Can Iran Be Contained?


Iran Enhances Enrichment of Uranium in Defiance of U.N.

August 10, 2010


Commentary online

Iran Cannot Be Contained

July/August 2010

By Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens is a deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page and the author of the paper’s Global View, a weekly column.


Iran has been waging war against Israel for decades via Hezbollah and Hamas. Iran also had a direct operational role in the bombings of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and of the Jewish community center there in 1994. The man chiefly responsible for the last of those attacks, Ahmad Vahidi, is today Iran’s defense minister.

Quietly within the foreign-policy machinery of the Obama administration—and quite openly in foreign-policy circles outside it—the idea is taking root that a nuclear Iran is probably inevitable and that the United States and its allies must begin to shift their attention from forestalling the outcome to preparing for its aftermath. According to this line of argument, the failure of the administration’s engagement efforts in 2009, followed by the likely failure of any effective sanctions efforts this year, allows for no other option but the long-term containment and deterrence of Iran, along the lines of the West’s policy toward the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. As for the possibility of a U.S. or an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, this is said to be no option at all: at best, say the advocates of containment, such strikes would merely delay the regime’s nuclear programs while giving it an alibi to consolidate its power at home and cause mayhem abroad.

But how sound, really, is the case for containment, and do its prospective benefits outweigh its probable risks? The matter deserves closer scrutiny before containment becomes the default choice of an administration that has foreclosed other options and run out of better ideas.

This essay deals with policy options and scenarios that still lie over the horizon. But a few final words ought to be devoted to what is within America’s power to do now. Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons. It may yet be prevented from getting them. Recognizing that a nuclear Iran would be catastrophic to U.S. interests (to say nothing of Israel’s) is the first step on the road to prevention. Recognizing that neither diplomacy nor, in all likelihood, sanctions can stop Iran’s nuclear bids is the second step. The serious options that remain are military strikes or efforts to support regime change.

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