Harvard professor and Foreign Policy blogger Stephen Walt published an interesting piece last Friday raising objections to the containment argument for Iran. Responding to an article in Foreign Affairs by Ray Takeyh and James M. Lindsay titled “After Iran Gets the Bomb” (a shorter version appeared as an op-ed in the Washington Post), Walt offers seven rebuttals to the containment argument proposed by Takeyh and Lindsay:
1) First, [Takeyh’s and Lindsay’s] depiction of a swaggering Iran armed with nuclear weapons grossly overstates Iran’s actual capabilities. According to the IISS Military Balance, Iran’s military budget in 2008 was around $9.5 billion dollars (less than 2 percent of U.S. defense outlays) and Iran’s actual capabilities reflects this paltry investment.
2) Second, Lindsey and Takeyh misunderstand the sources of U.S. credibility. The United States has been actively engaged in Persian Gulf security for decades, because Persian Gulf oil is a vital U.S. national interest. That vital interest won’t change no matter what happens in Iran, which is why our local allies can count on us to back them up. The reason is simple: it is in our own self-interest.
3) Third, they overstate Iran’s capacity to subvert or blackmail its neighbors. Iran’s capacity to export its version of Islamic fundamentalism has declined steadily since the 1979 revolution (and it wasn’t very great back then), and the regime is a far less attractive model today than it was under the more charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini.
4) Fourth, fears that Iran will give weapons or technology to terrorists are even more far-fetched. One cannot rule out the possibility that Iran might share nuclear technology with a few other governments (much as Pakistan did), but there are good reasons to doubt it. Among other things, it is hard to believe that Iran would want to see more countries get nuclear weapons, especially in its own region.
5) Fifth, Lindsay and Takeyh’s redlines are too vague and elastic. The United States is already committed to opposing conventional aggression in the Gulf region (unless we’re the ones doing it, of course), and U.S. leaders have already made it clear that they will respond to blackmail or nuclear use as well. As Lindsay and Takeyh acknowledge, the United State remains a powerful presence in the Gulf region today and will stay there long after the withdrawal from Iraq is completed. In short, the essential ingredients of containment are already in place.
6) Sixth, a hair-trigger, forward-leaning approach to containment will give Iran an obvious incentive to acquire a deterrent of its own. No matter how much they hedge, Lindsay and Takeyh are announcing to the world that Iran’s acquisition of a small nuclear capability at some point in the future would have significant positive effects on its regional position.
7) Seventh…Lindsay and Takeyh never consider the one approach that might actually have some small chance of heading off an Iranian bomb. That approach would be to take the threat of regime change and preventive war off the table and accept Iran’s enrichment program-on the strict condition that it ratifies and implements all elements of the NPT Additional Protocol. At the same time, the United States would engage in serious and sincere discussions about a range of regional security matters, including a public U.S. guarantee to forego regime change.
Professor Walt offers some interesting rebuttals. This positive exchange between competent scholars who happen to disagree will only serve to promote a prudent foreign policy towards Iran.
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