Pariahs in Tehran

Pariahs in Tehran

Mini Teaser: We shouldn't believe all we hear about the success of Obama's Iran strategy. The world needs to put a stranglehold on Tehran.

by Author(s): Kenneth M. Pollack

It seems highly unlikely that the CIA could help usher in the sort of regime change in Iran that it did in 1953. But the United States can and should do more to help the opposition. It would be irresponsible for Washington to bet its Iran policy on engineering a second revolution; still, support ought to be an element of a new American strategy—even if it is not the primary focus. Indeed, instead of wasting our time on far-fetched notions of toppling the regime altogether, the United States and its allies ought to be working overtime to try to discover what they could do to help the Green movement, rather than discrediting it with the Iranian people and encouraging even-harsher crackdowns from the regime.

America’s covert actions against Iran need not stop there. The Green movement is the biggest and most liberal opposition movement, but it is not the only one. There are Kurdish, Baluch, Arab and other groups fighting those in power, and Washington should consider supporting any and all of them. If nothing else, they can certainly help turn up the heat by attacking the government’s security forces and diminishing the regime’s fearful reputation and control over the countryside. Moreover, since Tehran is convinced that the United States is doing this already, there would appear to be little further downside to fulfilling Iran’s paranoid suspicions, at least in terms of the leadership’s response.

But while we isolate, constrict and undermine the regime, we must ever allow for the possibility of a peaceful reconciliation. Obama administration officials like to say that they will always “leave the door open” for Iran to indicate that it wants a better relationship. They say they are ready to sit down and negotiate an end to all the animosity. It’s a good line—and a good policy.

The whole point of a policy of pressure is to convince Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions and its efforts to overturn the Middle Eastern status quo by supporting terrorists and other violent groups. That requires being willing to take “yes” for an answer from Tehran, and always giving the Iranian regime the chance to cry, “Enough!” There’s nothing to be lost from regularly reiterating that the United States would prefer a cooperative resolution of our differences. In fact, there is a lot to be gained. The rest of the world will be far more willing to support the United States against Iran if Washington’s efforts at pressure are taken with a measure of sorrow, rather than anger. Then, perhaps the rest of the world won’t fear that the United States is looking for any excuse to invade another Middle Eastern country whose government it doesn’t particularly like. To this end, it would also be helpful for the administration to more loudly and fully enumerate what it is prepared to do to benefit Iran if the leadership was willing to halt its nuclear program, its support for terrorists and its efforts to destabilize Southwest Asia.


IN THE end, all this may fail. With its hard-liners firmly in charge, Tehran may choose further suffering, isolation and weakness rather than give up its nuclear program. If so, the United States will then face a choice between military operations and a containment strategy meant to limit or prevent a nuclear Iran from making mischief beyond its borders until the regime finally collapses from its own dysfunctions.

Containment always gets a bad rap in American policy debates, but it is an approach that has served us well in the past. The United States successfully contained the Soviet Union as well as a host of lesser countries—Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Libya, Iraq (less successfully) and Iran itself since the revolution. Part of the reason that Americans dislike containment is that it is always the last-ditch approach: when a country does not want to have good relations with us, but we aren’t willing to invade and can’t find a way to overthrow the regime, we contain it until the government falls, changes its ways or some other opportunity comes along.

Yet this doesn’t have to be a passive strategy in which the United States does little more than play defense and wait. Containment can be very confrontational or very cooperative, very aggressive or very passive. Our policy toward the USSR ranged from rollback to flexible response to détente. Our containment of Iraq featured draconian sanctions backed up by a blockade, frequent air strikes, sabotage, and support to a wide range of attempted coups, insurgents and opposition groups.

If a policy approach that combines an expanded mandate of isolation, pressure and support to opposition groups does fail to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear program, it will still create the foundation for an extremely robust, if not highly aggressive, containment strategy. That may prove critically important over the long term, as it will help us avoid our bad habit of refusing to consider containment until our other, preferred policies all fail catastrophically and we are forced to quickly cobble together a containment regime from whatever is left at hand. Let us still hope, however, that it proves extremely useful long before that.

Ironically, because the current Iranian regime is betting that it can outlast the sanctions, one thing that might make Tehran reconsider its current course when all else fails would be a concerted effort by the United States and the international community to build an aggressive new containment regime that Iran cannot possibly outlast. Like North Korea, Iran would not be allowed to enjoy any benefit from its acquisition of a nuclear capability or even a nuclear arsenal. It would face a situation where it was left weaker, poorer, more isolated and more diminished by its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Perhaps that might be a sobering-enough thought to convince the ruling elite to change course. It would be only fitting that the puzzling Iranian regime would ultimately be persuaded to cease its pursuit of a nuclear capability by an international policy built around the premise that Iran could not be persuaded to do so.

Kenneth M. Pollack, a contributing editor to The National Interest, is director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and the lead author of Which Path to Persia? Options for a New American Strategy Toward Iran (Brookings Institution Press, 2009).


(Photo by Daniella Zalcman)

Image: Pullquote: The United States needs to make Iran a true pariah state, and one squeezed enough from both outside and inside that it eventually recognizes it would be better to make some concessions than continue under the strain.Essay Types: Essay