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Containing a Nuclear Iran

Monday, March 15, 2010

It's reassuring to see my biggest concern about a nuclear Iran -- the dangers of a regional nuclear arms race -- articulated by Brent Scowcroft at the very end of this NY Times article on the potential shift in CW on the issue. The Times piece pivots off a much longer Foreign Affairs article by Ray Tayekh and James Lindsay, which I haven't had a chance to read in its entirety. Their three containment red lines, which the Times summarizes, seem well thought out:

They urge Mr. Obama to prescribe three explicit no-go zones for the Iranians: "no initiation of conventional warfare" against another nation; "no transfer of nuclear weapons, materials, or technologies"; no increase in support for terrorists. The penalty, they argued, would have to include "military retaliation by any and all means necessary," including the use of nuclear weapons.

The other problem with containment (which Tayekh and Lindsay may address in their article) is that it comes at a pretty bad time for such an ambitious effort. All the indicators these days point to the wisdom of a U.S. foreign policy of restraint, whereas this is the kind of project that demands a lengthy commitment of resources and political will. And if the first response from Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia is to go nuclear themselves, it could fatally undermine the credibility of the U.S. security guarantee needed for such an effort.

Having said all that, and in acknowledging that there are no good outcomes here short of a spontaneous shift in political will on the part of Tehran, I also think that the doomsday scenarios on both sides are a bit exagerrated. Tehran has some conventional and asymmetric deterrents to make an American or Israeli attack unattractive, but they are far from absolute (hence the desire for a nuclear capability). What's more, it's not an ironclad certainty the Iranians will unleash them, or that they will turn out to be so very crippling in the event the Iranians do.

By the same token, I'm not convinced that nuclear deterrence (i.e., containment) is the wisest formula for a region with such low trust and short flight times, not to mention the potential for multilateral (as opposed to bilateral) equations. But the much-feared regional rush to the bomb is also not an ironclad certainty, and the very existence of a multilateral nuclear deterrent could drive the creation of stabilizing institutional mechanisms for oversight and mediation.

Which is to say, there's no policy option that someone who has a realistic take on things can be very enthusiastic about. But my hunch is that after the strategic surprise wears off, we'll find some way to muddle through whatever it is that ends up happening.