Foreign Policy Blogs

The US and Iran

Vali Nasr, one of the world's leading experts on Shi’ism, and Ray Takeyh, author of the excellent Hidden Iran, have co-authored a piece in the latest Foreign Affairs about the dangers of Washington's Iran containment strategy. 

 This is a grand strategy, which basically involves rallying all the Sunni Arab states against the growing Persian threat, and, in doing so, bringing stability to the region.  Nasr and Takeyh do not believe this to be a viable strategy, and think it will only further fissure the Levant.   Here is a long excerpt.

Containing Iran is not a novel idea, of course, but the benefits Washington expects from it are new. Since the inception of the Islamic Republic, successive Republican and Democratic administrations have devised various policies, doctrines, and schemes to temper the rash theocracy. For the Bush administration, however, containing Iran is the solution to the Middle East's various problems. In its narrative, Sunni Arab states will rally to assist in the reconstruction of a viable government in Iraq for fear that state collapse in Baghdad would only consolidate Iran's influence there. The specter of Shiite primacy in the region will persuade Saudi Arabia and Egypt to actively help declaw Hezbollah. And, the theory goes, now that Israel and its longtime Arab nemeses suddenly have a common interest in deflating Tehran's power and stopping the ascendance of its protégé, Hamas, they will come to terms on an Israeli-Palestinian accord. This, in turn, will (rightly) shift the Middle East's focus away from the corrosive Palestinian issue to the more pressing Persian menace. Far from worrying that the Middle East is now in flames, Bush administration officials seem to feel that in the midst of disorder and chaos lies an unprecedented opportunity for reshaping the region so that it is finally at ease with U.S. dominance and Israeli prowess.

But there is a problem: Washington's containment strategy is unsound, it cannot be implemented effectively, and it will probably make matters worse. The ingredients needed for a successful containment effort simply do not exist. Under these circumstances, Washington's insistence that Arab states array against Iran could further destabilize an already volatile region

The summation of the article is basically that rifts that exist within the Sunni Arab states are far too deep and old to be suddenly healed by a new threat, and that the US will make things far worse by establishing what is essentially a Cold War strategy.   The authors think that constructive dialogue with Iran, which is not as messianic or as expansionist as some believe, would be far more fruitful (they also do not downplay the serious problems and threats the US and region face regarding Iran). 

 Where the authors lose me a bit is comparing Iran to Russia or China- merely a country who wants to throw its weight around a little bit.   This is true, but it also masks the trouble in dealing with the theocracy.   Russia and China both have power essentially in one spot- the Party with China and the oligarchy that surrounds Putin, in Russia.   This makes them theoretically far more simple countries with which to deal.  You go right to the source.

 The problem is that in Iran there is no source- or, rather, there are many.  Iran, with its chaotic simulacrum of democracy, is inflicted with constantly-shifting alliances and multiple bases of power.  Yes, Khamaeni sits at the center, and the hard-core mullahs control the army and the judiciary, but Iranian government is not a monolith (interestingly, Takeyh's book is one of the more useful reads on Iran's hydra-headed system).  

This is not to say that their basic premise is wrong- it isn't.  The containment theory, beside the reasons the authors listed, is flawed in that it is enabling other US enemies, much in the same way that the US is arming Sunni insurgents to fight al-Qaeda.  Governments who help us are all doing so in their own interest, which is not guaranteed to redound favorably upon us.   We would be creating the illusion of a combined Sunni front, but one fissuring and boiling with older rivalries. 

But Nasr and Takeyh underestimate the difficulty of letting Iran see it is in their best interest to work with the system.  They are ultimately correct that it is possible, but readers of the article need to be aware that it is far from a magic bullet solution.



Brian O'Neill

Brian O'Neill is a freelance writer currently based out of Chicago. He has lived in Egypt and in Yemen, and worked as a writer and editor for the Yemen Observer publishing company. He currently is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.