The Costs of Containing Iran

I flag these two stories to illustrate the difficulties involved in a containment strategy for Iran based on sanctions and isolation, in the absence of any real international sense of urgency or outrage over their nuclear program. The result is often a curious ambivalence where countries pay lip service, on the one hand, to the ostracization demanded by the U.S., while at the same time quietly carrying out their day to day business with Tehran. In this case it’s Turkey, which has too many points of overlap to seriously consider shunning its neighbor (among them security concerns about Kurdish guerillas in the mountains of northern Iraq), but also can’t afford the consequences of being on the wrong side of American sanctions.

I was a pretty strong advocate for a third round of U.N. sanctions in February, mainly for their political value coming at a time (following the NIE) when there was a real risk that international opposition to Iran’s nuclear program would unravel. It was a stance based upon a “game within the game” analysis, and I think the sanctions actually served that purpose. But I don’t think we can count on them in the long run, even with the EU signing on more forcefully. It’s more likely that sanctions are going to build up latent resentment towards the U.S. among the people whose arms we’re twisting to go along with them before they ever exert the kind of pressure on Iran that will force it to change its negotiating stance.

Which means that we’ve got to find a pivot. All the logic points to a waiting game until the next administration, but oddly enough, amidst the volley of charges over Iranian meddling in Iraq, there have also been some indications of diplomatic feelers being made. There’s an eerie calm combined with low expectations, which could be a propitious time for a bold move. While it’s unlikely anything significant could be accomplished, it could go a long way towards getting the next administration closer to a resolution.

More World Politics Review