Just as we confront the sudden current challenges in Ukraine, an analysis of the ongoing confrontation with Iran over its nuclear strategies appears to highlight both the possibilities and limits of negotiations in crisis.
Kenneth Pollack’s new book, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy (Simon and Schuster, 2013), points at both the dilemmas and the options confronting the United States and its allies in dealing with a country intent on pursuing a goal that America has declared it should not reach. Pollack lays out the stark choice—to contain a nuclear Iran or go to war to prevent one from happening. He chooses containment.
He argues that Iran is looking primarily for a breakout capability to manufacture a nuclear weapon—if not securing the weapon itself. He also paints pictures of the competing scenarios beyond containment including the military options and declares three dimensions containment are more promising: containing nuclear capacity, restraining the ability to weaponize, and facilitating domestic attitudinal changes toward the United States. Pollack argues that with a coordinated approach—meaning with other partners—Iran can be steered away from igniting a proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region.
Pollack identifies the containment policy of the Cold War period as much more challenging than what would be needed with contemporary Iran and argues that Iran has far less capability to project power beyond its borders than the Soviet Union did. That said, Iran already has the capacity to help destabilize other countries in the region—even without nuclear weapons.
Pollack believes Iran’s nuclear capacity can be contained below weaponization levels, that Israel can be reassured it is secure, and that other countries in the region will not need their own nuclear arsenals. This course of action will require enormous U.S. investment, including maintaining a strong presence in the region as well as keeping deterrent tools ready.
It will also require an orchestration of policy with Europe and countries in the Middle East. Pollack does not delineate how that can be achieved. In fact, he devoted very few paragraphs to the EU’s role in this effort even though the United States will need to engage its closest allies if it is to be successful. Perhaps he is skeptical of that resource. But, it is important for Washington to know who it can rely on in the critical negotiations ahead, and Germany is one of those partners.
He also admits that his recipe may not work, but at the end, he argues that containment has worked well in the past several decades and that it should be given a chance now. Despite the aspersions cast at the concept of containment as equal to appeasement, Pollack believes it is more advantageous than other alternatives. He also draws occasionally on the experiences the United States had in Iraq, which he says “should make us more humble when contemplating our actions toward Iran.”
In connection with other crises around the globe, Pollack suggests the Cold War reminded us that “allowing highly unlikely and catastrophically bad scenarios to drive our planning, spending, and decision-making was ruinously wasteful, and dangerously distorted policy made us all less safe rather than more.”
Dealing with Iran—or now with an equally dangerous Putin in Moscow—will require that we face decisions that keep all our policy choices open but are also clear about their consequences, whatever they may be.
The book underscores the dilemma of policymakers who need to choose—and can draw only somewhat from the ideas and experiences that informed their predecessors—for better or for worse.