Since the 1979 revolution, containment has been the default policy of the United States toward Iran. It has never been a policy eagerly embraced by any U.S. administration. But unless the Iranian regime collapses or evolves into something quite different—or the United States wages a third major war in the Middle East—containment is likely to remain the cornerstone of U.S. policy on Iran for some time – even though it is patently a useless tool.
in September 2012, the Senate voted 90-1 for a nonbinding resolution “ruling out any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.” So, almost six years ago the Senate declared unacceptable a policy that six years later the United States has once again adopted.
“I agree with the goals of the president of the U.S. even if we disagree over the nuclear deal, but I think we need to build together a long-term strategy and it can’t just boil down to sanctions and containment,” Macron told a U.N. Security Council meeting on non-proliferation. Yet, the U.S. has pushed back and is asking the Europeans to sign on its policy of sanctions and containment.
Despite all this ‘advice’, “Containment” endures because it is a lazy, minimalist strategy. There is this ‘enduring’ feeling in Washington that because of containment’s success with the Soviet Union, the United States should adopt it to address other policy challenges. So, it has been used with China, North Korea, Cuba, Libya, Iraq, Nicaragua, Angola, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. With the Soviet Union, it became an alternative strategy which allowed Washington to block Soviet political expansion, undermine their economy and prevent Soviet military aggression until the Soviet regime collapsed from its own defects in 1991. ‘Containment’ has become the default policy whenever normal diplomatic relations are impossible. It is useful because it is highly flexible. Washington has pursued aggressive versions, as in Iraq between 1991 and 2003, and passive versions, as in Afghanistan between 1989 and 2001.
It follows then, the same arguments are advanced in support of the ‘Containment’ policy on Iran. These historical arguments are then embellished with a host of other reasons as ‘Containment’ is peddled liberally in Washington. Here are 10 of those reasons (divided into three groupings) that are quietly being thrown out as this policy continues:
Containment is Highly Profitable
- Enabled the West to Maintain Control of Oil Prices and Supply: The very first benefit of “Iran Containment” was the removal o roughly 3 million barrels of oil from the global oil market. And, in came Britain’s North Sea oil, and America’s new Oil production in Alaska (40 years ago) – with roughly the same oil output. With Iran out of the market, prices remained high, making this type exploration profitable. This was a huge British and American bonanza from “Iran Containment”!
- Caspian Grab: Before Britain’s North Sea oil production diminished, the Soviet Union was splintered. Once broken up, Western oil companies moved into former Soviet States and started exploiting oil in the Caspian Sea basin. With a desperate need to find trading partners and means to ‘bust sanctions’, Iran was essentially powerless and unable to assert its claims.
- The Removal of Iran as an Air Hub and Competitor: Containment and sanctions has meant that no direct flights from the U.S. to Iran, that Iranian airlines could not purchase modern aircraft, Iranian Airlines could not even refuel flights in European hubs. Meanwhile, new airlines with Hubs in the southern part of the Persian Gulf came along, started purchasing literally billions of dollars of new planes and built massive new hubs with the help of western companies. The irony of all this, is that an air hub in Iran would be 1000 km less flight distance from Europe to Southeast Asia (i.e. significantly lower cost to operate); and by the way, Iran has the trained manpower to operate, host and maintain aircraft. Iran would be a formidable competitor. But ‘Iran Containment’ moved the business opportunity to the emirates and Qatar!
- Profits in Sanction Busting: Iran Containment (and sanctions) has meant that all goods flowing to Iran had to be transshipped via other ports. Dubai (along with the “Western Banks and shipping companies based there) has profited immensely over the past 40 years. UAE’s GDP has gone from $30 Billion in 1978 to $430 Billion in 2018 – on the back of Iran!
- Iran Provides Very Valuable Human Resource for West and Others: During the past 40 years, Iran’s expatriate community has grown from almost 80,000 Iranians abroad (mainly as students) to current estimates of over 5 Million. There has been a vast brain drain, with much of Iran’s intellectual elite (who passionately hate the theocracy)! Iranian’s diaspora has led to the creation of over a trillion dollars in new equity value in the West – with significant contributions to major companies like eBay, Google, Facebook, Dropbox, AirBnB, Uber, Zappos to name a few. Not to be forgotten is the huge numbers of Iranians working for Arabs in the Southern Persian Gulf – everything from airplane maintenance crews to prostitutes!
