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U.S. "Containment" of Iran Misguided

Column by Anders Hove
Opinion Editor

Aside from Bosnia, nuclear proliferation seems to be shaping up as the perennial hot topic of U.S. foreign policy. Yesterday everyone in the State Department was getting all jumpy about North Korea. Today's nuke-grabbing bogeyman is Iran. I'm willing to bet that, come tomorrow, some other nasty will show up at the nuclear table, raising global blood pressure another several notches.

The Clinton administration, seemingly strapped for imagination in dealing with new and exciting situations, has twice now opted for a strategy of issuing dire threats to countries that seem to be trying to acquire the bomb. Last year witnessed a regular American temper tantrum over North Korea. But threats of U.S. sanctions failed to receive necessary Chinese support, and also led to a good deal of grief between the U.S. and its East Asian allies.

Eventually, the whole North Korean policy went by the boards, as the U.S. reversed course and adopted Jimmy Carter's nuclear deal. While the new policy met with comparative approval in Asia, Congressional Republicans besieged the White House, demanding that the U.S. reinstate its former policy of issuing hollow threats.

While American inconsistency in Korea made us few friends, it has at least done our foreign policy little harm. Whether we're naughty or nice, it seems the U.S. has little impact on the internal politics of North Korea. And our alliances in Asia can handle a policy waffle or two.

Not so with Iran. The debate over the Islamic republic's foreign policy will come to a head in the next few months. If the moderate statesmen under President Hashemi Rafsanjani demonstrate success with a policy of economic modernization and non-belligerent foreign policy, they could tip the balance in their favor, perhaps reestablishing Iran as a force for peace in the Middle East. If they fail, the social conservative faction under Majlis Speaker Nateq-Nuri stands ready to grab power for the sake of rebuilding the religious identity of the Iranian Revolution and undoing Rafsanjani's economic liberalization.

So far, the U.S. has demonstrated no interest in promoting Iran's moderates over the social conservative faction. Rather the opposite. In adopting a firm tone regarding Iran's purchase of nuclear technology from Russia, and leaving no chance for Iran's moderates to back down and save face, the U.S. has driven its would-be allies into the camp of its enemies. Backing down to U.S. threats would have instantly tagged Rafsanjani as an American dupe.

European and Asian diplomats in Iran, reports Los Angeles Times journalist Robin Wright, have been displeased and bewildered by the administration's policy. Senior European authorities don't believe that Iran's most ambitious program could produce a bomb in twenty, let alone ten years as the U.S. estimates. What is more, they argue that Iran cannot afford the $1 billion that would be needed to turn its technologically backward reactor into a weapons-building program. Iran is currently swamped in debt, and its meager oil revenues are badly needed to fuel the country's stalled economic modernization.

Furthermore, there seems to be general agreement outside the U.S. that a belligerent policy toward Iran can only backfire, as did resolute American support of the shah, more than fifteen years ago.

The current U.S. policy can certainly be viewed as a mere extension of the "containment" policy inaugurated shortly after the Iranian Revolution. That policy resulted first in the arming of, and tilt toward, Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. More recently it has given birth to "dual-containment," an undefined policy of preventing either Iran or Iraq from acquiring too much power in the region. These, then, are the roots of U.S. saber-rattling over the nuclear issue.

The "containment" policy has also set back U.S. aims in the Middle East itself. Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, particularly Saudi Arabia, are primarily interested in bringing a moderate Iran back into an integrated regional economic order. U.S. efforts to isolate Iran politically and economically obviously clash with this desire on the part of Iran's neighbors. In going out on a limb with its belligerence, then, the U.S. has succeeded only in alienating its allies in the region.

As tools of American foreign policy, deterrence and containment have their uses. When it comes to Iran, however, American attempts at containment have only alienated its Middle Eastern allies, and made more difficult the task of the Iranian moderates. Instead of playing into the hands of conservative Iranian politicians who need the threat of a hostile West to promote their ideas, we should work with the Iranian government to re-integrate Iran into a stable and cooperative regional power arrangement.