Decades after his seminal "X" essay was published in these pages in 1947, the acclaimed U.S. diplomat George Kennan continued to lament the fact that his call for political containment of the Soviet Union had been interpreted primarily as a military strategy. "I found it easy to convince [my higher-ups] that this was a very dangerous group of men," he recalled in 1996. "But I couldn't persuade them that their aspirations were political. . . . And not military. They were not like Hitler."
Eric Edelman, Andrew Krepinevich, and Evan Montgomery offer a strategy for deterring Iran that focuses heavily on military containment but ignores the internal and regional dynamics that have fostered Iran's rise. Given that Tehran's ascent in the Middle East is due chiefly to its political influence and support for client militias, not its military prowess, their strategy addresses only half the equation. The other, arguably more important half is a multifaceted political containment strategy that aims to dilute Tehran's influence abroad and strengthen moderate forces within Iran.
Although its precise intentions remain unclear, Iran is by all accounts at least a few years away from being able to develop a nuclear weapon. Before that day comes, Edelman, Krepinevich, and Montgomery warn, the United States should not feel sanguine about the prospects of containing a nuclear-armed Iran. An "increasingly aggressive" Tehran, the authors argue, would likely intimidate its neighbors into accommodation, diminish U.S. influence and prestige in the Middle East, and cause a dangerous nuclear proliferation domino effect. To address this threat, they propose reverting to a three-pronged strategy that has more or less been the hallmark of U.S. policy toward Iran since 1979: diplomacy and sanctions, clandestine action, and an increased U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf.
The first two strategies are already being applied, with greater than anticipated success. The Obama administration's unreciprocated attempts at engagement have exposed Tehran's intransigence, accentuated Iran's deep internal divides, and created an unprecedented degree of international cooperation to counter its nuclear program. Although the combination of robust international sanctions and high-tech sabotage has not curtailed Iran's nuclear ambitions, it has delayed their realization.
The analysis provided by Edelman and his co-authors suggests that the third strategy -- beefing up U.S. deterrence capacity in the Persian Gulf -- is unlikely to be effective. They explain that Cold War-style military deterrence will probably not work with Iran because the balance of power in the region is less stable, Arab governments are unlikely to welcome more U.S. troops, and the United States' commitment to protecting the Middle East is weaker than its Cold War commitment to Europe.
Despite these reservations, they propose sending in more submarines, weapons, and bombers and worry that the United States has insufficient nuclear weapons and missile defenses to defend its allies against Iran and other threats. Considering Iran's overwhelming military inferiority, such concerns appear misguided.
The recently ratified New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as New START, still allows the United States to maintain an arsenal of over 1,500 nuclear weapons -- "enough nuclear warheads," noted U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), "to blow any attacker to kingdom come." Furthermore, Iran's military budget is less than two percent of the United States' and less than a quarter of that of its main regional rival, Saudi Arabia. In 2009, General David Petraeus, then the commander of the U.S. Central Command, matter-of-factly claimed that even the United Arab Emirates' much smaller air force could swiftly "take out the entire Iranian Air Force," given the former's superior U.S.-made aircraft.
Recent experience also suggests that enhancing the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf is unlikely to rein in Iran. Not long ago, Tehran faced over 180,000 U.S. combat troops on its borders, two U.S. aircraft carriers looming in the Persian Gulf, and consistent threats of military action from senior officials in the George W. Bush administration. And it was during this period that Iran was at its most defiant and made its greatest nuclear strides.
As the authors themselves point out, the most likely danger from Iran is not a direct conventional or nuclear strike against its neighbors but rather its support for terrorism and subversion. Through its client militias and ideological sympathizers abroad, Iran can undermine governments with vastly superior armies, as evidenced by the United States' experience in Iraq. Iran's popular appeal in the Middle East is greatest in times of tumult, political disaffection, and economic marginalization, which Iranian leaders unfailingly attribute to U.S. and Israeli policies in the region.
The festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iraq war, and the 2006 Israeli bombing of Lebanon have created receptive audiences for Iran's ideology. These events, which have often been accompanied by increases in oil prices, have given Tehran prime opportunities to win political influence by providing petrodollar largess and reconstruction assistance to downtrodden communities.
A Middle East Marshall Plan
What is lacking in the Middle East is not an influx of high-tech weaponry but more effective measures to diminish Iran's appeal and financial potency. Kennan's lesson that the Cold War was more a political than a military battle is instructive. Despite their many differences, the Soviet Union and contemporary Iran display some similar traits. Like the Soviet Union was, Iran is a deeply dysfunctional authoritarian regime whose bankrupt ideology resonates far more abroad than it does at home. As was the case with the men who once ruled Moscow, the legitimacy of Iran's leaders hinges in part on their opposition to the United States. Although Iran's global power and influence are nowhere near those of the Soviet Union in its heyday, Tehran sees itself as engaged in a fierce competition with the United States for the future of the Middle East -- in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, and the Persian Gulf.
At the beginning of the Cold War, Kennan believed that the greatest danger facing Europe was not the Red Army but rather the postwar economic and social deterioration, which created fertile ground for domestic communists. In response, he helped create the Marshall Plan.
Despite the profound differences in culture and context, a somewhat analogous situation can be found in today's Middle East, where economic marginalization, political alienation, and social malaise help fuel religious radicalism and enhance the appeal of both the Iranian regime and its clients. Although its precise implementation would differ from that of the original Marshall Plan, a Marshall Plan for the Middle East would be built on the same philosophy: the goal would be to more effectively contend with Iran's supply of ideological radicalism by attempting to mitigate popular demand for it. The most obvious policy prescriptions for weakening Iran and diluting its regional appeal -- an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and a sharp reduction in oil prices -- are long-standing challenges. Attempts to reduce Israeli-Palestinian tension and U.S. reliance on fossil fuels would undermine Iran's political standing in the Middle East in a way that military aid to autocratic Arab leaders cannot.
As was the case with the Soviet Union, the Iranian regime's international profile is rising just as the country's internal decay appears to be accelerating. The contested 2009 presidential election and subsequent large-scale protests revealed Iran's deep-seated popular discontent and internal divisions. Although Washington's ability to facilitate political reform in Iran is limited, there are important measures the U.S. government can take to constrain Tehran's ability to repress and censor its population and help Iranian moderates help themselves. Such measures should include dramatically improving the quality and reception of the Voice of America's Persian News Network (which is estimated to reach over 20 million Iranians), combating the regime's ability to control and block communications, and implementing further targeted sanctions -- such as travel bans and asset freezes -- against human rights abusers.
Although supporting domestic reform is a difficult and delicate game, there could arguably be no greater guarantor of U.S. security in the Middle East than a representative Iranian government that put national interests ahead of ideological ones. As Henry Kissinger has argued, if Iran were to follow its own national interests, "there are few nations in the world with whom the United States has more common interests and less reason to quarrel."
This vision of political containment does not suggest that the United States should shun dialogue with Iran while it attempts to limit its influence. Talking to Iranian leaders will not resolve the real, serious differences between the two governments or convert Tehran into a U.S. ally. But given Iran's influence on major U.S. foreign policy challenges -- namely, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israeli-Palestinian peace, terrorism, energy security, and nuclear proliferation -- ongoing channels of communication could help mitigate the risk of escalation and conflagrations.
The goal should be not to contain Iran ad infinitum but to limit its destructive influences while facilitating its transition to a nation that can begin to realize its potential to serve as a constructive force in the world. In the process, just as Kennan cautioned about the Soviet Union, the United States "should remain at all times cool and collected," until the Iranian regime is forced to change under the weight of its own contradictions and economic malaise. "For no mystical, messianic movement," Kennan wrote in 1947, ". . . can face frustration indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself in one way or another to the logic of that state of affairs."
This article was originally published in Foreign Affairs.