Maybe we CAN count on containing Iran

February 7, 2014

It is unclear to me what Dr. Abrams is calling for in his article, “Don’t count on containing Iran” (Weekly Standard, Feb 17). Is he suggesting that Kennan’s theory of containment didn’t work during the Cold War, so what we need to do with Iran is to use military force in proxy battles to beat back Iranian forces/proxies who are expanding Iran’s influence in the Middle East and to up the ante on “ideological warfare” against Iran?

In countering Iran’s alleged development of a nuclear weapon, I agree that Iran’s leaders may not be overly concerned about U.S. Government statements about “red lines” or that “Iran’s gaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable.” If a government makes overly dramatic statements that it doesn’t intend to back up, that does hurt one’s credibility. The issue isn’t that the theory of strategic deterrence isn’t valid with respect to dealing with Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, but that political leaders need to be more sensitive to the dynamics of deterrence – which include clearly communicating to one’s adversary, understanding their cultural values and risk calculus, and that deterrence isn’t an iron-clad guarantee against lower levels of conflict.

As for nuclear proliferation concerns in the Middle East, sure, it’s possible that other countries might seek out nuclear weapons as a deterrent against Iran. That’s a diplomatic challenge, but when you look at the countries in question, one has to ask, are they capable of generating a nuclear program and sustaining a nuclear weapons stockpile? This is not an inexpensive or casual decision. Does Dr. Abrams (and others) believe that there are not existing diplomatic approaches and consequences that can be levied to discourage such actions? I don’t believe that arms control efforts are perfect instruments to prevent proliferation, but they are part of the whole “DIME” approach to addressing nuclear weapon states.

I would suggest that people (on both sides of the political spectrum) fail when they look to the U.S.-Soviet competition during the Cold War an example as to whether nuclear deterrence “worked.” You can’t look at these second- and third-tier nuclear powers today in the same light as the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, given the numbers of nuclear weapons, conventional military capabilities, and political/economic factors. It’s like comparing watermelons to grapes. On the other hand, the Schelling theory of deterrence and compellence and Kennan’s theory of containment still have much to offer in discussing how nation-states grapple with strategic challenges such as nuclear weapons. Yes, we can deal with an Iranian nuclear weapon, if it ever comes to pass. Realist approaches that appropriately address nation-state security concerns offer a far better solution than idealist calls for direct conflict with Iran.

 

Al Mauroni is the Director of the U.S. Air Force Counterproliferation Center. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.

 

Image: Nanking2012, Creative Commons