Iran Nuclear Crisis Forges Coalition for Containment

(Dec. 17) -Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard march in a September armed forces parade in Tehran. The United States and Arab nations could respond to Iran's disputed nuclear work in part with sanctions focused on the elite military group (Atta Kenare/Getty Images).
(Dec. 17) -Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard march in a September armed forces parade in Tehran. The United States and Arab nations could respond to Iran's disputed nuclear work in part with sanctions focused on the elite military group (Atta Kenare/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- Soon after his custom 747 jet cleared the airspace of the United Arab Emirates last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates walked back to the press cabin to describe his just-completed visit to the Middle East and his “productive” and “successful” talks with Arab leaders. No one had to guess the main topic of conversation (see GSN, Dec. 10).

“Obviously, we talked about Iran and the importance of sanctions in keeping diplomatic and economic pressure on,” Gates said, noting widespread support in the region for continued pressure to force Iran to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program. “There clearly is also concern not just in this region but elsewhere about Iran’s aggressive behavior in respect to Hezbollah in Lebanon and other places. That is a broadly shared concern.”

U.S. officials are always cautious in describing what one termed the “delicate dance” of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East—private cheek-to-cheek relations with Arab autocrats, shielded from the public because of America’s unpopularity on the Arab street. WikiLeaks recently lifted the veil obscuring that embrace, however. The antisecrecy group released secret State Department dispatches showing the kings, crown princes, and sultans of Arabia closely allied with the United States against Iran (see GSN, Nov. 29).

In the UAE, Crown Prince Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan has been privately warning American officials since 2006 that they needed to deal with Iran’s nuclear program “this year or next.” Last year, he argued against appeasing Iran: “[Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is Hitler.” In 2009, the king of Bahrain urged the United States to stop Iran’s nuclear program “because the danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it.” Referring to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz likewise implored Washington to “cut off the head of the snake.”

The sum of those regional fears has created a historical anomaly. The fractious Arab nations are uniting in their opposition to a common enemy in a way arguably not seen since the pan-Arab nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s led by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Besides privately urging the United States to attack a fellow Muslim neighbor, Persian Gulf royals have channeled their fear into a very public buying spree of advanced weapons, most of them U.S.-made, that collectively will top an estimated $120 billion in the next few years.

Hoping to turn that fear into an opportunity and to leverage close bilateral relationships in the region, the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command have been quietly urging more multilateral security cooperation among Gulf States in areas such as maritime security, counterterrorism, early warning, and missile defense. The long-elusive goal is to establish a de facto U.S.-led coalition in the Gulf as a counter to Iran’s dreams of regional hegemony.

“In the past, there haven’t been a lot of avenues for multilateral security cooperation among the Gulf countries because there’s a lot of mutual suspicion among them,” a senior defense official said. “Starting from the point that we all increasingly see common threats, most notably from Iran, we are trying to stitch together the efforts of all these countries into a regional security architecture.”

Recent Middle East trips by Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton suggest that the United States continues to assemble the pieces of that new security architecture. The effort is in its relative infancy, and major components are still missing. The administration has yet to even articulate an overarching strategy for the informal alliance. Yet if the United States were intent on laying the foundations for the containment of a nuclear-armed Iran, a close inspection of its actions in the region has convinced some experts that this is what it might look like.

Kenneth Pollack is the director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, who was a senior Persian Gulf expert at both the National Security Council and the CIA. “As a result of Iranian provocations, in recent years we have seen a sea change in the perspective of GCC nations in terms of their willingness to cooperate militarily with the United States,” he told National Journal, referring to the six states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates). The Arab states are now taking actions, he noted, that Washington has urged for 20 years. “So we are quietly creating a military architecture in the Middle East for a common defense against Iran that clearly could form the foundation of a containment strategy if we find ourselves confronting a nuclear-armed Iran,” Pollack said. “That’s a very important development.”

Containing Iran

Formally adopting a Cold War-style strategy to contain Iran remains a controversial idea. Traditionally, containment has been the United States’ option of last resort in dealing with an adversary, such as the former Soviet Union, when there is no realistic prospects of changing that regime by force of arms. Some observers thus view containment as equivalent to détente, or accommodation, with a regime they find abhorrent. To others, a formal containment strategy would concede nuclear arms to Iran and thus devalue the threat of military action to destroy its nuclear facilities. Still others believe that a perceived strategy of containment would work against President Obama’s attempts to engage Iran and would instead lock the two long-time adversaries into a state of perpetual antagonism.

