Diplomatically, containment also swept away the last remnants of George Washington’s advice in the Farewell Address to avoid permanent alliances. Containment presumes a boundary. On the other side of that boundary from the contained were the countries that we were pledged to protect, or whose help we needed, or both. As liberal critics of containment were and remain eager to point out, a not inconsiderable number of those countries were ruled by unsavory (or worse) regimes, with which the United States would otherwise have maintained standoffish relations or not have treated at all. The moral and political costs of propping up anti-Communist dictators were also ones that would not have been borne but for the necessity.
Nor did the moral and political costs end there. Containment — remember, its rejected alternative was rollback — conceded to the Soviets not merely the non-Russian possessions of the czarist empire, and not just Stalin’s pre– and post–World War II conquests, but also a large “sphere of influence” in which Washington implicitly allowed Moscow a free hand. Probably there was not much that we materially could have done for the millions suffering under Communist tyranny. But at least we recognized the stakes and regretted the limitations imposed by necessity.
Applying the above factors to Iran, then, the first difference that comes to mind is that in the Soviet case, containment was — and was seen as — a necessary evil, not a policy chosen for its own sake. The alternative evils — a Soviet invasion of Western Europe or another war to end Soviet tyranny — were so awful as to be unthinkable. Politically, economically, and spiritually exhausted by war, America and, even more, her allies could not contemplate further military action to liberate the captive nations of Eastern Europe or the Russian people — though the rank injustice of the status quo was understood in the West by all but the most blinkered (and of course outright Soviet partisans). Moreover, we really had no viable course of action to follow other than containment or war. Sanctions had no hope of fundamentally altering Soviet behavior — the Russian empire’s economy was simply too large, the regime’s tolerance for its people’s pain too high, and the people’s ability to bring the regime to its knees too limited — though sanctions were imposed anyway, partly on moral grounds. Containment, therefore, was the best that could be done under the circumstances. But even its most vigorous proponents conceded its moral, political, and strategic drawbacks.
Can the same be said for Iran? Sanctions — real sanctions, which would make the regime feel genuine economic and political pain — have yet to be tried. Iran’s economy is far smaller and far more fragile than was Cold War–era Russia’s. There is no shortage of pressure points. That a country with the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves cannot refine enough gasoline to run its transportation fleet or kerosene to heat its homes suggests an opportunity. Yet so far the motley coalition of countries claiming to oppose a nuclear Iran won’t consider trying to curtail Iranian imports of refined fuel (though, to his credit, French president Nicolas Sarkozy suggested as much in a recent interview). True, Russia and China will never go along — the latter because it desperately needs Iranian crude oil, the former because it sees propping up Tehran as a way to increase its leverage in the Middle East and irritate Washington. But this means only that such sanctions would have to be imposed outside the structure of the United Nations. Is it already time to resign ourselves to containment before even giving this a shot?