One unpleasant certainty of containment is that the United States would once again be called upon to make pledges of “extended deterrence” — that is, promises to defend non-nuclear allies with our nuclear weapons. Among other reasons, this would be the only way to stop or at least slow a nuclear arms race in the world’s most volatile region. (It’s worth pausing to note that such an arms race, while troubling, is hardly the greatest reason to fear an Iranian bomb; far more troubling than the possibility that Iran’s rivals might get the bomb is what Tehran might do with its bomb.) Yet Americans were never that comfortable with the concept of extended deterrence the first time around. How comfortable are they going to be when the beneficiary of the guarantee is not pacifist Bonn but duplicitous Riyadh? Meanwhile, our allies understandably were never quite sure they could trust our guarantee, leading them in some cases to build their own arsenals or seek what amounted to separate peaces. Why should this time around be any different or any better?
Containment would also necessitate basing-rights arrangements that would carry complications of their own. Right now we maintain substantial ground forces in two of Iran’s neighboring countries. Assuming we mustered the will to continue those deployments long term — which cannot be taken for granted — how certain could we be that the host governments would wish to grant us extended basing rights? If they did, what prices might they exact? Certainly both have reasons to fear an expansionist, belligerent Iran. But they could just as easily conclude that U.S. forces on their soil appear to Tehran not as a reliable deterrent but as an intolerable provocation. Recall how difficult it was to negotiate our Status of Forces agreement in Iraq when that country was at risk of blowing apart absent an American presence. How hard might it be when Baghdad fears war with Iran more than civil strife?
Where else might we go? Turkey already limits American usage of its NATO bases; it also is becoming less friendly to American and Western interests by the week and more publicly sympathetic to Iran and Islamism. Pakistan is both highly unstable and increasingly standoffish (and, not incidentally, it provided indispensable aid to the Iranian nuclear program). Russia has proven itself adept at bullying and manipulating the nations of Central Asia to our detriment, and it is certain to interpret (whether genuinely or cynically) any intent to establish lasting presences there as attempts to contain not Iran but Russia.
That leaves the Sunni Arab states. Unquestionably, containing Iran would draw us closer to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and other oil-rich monarchies that fear Tehran’s influence and need the U.S. security umbrella. Returning American troops to Saudi soil won’t be acceptable to Riyadh, however, and even if it were, it would play into the hands of jihadist propaganda. The other Gulf states routinely impose mission-crippling restrictions on how we can use “our” bases.
Worse, these states also continue to play a double game: assuring Washington of their friendship and fealty in daylight, supporting and financing radical Islam and terror organizations behind the veil. Our dependence on Gulf oil already constrains the extent to which we can pressure these states to stop aiding America’s enemies. Do we want to make that problem worse? Even to the extent that these regimes are actually trustworthy, they are hardly examples of the kind of liberal-democratic polity on whose behalf the American people have shown themselves willing to pay any price and bear any burden. We may already be in bed with some of them, but climbing deeper under the covers won’t be welcomed here at home.