Moreover, in Iran, the West is blessed with two assets that, in the USSR, presented themselves only toward the very end, when the outcome was already inevitable. First, the Iranian people are eager for change and have proven themselves willing to risk their lives for it. Second, apart from hardline elements such as the Revolutionary Guards, the regime seems brittle, exhausted, and potentially unable to maintain control for much longer. So why not give it a push? Or several? The U.S. government’s utter failure to support last summer’s Green Revolution was not only morally obtuse; it was strategically inept. Using various levers to aid the Iranian people’s desire for change (as to which levers, see Michael Rubin’s excellent essay in the April Commentary) might or might not hasten the end of the Islamic Republic. Similarly, a new regime in Tehran might or might not end or slow Iran’s nuclear program. But if we’re serious about changing Iranian behavior, shouldn’t that at least be tried?
Supposing we do, and supposing we fail, then we might find ourselves with no alternative but containment. What exactly would containment against Iran look like? Proponents of the idea are quick to play up the similarities with the Soviet case as a way of arguing that containment can succeed once again. But they are equally quick to play up the differences when discussing costs. There is little chance of Iran’s mounting a massive invasion, so an expensive military buildup won’t be necessary, we are assured. And besides, America already has some 200,000 troops in neighboring countries, which should be ample for the purposes of containment.
Well, yes — but. First of all, most of those troops have their hands full fighting two wars. Second, they are not scheduled to be there for long. Obama-administration timetables call for substantial drawdowns in Iraq this fall and in Afghanistan next summer. A permanent containment posture with respect to Iran would require those timetables to be revisited, to say the least. Do the liberals who have been clamoring to bring the troops home — now! — and who also advocate containment not see the difficulty? In any case, the American people would probably tolerate a long-term U.S. force presence in the region — with all its monetary and other costs — if it truly were a matter of necessity. But they want the troops home, too, and would prefer us to at least try alternatives that might avoid indeterminate deployments before we resign ourselves to them.
If the troops were to remain, their purpose would presumably be to discourage Iranian adventurism. That might entail Cold War–style brush-fire skirmishes, which might lead to direct engagements with Iranian forces. Are our political leaders prepared for that risk? On the other hand, if troop levels decreased to the point at which Iran could realize its aspiration to install a Shia puppet in Baghdad, would containment have to extend to cover not just Iran but Iraq as well? How readily will Americans accept the awful contingency that so much of our blood and treasure was spent liberating Iraq only to turn the country into an Iranian satellite? Whatever the outcome, containment against Iran, no less than against the USSR, would implicitly concede an enemy “sphere of influence.” The only question is how large.
The nuclear issue is — counterintuitively — far more central to the current Iranian circumstance than it was to the Soviet one early in the Cold War. Nukes or not, the Red Army maintained an iron grip on Eastern Europe and a threatening posture toward the West that NATO was both unable and unwilling to dislodge. Containment had to be the order of the day with or without the Soviet bomb. Indeed, the policy was first sketched three years, and the term coined two years, before the first Soviet nuclear test. The Iranian bomb, however, has the potential to be a strategic game-changer. It could solidify a weak regime’s hold on power and extend that power indefinitely. And it would almost certainly embolden the anti-Semitic, America-hating religious fanatics who run the regime to become even more brazen in their support for terror, their hostility to Israel, and their aspirations for regional domination.