Could the U.S. Win a Cold War With Iran?

Washington Matters

Could the U.S. Win a Cold War With Iran?

The Geneva talks over Iran's nuclear program ended on what might be described as a hopeful note. Iran's recently revealed secret uranium enrichment site near Qom will be opened to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors within two weeks. The P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) are working out a deal that will allow Iran to import some low-enriched uranium to use for power generation. Negotiations are set to pick up again within the month.

Given the heated rhetoric out of Tehran in recent days, capped by a provocative spate of missile tests, there were plenty of reasons to expect the Geneva talks to end in deadlock. But what did happen can hardly be called a major breakthrough. The Qom inspections will follow the basic procedure applied to all signatories of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), rather than the much more intrusive regimen the U.S., UK and France have been demanding. Nor was any freeze agreed to. The Western powers will likely hold off their push for a fresh round of UN sanctions until at least after the next round of talks, but Tehran will continue enriching uranium--which the regime loudly claims as a sovereign right.

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Its negotiators' softer tone aside, Iran may still be more interested in buying time to continue developing its nuclear weapons capacity, rather than genuinely engaging with the West. Since Iran's presidential election June 12, virtually every Iranian decisionmaker who favored such engagement has been purged from the government. Those left in control are the hardest of the hard-liners: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (not necessarily in that order).

The problem, as always, is what to do if the negotiations fail? The popular response under discussion was a set of measures that would block Iranian imports of refined petroleum. Despite Iran's massive crude oil reserves, its refining capacity falls far short of its needs. But Russia seems to be backing off earlier hints it would be willing to impose new sanctions on Iran, while China is openly saying it would oppose such penalties. Both have the power to cripple such efforts. It's not just a matter of exercising their vetoes over UN Security Council resolutions. If the U.S. and Western Europe decided to stop selling refined petroleum products to Iran on their own, Russia and China could make up much of the shortfall.


In any event, Tehran is willing to accept a lot of economic pain in the name of national security. Right now, the regime's top security priorities are ensuring its own survival and obtaining nuclear weapons. Every indication is that they see those goals as indistinguishable.

The use of force is a daunting but real alternative. Most likely, it would come in the form of Israeli or U.S. airstrikes or a U.S.-led naval blockade. The worry is that such attacks would create more problems than they would solve. Iran would retaliate through their proxies around the region. That would not only mean Hezbollah and Hamas strikes on Israel, but also attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan by Revolutionary Guard-backed insurgents. U.S. Arab allies around the Persian Gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, could expect Iranian-supported uprisings among their Shiite minorities.

Even if Iranian nuclear facilities were completely destroyed, the result would be a setback to Iranian nuclear ambitions, not an end. Tehran would most likely redouble its efforts to get the bomb.

If neither diplomacy, nor sanctions nor military action are likely to keep Iran from getting the bomb, what's left? One possibility is a strategy familiar to those old enough to remember the Cold War: containment. Make it clear to Iran that if it insists on having the bomb, it will pay a heavy price. Just what that price would be is still far from clear. Policymakers in Washington haven't yet given the option a great deal of thought. The components would likely involve some form of additional sanctions, aimed more at inflicting long-term debilitation than immediate pain.


Other aspects might include more robust support for Iran's domestic political opposition. After nearly four months of government crackdowns, that opposition has emerged as a legitimate force, with support crossing all boundaries of Iranian society. The trick is how to support the movement without playing into the regime's hands.

Regardless of the means, the aim of an Iran containment policy would be much the same as George Kennan's 1947 plan for containing the Soviet Union: Isolate the regime until it weakens and dies from its own internal contradictions. With Iran, this could work much sooner than it did with the USSR. That country's regime had just received a tremendous new lease on life, thanks to its hard-won victory over the Nazi invaders. Thanks to the June coup, the Islamic Republic no longer has any such legitimacy. Sooner or later, it will fall.  When it does, whatever replaces it is likely to be far less of a threat to the U.S. and to its neighbors, even if it does have the bomb.