Thursday, November 6, 2008

Boxed In: Containing a Nuclear Iran Part 1

 

by Michael Rubin

1st part of 2

Containment helped define US foreign policy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Inspired by a view of the USSR as expansionist and intractably opposed to capitalist states, containment was viewed as the most cost-effective method to prevent Soviet extension without resorting to cataclysmic war.

The policy was perhaps best described by George Kennan in his 1947 'X' article, in which he claimed "it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies."

Yet, although the X article was written about the idiosyncracies of the Soviet system, containment is not a policy necessarily specific to the unique characteristics of the Cold War. Many in Washington appear to currently view a similar policy as an option in its dealings with a very different but similarly ideologically opposed rival, namely Iran.

For the present, Washington's commitment to this policy remains partial, as other policies are pursued to prevent Iran gaining a nuclear capability, and hence containment is not a viable option. However, should other policies fail entirely, and Iran become emboldened in its foreign policy by a nuclear status, containment is likely to characterise the US' policy towards the Islamic Republic.

Why contain?

Containment, at present, appears the policy option most likely to be used should all other avenues fail to defuse the international stand-off over the Islamic Republic's uranium enrichment programme. Given the lack of success that has been forthcoming from other policies, including a new incentive package from the five permanent United Nations Security Council members plus Germany and Washington's decision to join direct discussions with Iran, to resolve the disagreements, the possibility of a focus on containment is increasing.

The containment policy would not seek to deter use of nuclear weapons by Iran or its allies. Washington believes itself able to deter Tehran from the use of nuclear weapons with its own advanced, extensive and secure nuclear arsenal. Rather, containment would attempt to prevent an Iran emboldened by nuclear weapons using its proxies or conventional forces in regional operations to extend the country's influence.

The range of possible regional operations is significant, largely owing to the unstable international politics of the Gulf region. Beyond the possible use of Iranian proxies in Iraq and Lebanon, three Persian Gulf islands disputed the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tonb islands – remain longstanding flashpoints. Moreover, Hossein Shariatmadari, appointed to the editorship of the hardline Iranian daily Kayhan by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, raised regional anxiety with a 9 July 2007 editorial suggesting that the island nation of Bahrain should, after almost five centuries of separation, return to Iranian control, while the member states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar), remain concerned about Iranian statements over Tehran's ability to close the Strait of Hormuz.

This does not demonstrate that such conflict is likely, nor that Tehran harbours expansionist tendencies or an irrepressible desire for expeditionary operations, but it does reflect a clear range of possible conflict areas in the region.

Given these scenarios, it is unsurprising that the US might seek to rely on a strategy that underlay US strategy during the Cold War. To succeed in an Iranian context, any containment would necessarily rely on three factors: troop deployments and US basing overseas, weapons sales to countries surrounding Iran, and diplomatic alliances. However, political constraints, regional sensitivities and concern over dealing with some regional regimes are all hindering US preparations for a containment strategy, and hence Washington's ability to enforce containment is currently limited.

Base desires

In terms of US basing, there is already a demonstrable trend towards containment. US forces surround Iran, with a total of approximately 250,000 troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, the six GCC states and Turkey. Although President Bush announced a drawdown of 8,000 troops from Iraq on 9 September, he simultaneously outlined an increase of 4,500 personnel in Afghanistan, demonstrating that even as the Iraq deployment winds down amid domestic pressure, Washington remains militarily committed to the region around Iran.

However, while these operations appear to field a formidable aggregate force, in reality the majority of these troops are already engaged in operations related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moreover, many of the facilities used by the US are both temporary in nature and subject to rigorous political control by regional states. Because the US presence in Saudi Arabia became a rally point for Islamist militants, for example, the Kuwaiti government imposed strict regulations on the movement of US military personnel stationed in their country. US troops, for example, are not allowed to visit tourist sites or markets in Kuwait except on periodic, escorted group tours. The Kuwaiti government also designates portions of Camp Arifjan as temporary and insists that when US forces depart, no trace of their presence should remain. In practice, this means that US officers must spend weeks engaging the Kuwaiti bureaucracy if they wish to do so much as pave a road through their tent city.

Similarly, while the US military and Oman maintain a fa├žade of co-operation, the Omani leadership undermined US confidence in its reliability when, at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, it withheld permission for several days for the US Air Force to conduct operations against the Taliban from airfields on Omani territory because of its desire to preserve the appearance of neutrality in a fight involving co-religionists.

Qatar's importance to the US has grown since the 1995 palace coup that installed Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa ath-Thani. Al-Ubeid today is perhaps the most important US base in the region, but it alone cannot alone sustain a containment strategy. Nor does any containment mission have the depth provided by active Saudi participation. Most US military departed Prince Sultan Air Base, 80 kilometers south of Riyadh, only five years ago, leaving facility maintenance and upgrade in the hands of Saudi officials whose standards may not be up to US military requirements.

Beyond the GCC, given its extensive frontier, Iraq would be vital in any containment of Iran. However, while many members of US Congress support containment of Iran as an alternative to military action, their opposition to upgrading US facilities inside Iraq — such as the Kirkuk and Tallil Air Bases — has undercut the implementation of the containment policy they claim to support. Protracted US-Iraq negotiations over the Status of Forces Agreement has also hampered any containment strategy and muted most debate among defence planners and within the US Congress with regard to the wisdom of permanent bases inside Iraq. While the US and Iraq are likely to agree ultimately on a continued US presence, at least until 2011, the expected gradual drawdown of troops, likely to be hastened should Barack Obama win the US elections, suggests that the ability to effect containment will also gradually diminish.

Another Iranian neighbour, Turkey, could be another vital lynchpin in any US containment strategy, particularly given its membership of NATO. Yet, few US officials presently consider Turkey as a reliable ally in times of regional conflict, primarily owing to the ruling Justice and Development Party's refusal to join the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the sensitivity of 2007 negotiations over renewal of the US lease of portions of Incirlik Air Base, near Adana. In the latter example, the key question about renewal regarded Ankara's demand that it could veto missions originating from the facility, especially as they might regard Iraq and Iran. Recent Turkish overtures toward Iran and the Turkish government's unwillingness to join sanctions against the Islamic Republic have further heightened US concern. While the upper reaches of the Turkish General Staff may still be pro-American, no US planner relies on Turkey as a keystone in containment of Iran.

Finally, Pakistan, bordering Iran to the east, while long a nominal US ally will not participate actively in containment of Iran for reasons of its own instability, its orientation to counter perceived threats from India, and its involvement in Afghanistan.

 

Michael Rubin

 

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

 

 

1 comment:

Email :- said...

That was a great read.

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