The recent attempts at détente between Iran and the U.S. over economic sanctions and nuclear capabilities revive the question of how U.S. foreign policy should approach this thaw in relations. Should the U.S. pursue a policy of containment, first outlined in George Kennan’s long telegram, or should the U.S. approach Iran in nuclear talks?
Is containment a viable foreign policy option for the U.S. today and is Iran even comparable to the Soviet Union during the Cold War? While there have yet to be any real breakthroughs, the U.S. has already held two days of nuclear negotiation talks with Iran. Iran has maintained that they are not seeking the capability to produce atomic bombs. However, they have consistently “defied U.N. Security Council demands that ithalt enrichment and other sensitive nuclear activities, leading to multiplerounds of crippling international sanctions that have reduced Iranian oilexports, caused inflation to soar and the value of the Iranian rial currency toplummet.” On a more positive note, Iran did issue a joint statement with the six world powers saying that Tehran aims to defuse “longstanding suspicions over the nature of its nuclear program”.
While the U.S. policy of Soviet containment was successful over a forty-year period and ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, containment was pursued under far different circumstances and against a vastly different enemy.
The Soviet Union had a well-developed military capable of helping defeat Nazi Germany whereas Iran was not able to defeat Iraq over an eight-year period in the 1980s. The Soviet Union had thousands of strategically placed nuclear weapons able to destroy the U.S. whereas Iran does not have the brainpower or resources within itself to expand its nuclear program (they greatly rely on foreign assistance in this area). The Soviet Union held enormous political power and was the center of a communist ideology supported by a third of the world’s population whereas the Islamic fundamentalism of Iran hardly has the support of two percent of the world’s population. The Soviet Union was rational in its foreign policy, negotiated with the West, and withdrew forces where it could not succeed, whereas Iran does not maintain diplomatic relations with others, supports terrorism, conducts cyber attacks on the West, and makes no secret of its desire to destroy Israel. The Soviet threat was far removed and would take time to reach its intended target, whereas Iran’s targets are within hundreds of miles. Educated men with a rational international viewpoint made up the Kremlin leadership, whereas radical mullahs with a limited perspective make up the Iranian elite.
It is worth noting that a policy of containment with the educated and rational Soviet Union almost ended in nuclear war over Cuba. Would that same policy of containment succeed against an economically, militarily, and politically weak Iran led by radical mullahs who have consistently operated as a rogue state? If containment were the course of action the U.S. pursued, it would allow a rogue state to take risky gambles not taken by rational actors. It would also increase the likelihood of an unintended or accidental nuclear launch if Iran truly had that capability and presumed to be under attack.
While Kennan’s containment of the Soviet Union was successful, it does not seem to be the best course of action for the U.S. because Iran is not the same adversary that the Soviets were. As the U.S. is beginning to engage in talks with Iran the issues that have proven to be a stumbling block in the past must be resolved to ease economic sanctions, most notably the scope of Iran’s nuclear enrichment labs and any stockpile of nuclear material it has produced. While U.S. ally Israel is pushing for Iran to stop all nuclear enrichment, the U.S. and its negotiating partners (Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China) are seeking to limit enrichment levels, preventing them from reaching the grade needed for nuclear weapons. Iran does not want to ship its uranium stockpiles abroad while the U.S. would like to agree upon a long-term plan to ship the enriched stockpile material to foreign countries.
Besides those issues, there are many details that will determine if negotiations are successful. Iran will have to accept the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocol, which means letting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have access to Iran’s “undeclared” nuclear sites. Iran’s conservative Revolutionary Guard and Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, will be the actors who will have to provide the most flexibility when it comes to negotiations. Even if a deal can be reached President Obama will have to persuade Congress to ease sanctions, which would also create friction with Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu.
While it remains unclear what these negotiations with Iran will bring and whether or not the final outcome will create a nuclear-free Iran or a world that learns to live with Iran’s enrichment program, the follow up talks slated to be held in Geneva on November 7th-8th promise to bring a seriousness and substance that has never before been seen in U.S. relations with Iran.