Yet if the Obama administration ultimately decides that the negative blowback of a military strike against Iran would outweigh the upside, the U.S. must intensely focus on containment strategies, particularly because decades of sanctions have so far failed to dissuade Tehran from pursuing nuclear weapons. Because Iran has dispersed and buried much of its nuclear infrastructure, U.S. intelligence analyses predict that a military strike might set the program back only one to three years, and an attack could strengthen Tehran’s hand by splintering the broad international coalition now lined up behind tough economic sanctions.

As the 1991 Persian Gulf War and subsequent attempts to “contain” Saddam Hussein with sanctions and “no fly” zones showed, constructing a containment regime on the fly has serious drawbacks. In the case of Saddam, stringent sanctions produced such suffering among the Iraqi people that the strategy eventually became unsustainable.

Moreover, failure to anticipate and counter a nuclear-armed Iran could encourage its neighbors to pursue their own nuclear weapons, leading to a long-feared cascade of proliferation in the tinderbox of the Middle East. “I know Arabs, and they are not going to simply sit by and watch their archenemy, Persia, hold them hostage with nuclear weapons and establish regional hegemony,” said a senior U.S. military commander in Iraq who is long familiar with the Middle East. “So, despite the fact that Arab nations have almost never played well together in the past, their fears of terrorism and the Iranian threat have laid the groundwork for an informal alliance that the United States could fashion into a containment strategy if we show skill and leadership.”

Indeed, a number of experts believe that constructing a credible containment architecture that anticipates Iranian intimidation, clearly lays out America’s red lines, and denies Iran the advantages of nuclear weapons could be the single most important factor in deterring Tehran from pursuing its ambitions.

“The best threat is a credible threat we are willing to follow through on, which is why the United States should threaten Iran with an effective and enduring containment regime that will deprive them of any benefit of acquiring nuclear weapons,” said James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand think tank, speaking recently at the United States Institute of Peace. “We need to elaborate how a containment regime would work to deter Iran over an extended period, both to demonstrate to our threatened allies that there are alternatives that protect their security, and to persuade the Iranians we are serious. And the earlier we make that threat of a containment regime concrete and overt, the more likely we are to affect the debate inside Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and, especially, inside Iran.”

Laying The Foundation

As Gates’s convoy crisscrossed palm-tree-lined boulevards past the gilded edifices of Abu Dhabi last week, the fabulous oil wealth that has given the tiny emirate and its Persian Gulf neighbors some of the world’s highest levels of gross domestic product per capita was on clear display. That the source of that wealth is within easy range of Iranian missile batteries just across the Gulf bespeaks the acute sense of vulnerability among the royal families of the Arabian Peninsula.

Last year, the tiny UAE thus became the United States’ single largest customer in foreign military sales. Its purchases have included advanced F-16 fighter aircraft; Blackhawk helicopters; long-range surface-to-surface missiles; and mine-resistant, ambush-protected ground combat vehicles. The UAE is also planning to buy the Theater High-Altitude Air Defense system, one of the most effective antimissile weapons in the Pentagon’s arsenal.

Like its neighbors Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain, the UAE already boasts U.S. Patriot air-defense missile batteries. It also plays host to U.S. Air Force supporting operations in Afghanistan, although the local media rarely takes note. In May, Kuwait signed a $245 million deal with the United States for three KC-130 midair refueling aircraft, with plans to buy five more, considerably extending the range of its strike aircraft. Not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia recently announced its intention to buy $60 billion of advanced U.S. weaponry, including advanced F-15S strike aircraft, attack helicopters, and missile systems. If completed, the purchase would mark the largest single arms deal in American history.

Largely through the Gulf Security Dialogue established by the Bush administration in 2006, the United States has tried to leverage its close bilateral relationships in the region and all that high-end weaponry to promote multilateral cooperation among the GCC states in maritime security, counterterrorism, shared early warning, and missile-defense operations.