Iran is a useful bogeyman
- Iran is the convenient enemy Keeping Defense budgets high: Since the end of the Soviet Union and therefore the cold war, Iran has become ‘the’ excuse for maintaining ultra-high defense budgets in the U.S. The United States has consistently spent more on defense than all its NATO Allies combined. The narrative since the 1990’s has been Iran, Iran, Iran! And today, the U.S. maintains 125,000 troops, almost 20,000 vessels (including 2 aircraft carriers), and 15 airbases near Iran. If Iran did not exist, the U.S. military would have to create another Iran to justify the money they are spending!
- Iran is used to scare Arabs into Buying Arms: Saudi Arabia is America’s No. 1 weapons buyer. Between 2013 and 2017, Riyadh accounted for 18 percent of total U.S. arms sales. Not to be forgotten are massive purchases by the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait …. From not just the United States, but many U.S. allies like the UK, Spain, Italy, France … This is an incredible almost Trillion-dollar financial bonanza for the West. Iran, in so many ways, is an ideal enemy, because it is the ‘sole’ justification for all these arms purchases. Again, if Iran did not exist, a new Iran would be invented. By contrast, Iran’s total defense budget has historically been $12 Bn, i.e. less than the cost of one U.S. aircraft carrier. Beyond arms sales, another important consideration, is the ‘protection money’ the U.S. military can charge Arabs for putting bases in the Persian Gulf to ‘protect them’ from Iran.
- Iran provides an Excuse for locating U.S. Forces Everywhere: When the U.S. wanted to put cruise missiles in Poland, and Russia objected, the U.S. said they needed to be placed there in response to Iran’s missile program. When Trump was asked why the U.S. kept troops in Iraq, his response was to keep an eye on Iran. Iran has become ‘the’ excuse for virtually every base the U.S. has established – even if its in Japan or Latin America. Venezuela is invaded, because why? Iranians and Iranian allies Hezbollah are there!
Iran Containment also Weakens US Rivals
- Maintains regional instability, thus buffering Chinese and Russian Expansionism:
With China and Russia aligning, and getting ever closer to Europe in terms of trade, and building new transportation highways to each other and Europe, the U.S. will effectively be ‘left’ behind. Trade will be transacted in new currencies – not the U.S. Dollar. The best the U.S. could do is create havoc in Central Asia to disrupt these trade links and assert U.S. dominance. The best means of doing this, is to contain ‘the Central Asian hub’ i.e. Iran and make funding these corridors and access for these corridors very hard to support. Better yet, a destruction and splintering of Iran would serve this purpose more effectively – balkanizing the region, to make it very hard to build roads and railways across the terrain.
- Diminishes Iranian Military Capacity (and therefore threat to Israel): Containment has for sure diminished Iran’s economy and hamstrung Tehran’s efforts to develop a capable military. It has limited Iran’s ability to play an influential role in the geo-politics of southwest Asia. Sanctions to prevent Iran from becoming economically or militarily powerful. These have especially focused on preventing or dissuading Iran from acquiring ballistic missiles or weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons.
These are compelling reasons to maintain an “Iran Containment” policy. But it is my view, that an objective review of this policy might reveal a separate set of arguments that would refute the “Containment Policy” as appropriate with respect to Iran. Here we are 40 years later, and there is very scant evidence that it has had any effect at all.
And so, here are some reasons why Containment is completely the wrong policy in terms of furthering U.S. strategic interests:
- Iran has become a regional superpower: Iran Containment has forced Iranians to find ways to ‘escape’ containment. This has, in fact, led to Iranian expansionism. First of all, Iran has aligned with U.S. competitors such as Russia, and China. Iran has basically been handed over to Russia and China. This is very problematic for the U.S. Short of disrupting Russia and China, it has empowered them. Not simply politically, but also more critically – economically and most recently militarily. The U.S. has inspired a full-blown military alliance, with practical consequences in places like Syria (where U.S. backed rebels have lost out to Russia and Iranian forces backing the Assad regime). This by the way, is a massive strategic blow to the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel. It totally blocks Natural Gas exports from U.S. allies to Europe – making Russia Europe’s key source for energy (supplanting the U.S. as a third-tier trade partner with Europe behind China and Russia). Containment has made Iran a regional superpower. Iran’s presence in Syria is now a threat to Israel. And Iranian proxies in Iraq are successfully reducing U.S. troop presence in Iraq. Iran is now taking advantage of the collapse of Islamic State in western Iraq and eastern Syria in order to create a secured military corridor running from Iran to Lebanon and the Mediterranean. Such a strategic upheaval, once consolidated, ensures that Iran will emerge as a regional superpower. Syria has NOT become Iran’s version of what Afghanistan was for the Soviet Union. Iran Containment has patently not worked!
