Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran: Questions for Strategy, Requirements for Military Forces

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KEY Findings
  • Many have suggested that containing a nuclear Iran is a reasonable option, possibly more desirable than confrontation.  The United States may choose the containment of Iran as the least-worst option. Alternatively, containment may be thrust upon us at the moment Iran becomes a nuclear state, a moment that has been difficult to predict in the past.
  • Containment is hardly a cost-free policy, but aside from a small handful of policy sketches proffered heretofore, little thought has gone into what an effective containment and deterrent regime will require of the United States and its allies.
  • Even without a nuclear weapon, Iran is difficult to deter: its diffuse leadership structures and constant domestic power struggles make it hard to determine which individual leaders, groups of leaders and institutions should be the objects and targets of deterrence. Furthermore, the Iranian approach to military power is a highly asymmetrical strategy that substitutes nuclear weapons, irregulars, proxies, and terrorism for conventional strength.
  • Modeled on Cold War containment practices, the following are essential components of a coherent Iran containment policy: that it should seek to block any Iranian expansion in the Persian Gulf region; to illuminate the problematic nature of the regime’s ambitions; to constrain and indeed to “induce a retraction” of Iranian influence, including Iranian “soft power”; and to work toward a political—if not a physical—transformation of the Tehran regime.
  • A further essential characteristic of Cold War containment applicable to Iran is that such a policy demands a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach driven by consistent diplomacy.
  • Containing Iran requires effecting the isolation of the Iranian regime, disconnecting it from great power patrons, limiting its ability to peel off neighbors and regional players to serve its agenda, limiting its use of proxies, and more.
  • The keystone of any containment policy is a military strategy of deterrence. An Iran policy of containment must meet the basic Cold War standard of credibility, which includes three criteria. The deterrent posture depends on an adequate US nuclear arsenal of offensive systems; a substantial investment in forward deployed and reinforcing conventional forces; and the preservation of strong alliances that permit relatively good policy integration, military cooperation, and basing and access for US forces.
  • Adopting a serious policy of containment and strategy of deterrence will have implications for US nuclear policy and forces.  A credible US offensive deterrent must be “persistent”: that is, dedicated forces must be active, available, and “present,” at least in the mind of the adversary. In addition, the role of US offensive nuclear forces as the central feature of a “defense umbrella” covering American allies and their interests across the greater Middle East will be critical. Current policies and plans, however, do not reflect such considerations.
  • A serious policy of containment and deterrence calls for a constant and significant conventional force presence around Iran’s perimeter. Current US nuclear forces are not well prepared to provide deterrence against a nuclear Iran, and the deterrent value of US conventional supremacy is being undercut by continuous and well publicized reductions in defense spending, which has been marked, in recent years, by a growing number of terminations and cancellations of the very weapons most likely to provide a proximate danger in Tehran’s eyes.
  • US military planners must also consider the feasibility of eliminating Iran’s nuclear retaliatory options in a single raid or rapid-strike campaign given that Iran stands on the brink of developing not just a single weapon but a modest breakout capability for a more robust arsenal that would provide a survivable deterrent.
  • The diplomatic, strategic, and military costs of containing and deterring are already high. Consider the military costs alone: a renewed offensive nuclear deterrent, both in the United States and extended to the region; prolonged counterintelligence, counterterrorist, and counterinsurgency operations around Iran’s perimeter; a large and persistent conventional covering force operating throughout the region and a reinforcing force capable of assured regime change; and energetic military-to-military programs with coalition partners. Such a deterrent posture is not only near or beyond the limits of current US forces—and we know of no substantial body of studies that has analyzed in sufficient detail the requirements for a containment posture—but also would certainly surpass the capabilities of the reduced US military that proposed budget cuts would produce.
  • In conclusion, we find that though containment and deterrence are possible policies and strategies for the United States and others to adopt when faced with a nuclear Iran, we cannot share the widespread enthusiasm entertained in many quarters. Indeed, the broad embrace of containment and deterrence appears to be based primarily on an unwillingness to analyze the risks and costs described. Containing and deterring may be the least-bad choice. However, that does not make it a low-risk or low-cost choice. In fact, it is about to be not a choice but a fact of life.

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