Last weekend’s New York Times report on a secret memo by Defense Secretary Robert Gates warning that the Obama administration needs a better long-term strategy for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat reflects some disturbing realities.
The Times story was vague on some details, but what is abundantly clear is that President Barack Obama, stung by Iran’s non-response to his hopeful diplomatic overtures, seems adrift in a crisis with no easy answers. He has called for “crippling sanctions” in the face of Iran’s continuing defiance, but he has not explained how that will be possible as China, Russia and others, eager to cash in on trade with Tehran, continue to stall.
This administration has placed great hopes in the United Nations — wasted diplomatic energy, it would seem, given the international body’s lack of interest in almost anything other than Israeli “aggression.”
Lest this be seen as a partisan attack, let us add that Democrats and Republicans alike have talked a good game on Iran but have not backed up rhetoric with firm, consistent and farsighted policies. President George W. Bush was second to none in criticizing Iran’s leaders — but was loath to fully enforce existing U.S. sanctions or support new ones.
Sanctions remain an important element in the policy mix, but making them universal enough to be effective will be difficult, and administration policymakers must plan now for how to respond if they fail.
All options must remain on the table and all contingencies must be part of the planning process. That includes a military option, as a means of last resort. It also includes planning for a policy of containment if Iran succeeds in crossing the nuclear finish line — or stops just short, becoming a “virtual” nuclear state that will be just as threatening to Israeli and U.S. interests as an Iran bristling with bombs.
In our community, talking about containment is taboo because of legitimate concerns that Iran’s leaders, driven by religious extremism as well as desire for regional hegemony, may not respond to the fear of annihilation that made deterrence effective during the long Cold War years.
Still, it is clear now that administration strategists need to be aggressively planning for a day when containment may be the only option left. In other words, the administration needs to have a serious, well-developed Plan B even as they seek new and better strategies to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold.
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