Friday, February 09, 2007

Containing Iran

Much of diplomacy is routine business among nations, with the outcome of minor consequence. Miscalculations exact no more than a small cost. No nation, however, can completely avoid critical issues affecting its security or other vital interests. What neighboring countries and even some that are distant do may be high-stakes matters. The current world political agenda includes a formidable array of such issues, none more serious than how to deal with Iran. Iran is a headache for the United States, especially because of our failure in Iraq and convulsions throughout the Islamic world. It is of far greater consequence for Israel and Diaspora Jews who care about the Jewish state.

High-stakes diplomacy is largely guesswork, amalgams of estimates and assumptions, which is why foreign policy planners of similar background and outlook who examine the same set of facts and look at the same intelligence often come up with widely varying approaches. High stakes up the risk, without diminishing the guesswork. Planning about Iran incorporates the assumption that within two or three years it will have a nuclear capacity and therefore steps must be taken to destroy that which is in the making. If not destroyed, Israel will be in enormous peril. In last week's The New Republic, Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael B. Oren described "Israel's worst nightmare" in a long and pessimistic article that suggested the near-inevitability of an Israeli preventive strike against Iran.

This column was drafted before the Halevi/Oren article appeared and suggests a different tack. In advocating a policy of containment, I acknowledge that events may require a more aggressive approach.

Iran is bad news, thanks largely to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, its fanatic and evil president. His threats must be taken seriously. Israel must prepare for the worst, but Lebanon and Iraq have taught - or should have taught - the limits of military action and, more importantly, its dialectical nature and the prospect for collateral damage. Even if successful, attacking Iran may escalate other problems.

The issue therefore is not whether Iran is dangerous. It is whether policies aimed at containment are, at this point, preferable. Iran can be sharply challenged, economically and diplomatically, processes that have already begun, although admittedly they are undermined by the customary timidity and perfidy of America's European "allies" led by France and also challenged by Russia and China who see the possibility of gain from a U.S. confrontation with Iran. There are many in Iran, including parliament members and other influential people, who openly oppose Ahmadinejad. There is a decent prospect that containment can work, both to buy time and to provoke political and attitudinal changes within Iran.

Containment is a concept with an historic record and not merely a convenient term snatched out of the dictionary. We have the great example of this country's approach to the Soviet Union and Communism, starting from immediately after the Second World War and continuing until the collapse of the "Evil Empire" more than forty years later. The policy, articulated by George F. Kennan in an extraordinary communique from Moscow and then in the famous "Mister X" article in Foreign Affairs, worked. Containment encompassed the Marshall Plan, NATO, the Truman Doctrine and much else.

The prospect for containing Iran is compromised by America's spreading diplomatic isolation arising from Iraq, with nearly all other world players marching to their own drummer, and also by the madness infecting more than a marginal sector of Islam. Yet, there was far more to fear about the Soviet Union than there is to fear about Iran. It was a huge totalitarian state with a large nuclear arsenal and was led in the critical post-War years by a murderous tyrant who was directly responsible for the deaths of millions of his countrymen. The Soviet Union stretched across eight-million square miles, apart from its authoritarian satellites, including Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Albania, a large chunk of Germany and, for a while, Yugoslavia. There were powerful Communist parties subservient to Moscow in Italy and France. By 1948, China was Communist and both totalitarian and stridently anti-American. Soon enough, Manchuria, Mongolia and half of Korea were red states.

This was scary stuff and it lasted for a long while. We ought not forget or discount the danger. Should we forget that for years the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists featured on its cover page a clock showing that it was one minute to midnight away from nuclear disaster? The point is that containment worked, especially because in authoritarian regimes and under conditions of modern communications, internal change is inevitable. Admittedly, Islam is a far more dangerous force than Communism was and Communism was dangerous. I expect that the lifespan of irredentist and fanatical Islam will extend far beyond the seventy years allotted to Soviet Communism. But Iran is no USSR or, for that matter, China, not by a long-shot.

Emphasis should be placed on containment, on increasing economic pressure on Iran. There is evidence that this pressure is working, that despite its oil income Iran is experiencing serious economic disabilities, resulting in unrest and opposition to Ahmadinejad. He may enjoy the embrace of Chavez, the wannabe Venezuelan dictator, and Cuba's Castro who soon won't be. In much of the world, he is already a pariah.

Because all high-stakes diplomacy is a risk, whatever path is taken is largely the product of guesswork. The U.S. or Israel can bomb Iran and perhaps destroy whatever nuclear capacity it has, but this would stir up a hornet's nest of problems in the Middle East and probably elsewhere. Containment may mean that Iran develops a modest nuclear capacity. It gives Israel the opportunity to pursue remarkable diplomatic possibilities, including in its relationships with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan and perhaps even Syria. These countries are far from celebrating what is occurring in Iran.