Earlier this year, Gen. David Petraeus, then-head of U.S. Central Command with responsibility for the Middle East, described the nascent security structure that the U.S. envisions. “The architecture is literally being fleshed out through a process we sometimes call ‘bi-multilateralism,’ which means, you make bilateral arrangements that are then integrated to achieve multilateral effects,” Petraeus said at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

As a test case, the United States is trying to develop a shared early-warning system for the Persian Gulf by combining the various air-defense radars in the GCC countries into a common operational picture. If successful, such a system could facilitate an integrated missile-defense system in the region. Central Command is also increasingly using joint military exercises and training to develop common tactics to take advantage of the Gulf States’ growing arsenals of U.S. weaponry.

“I don’t personally think that the concept of a NATO-like organization is realistic in the near term, because, to put it mildly, there is friction among a number of these countries,” Petraeus said. “But Iran is clearly seen as a very serious threat by those on the other side of the Gulf, and it has been a catalyst for the implementation of the security architecture that we envision and have been trying to implement. The best recruiting officer for that effort has been Iranian President Ahmadinejad, through his rhetoric, his actions, and his continued missile- and nuclear-development programs.”

Wizards Of Armageddon

The Obama administration believes that its dual-track strategy of outreach and pressure is working. A new round of U.N. sanctions adopted earlier this year was followed by a host of unilateral sanctions by individual nations that, collectively, have severely limited Tehran’s access to international financial markets, arms purchases, and even the insurance required for passengers to disembark from its ships and civilian aircraft when traveling overseas.

“There’s no doubt that the severity of the sanctions surprised Iran, which is feeling the effect on its business and financial activities and ability to gain needed technological expertise to develop its economy,” said Dennis Ross, a special adviser to Obama and the senior director for the Central Region on the National Security Council, speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Iran’s central bank had to intervene to stabilize its currency earlier this year, he noted, after it plummeted in value. “Our willingness to engage with Iran made it easier to rally the international community behind those sanctions. Unfortunately, to date, we have not seen the Iranians prepared to change the path or trajectory they are on, and to embrace a policy of transparency and peace. In fact, we’ve seen quite the opposite.”

Barring a sudden change in Iran’s trajectory, sometime in the next few years the United States will almost certainly confront the question of what happens the day after it launches a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, or the day after it decides not to launch one. Either way, the United States will need a strategy -- for containing the blowback from a strike or, conversely, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

What would an overt, long-term containment strategy for Iran look like? Almost certainly, it would include just the kind of nascent security coalition with Arab states that Central Command is starting to piece together. Tailored investment sanctions could focus more narrowly on regime hard-liners and the activities of the Revolutionary Guard, taking the place of trade sanctions that broadly punish the Iranian people and are difficult to sustain. The United States might deepen its support for the opposition “green movement” inside Iran. Almost certainly, a robust strategy to contain a nuclear-armed Tehran would also involve the U.S. extending its umbrella of nuclear deterrence to cover the GCC states.

“I support the Obama administration’s two-track approach of carrots and sticks, and they’ve succeeded beyond most people’s hopes in implementing tough sanctions, but it’s not clear that strategy is sustainable or that Iran will ever really compromise on its nuclear program,” Pollack said. “That’s why I think we need a triple-track approach, with a fallback containment regime in case the first two tracks fail. If that ground is not prepared in advance, we will pay a heavy price for trying to cobble a containment regime together in a rush.”

Already, the time grows short. Israel’s leaders have stated repeatedly that a nuclear-armed Iran that calls for its annihilation represents an existential threat, and they estimate that Tehran could acquire a “breakout” capability as early as next year. After lying dormant for most of the post-Cold War era, the agonizingly complex calculations of nuclear showdown and deterrence are once again in play in the international arena.

“It’s almost as if the wizards of Armageddon have a new lease on life,” said Petraeus, who called the potential ramifications of an Iranian nuclear weapon or an attack to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure “enormous -- not just for the region but for the entire world. At some point over the course of this year or next year, there’s going to have to be some very, very hard decisions made on these issues.”

December 17, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Soon after his custom 747 jet cleared the airspace of the United Arab Emirates last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates walked back to the press cabin to describe his just-completed visit to the Middle East and his “productive” and “successful” talks with Arab leaders. No one had to guess the main topic of conversation (see GSN, Dec. 10).