Iran and the Costs of Containment
Before we say containment is "the only viable option" in dealing with Iran, we need to calculate its costs.


More recently, Iran has formed a tight and troubling alliance with Venezuela’s elected dictator Hugo Chávez. Caracas and Tehran work jointly to jack up the price of oil, undermine the U.S. dollar, and circumvent American-led banking and travel restrictions. There are also signs that the two countries cooperate on military — and perhaps even nuclear — matters. More troubling still: Chávez allows the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist organization to operate openly on Venezuelan soil. American intelligence officials have long tracked Hezbollah’s presence within the United States. Indeed, that presence is sometimes cited by dovish commentators as a reason not to “overreact” to Iranian provocations. All this is happening now. What more might happen once Iran is nuclear?

Of course, Iran’s chief means of projecting global power is its aggressive creation, promotion, and dissemination of radical Islamist propaganda. One might argue that this problem could hardly get any worse than it is now. But choosing containment implicitly accepts that as a fact of life, potentially for decades to come. As the history of Islamist ideology hitherto amply demonstrates, decades provide more than enough time for viruses to spread, populations to radicalize, and plots to germinate.

Finally, consider the imponderables. Despite our best efforts over nearly half a century, American analysts in government, academia, and the private sector never obtained a particularly clear grasp of the Kremlin’s inner workings. Surely we know even less about Tehran today. And what we do know should give us pause. The U.S. State Department officially designates Iran as the world’s “most active state sponsor of terrorism.” The 9/11 Commission listed many of Iran’s links not just to its known and widely acknowledged subsidiaries Hezbollah and Hamas, but also to al-Qaeda. Tom Joscelyn’s excellent monograph Iran’s Proxy War against America goes into more detail still. No one familiar with the case denies that Iran was the primary malefactor behind the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. Less well known, but no less real, is the strong Iranian hand in the 1998 embassy bombings and Iranian aid to al-Qaeda before and after 9/11.

It is simply taken for granted in the foreign-policy establishment that Iran would never, ever pass along nuclear weapons or materials to a terrorist group. This may or may not be true. All we can say with confidence right now is that Tehran doesn’t yet have the option. If the West resigns itself to containment and accepts an Iranian bomb, it soon will. And whether Iran will choose to be contained or will seek a way around containment will be entirely up to the mullahs.

This time, just as during the Cold War, containment may well turn out to be a necessary evil — the least bad option on a menu of awful choices. We are not yet at that point. Before we get there, let’s at least understand containment’s costs. Only then will we be able to judge whether they are indeed more bearable than the alternatives that, for the time being, still lie before us.

– Michael Anton is policy director of Keep America Safe and served on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration.