iran’s hegemonic march into Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen but leaves Iranian nuclear facilities untouched? Could each side accept the unofficial rules of a Persian-Israeli Cold War without turning it into a nuclear conflagration? Is the totalitarian communist mindset of the 20th century that made a Cold War possible similar enough to the authoritarian Islamist regime of Twelver Shi’ism with its apocalyptic visions?

In the US-Soviet Cold War, both came to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis, but on the whole, they fought a 45-year conflict through proxy battles, most notably in Vietnam and Korea. Containment eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union by economic means as part of the Reagan strategy to bankrupt the decaying Soviet Union.

But can maximum primary and secondary sanctions over decades, assuming the West has the staying power, cause the Islamic Republic of Iran to fall like the Soviet Union? 

How often have you heard defenders of the JCPOA make the case that sanctions against Iran have not worked? That is true if your time frame is less than a decade. But what if your time frame is open-ended, as it was between the US and the Soviet Union? It took 45 years for the Soviet Union to collapse. A case can be made that a third-rate Islamic regime under onerous sanctions could implode much sooner. The people of Iran have shown their displeasure with the government, and many analysts believe the Iranian people are Western-oriented, if given a chance. 

Although it is a dirty word, regime change happens when odious regimes fall. 

A containment strategy is fraught with risks. But is the risk of striking Iran’s nuclear sites less problematic than containment? Most Israeli experts with whom I have spoken do believe Israel has the means and will to stop the Iranian program. But once Iran has 90% enrichment, would Israel still hit those facilities?

Suppose Israel wants to avoid hitting Iranian sites with nuclear material. In that case, it could focus its attacks on the compartmentalization parts of Iran’s weaponization program, which, unlike enrichment, are one to two years away from placing a functioning nuclear device on a warhead. Cyber and sabotage, not airstrikes, could continue to inhibit the uranium enrichment process enough without a kinetic strike at Fordow or Natanz, avoiding the possibility of releasing nuclear material and enraging the international community.

This is part of the international case for containment over a military option.

Every option would work better, if there were an international consensus on sanctions, with the will to enforce them.

Will the US and its allies resurrect the sanctions regime, if Iran walks away from the JCPOA? Call it containment or restraint on a predatory international actor, but it would work only if secondary sanctions are enforced on countries that help Iran evade sanctions. For example, China needs to be sanctioned for buying Iranian oil, keeping the regime afloat to suppress its people and threaten its neighbors. Is that going to happen?

As Brands explained, “The US waged and won a multigenerational struggle against an authoritarian rival [the Soviet Union].” That is what would be needed to contain Iran. Unfortunately, the likelihood of America and its allies maintaining stringent sanctions for decades is small. 

But in theory, could sanctions and military strikes against Iranian expansion contain Iran until it eventually implodes? 

Only if the time line is open-ended. Unfortunately, the patience needed for sanctions to work is lacking in the West.

Whether Iran goes nuclear or not, sanctions should remain in place on its human rights abuses and for it being the world’s No. 1 terrorist regime. Those sanctions should be equal or greater than the nuclear sanctions.

We might not be in this situation, were it not for America’s capitulation in 2015. Ali Vaez, the director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, said US president Barack Obama persuaded Iran to ultimately reach a deal because “he took regime change off the table” and “allowed [Iran] to enrich uranium on its own soil.”

Containment looks toward eventual regime change by the Iranian people, with the support of the West. Nothing was more counterproductive than Obama’s pointed lack of support for the Iranian people when they went into the streets by the millions during the 2009 Green Revolution to protest against the totalitarian regime controlling their lives. Regime change will be possible only if the Iranian people take the initiative.

To those who claim that speaking of regime change is warmongering: It is simply Western support for the Iranian people to take control of their lives, what democracies have always said when bad international actors torture and systematically repress and abuse their people.

So can containment work as a legitimate strategy? No one knows, but it could be the least bad choice, if Israel decides not to strike Iran’s nuclear program. But for it to even have a chance, maximal secondary sanctions need to be increased with convincing determination, and the Western impulse for quick solutions ended.

By mepin