Containment and deterrence are both easier said than done. To treat containment or deterrence simply as a rhetorical alternative to military action without making the preparations to conduct military strikes is not only irresponsible, but can also encourage Iranian aggression.
Any containment against a nuclear Iran would require more than a single battle group or air base. The United States and its allies would have to ring Iran with bases and pre-positioned military equipment. The cost involved would be tens of billions of dollars. While Obama and his surrogates are willing to talk about containment, the president appears unwilling to acknowledge the necessity to back up engagement with force. And yet, the history of containment shows that adversaries always test resolve. Should the Islamic Republic acquire nuclear weapons, it may feel itself immune from the consequences of the actions of its conventional, irregular, or proxy forces. Should Obama ignore violations of U.S. redlines, it would embolden Iranian aggression. Under such circumstances, military action would become not a possibility, but a probability.
What then about deterrence? Successful nuclear deterrence requires that the Iranian leadership prioritizes the lives of Iranian citizens above its geopolitical or ideological goals, and that the White House is willing to kill hundreds of thousands of Iranians should authorities in Tehran or their proxies ever use nuclear weapons. The president, however, is not. During his campaign for president, Obama criticized Sen. Hillary Clinton for declaring that the United States could "obliterate" Iran should the Islamic Republic use nuclear weapons. After such a reaction, neither the Supreme Leader nor any of his senior advisors believes Obama willing to pull the retaliatory trigger.
Still, realists suggest that Mutually Assured Destruction worked. They should reread history. Deterrence almost broke down on several occasions, bringing the United States and Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war: The Berlin crisis, Cuban missile crisis, and Korean Air 007 shoot down each nearly escalated beyond control. Simply put, the world got lucky, and that was with only two main nuclear powers: Any Iranian bomb would trigger a cascade of proliferation that would lead to half a dozen if not more nuclear Middle Eastern states.
Blame for Washington’s inability to stymie Iran’s nuclear progress should be bipartisan. The Clinton administration failed to recognize that the Islamic Republic’s lofty rhetoric of a dialogue of civilizations was cover for its drive to attain nuclear weapons capability. Tehran seized upon the incoherence of Bush administration policy to further develop capability. It did not take Iranian analysts long—usually no longer than the next interview with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage or Undersecretary of State Bill Burns—to conclude Bush’s rhetoric to be empty. Barack Obama entered office determined to engage, only to have his efforts encourage Iranian defiance rather than retard it.
Rather than gear strategy to prevent the Islamic Republic’s nuclear advancement, the Obama administration appears instead to acquiesce to contain or deter and Iranian bomb. Both former CENTCOM commander Gen. John Abizaid and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argue that the United States can contain or deter a nuclear Iran. On July 21, 2008, for example, Abizaid said, "I don't believe Iran is a suicide state Deterrence will work with Iran."
Failure to acknowledge the cost of containment suggests either a lack of White House seriousness if not incompetence. Operation Ernest Will, the Reagan administration’s reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers, lasted slightly over a year, and involved a relatively minor deployment to the Persian Gulf of an aircraft carrier, four destroyers, a guided missile cruiser, three frigates, and several smaller boats. The Pentagon has never acknowledged a price tag, but the operation easily cost several hundred million dollars. On the first day of operation, the reflagged supertanker Bridgeton hit a mine, the first of four mine strikes that month. After a mine crippled the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts, the Pentagon launched Operation Praying Mantis in which U.S. forces struck Iranian oil platforms. This hints at another aspect of containment: The strategy only works if Washington is ready to resort to kinetic action to support it. Reagan was.
George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton faced a similar dilemma when containing Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi leader’s unwillingness to abide by Security Council Resolutions sparked the creation of a no-fly zone above the 36th parallel in Iraq. The U.S. Air Force patrolled and defended this zone for over a decade at the cost of several billion dollars. When Saddam tested U.S. resolve, Clinton did not hesitate to order strikes on Iraqi targets.
And, while an ideological clash drove the Cold War, neither Moscow nor Washington believed the other side to be suicidal. The Islamic Republic ascribes to a value set far different than our own. Iranians may not be suicidal, but the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who would have custody over Iran’s nuclear program may be far more willing to absorb mass death. As dangerous, should the regime collapse because of its own internal fissures, Revolutionary Guardsmen—their backs against the wall and only a day away from a firing squad—may feel they can launch a first strike without consequence, for no Western government would retaliate against Iran after it had already undergone regime change.
It may be comforting to believe that the United States can contain or deter Tehran’s worst ambitions but, absent any preparation to do so, the White House instead emboldens the Islamic Republic. It is trendy to talk about oil as the cause of war in the Middle East or, perhaps, a future water shortage. In reality, every war in the Middle East has as a common variable the aggressor’s overconfidence. Under such circumstances, therefore, it is curious that by his obsequiousness and by treating containment and deterrence more as rhetorical than expensive military strategies, Obama is willing to pour fuel on the fire.