- Iran’s influence has emerged far beyond Iran: Iran has successfully set up militias favoring Iran in the whole region – in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan … and beyond. These militias have become political forces too, that threaten substantial U.S. investment in those countries after U.S. led wars. Iran has Shiite proxies in Bahrain, Shiite region of Saudi Arabia, Yemen … Constant threatening rhetoric, and animosity has ‘forced’ Iran to expand its influence outside Iran, as a counter strategy. Yes, the U.S. can create chaos in Central Asia, but as a counter strategy Iran can create chaos in the Persian Gulf and with Israel. It makes war with Iran very expensive, but also makes Iran Containment a motivational force to counteract U.S. policy. If you punch someone, don’t expect them not to punch back. Iran is basically ‘expelling’ the U.S. from the region as a counter strategy.
- To Counter Iran, the U.S. has been forced to align with “maligned” states: The new ‘Trump’ strategy of reinforcing relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel is a strategy designed to counter Iran. But these regimes do not have widescale (popular) support domestically or more broadly in the region. S. is handing the ‘moral’ ground to Iran! Iran’s anti-Saudi and anti-Israel rhetoric is popular. (I am not saying its right, but it should be recognized by U.S. policy makers that it is popular). It makes the US look ‘evil’ by association with Saudi Arabia and Israel regimes. To put it simply and bluntly, the US must stop supporting a wrongdoer to stop another wrongdoer. Wahhabists can neither be trusted allies in the war on terrorism nor reliable actors to maintain the power balance in the region. Moreover, the U.S. has given a tacit green light to an inexperienced, greedy, murderous Saudi crown prince who has caused even more instability in the region. And who benefits from instability the most? Tehran! And does anyone in Washington really believe the House of Saud has widescale, broad support in Saudi Arabia? It should not be ignored that there are 7 Million Shiites in Saudi Arabia – dominating its Oil rich provinces. And Israel has a population of 8.7 Million of which 1.8 Million are Palestinians. Add to this 5 Million Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank (under Israeli control), and you have almost half the population of “Greater Israel” i.e. almost 7 million people opposed to the ‘continuous appeasement’ of Israeli policies by the U.S.
- Iran Containment effectively means the US has ‘selected’ Israelis and Arabs over Persians: Careful analysis of the beneficiaries of this “Iran Containment” policy reveals that it has been a defacto business subsidy to Arabs. Iran has been kept out of the Aviation market, Iran has been forced to be transshipment fees to Dubai, Iranians have been forced to emigrate to Dubai and other Persian Gulf states (providing critical manpower), etc. Americans should not forget that this policy has brought huge costs on Iranians – both financial and human. This blatant ‘attack’ on Iranians (which is what the Iran Containment policy is), has created anti-Western anger in Iran, that builds on years of additional anger brought about by Western engineered coups in the past and the blatant theft of Iranian oil for almost a century. When Iran has been so badly economically exploited by the West for so many years, why should Iranians pay a further price for simply being Iranian? On the other hand, Israel has consistently received direct U.S. aid for over $3 Billion per year, and conservatively over $100 Billion dollars over the years. Why is “Iran Contained” again? And, to make matters worse, how can the U.S. realistically expect to re-establish relations with Iran in the future by doing this?
- Iranians have emigrated in large numbers: On the face of it, this would seem like an argument in favor of Iran sanctions and containment; but in fact, this has massive consequences to the countries they emigrate to. In the U.S. Iranians are beginning to vote in large numbers and entering politics as candidates. Why is this an issue? Well, careful analysis of this very past 2018 elections suggest that at least two congressional districts in California shifted from Republican to Democrat – on the back of Trump Iranian travel ban, and anti-Iranian, anti-immigrant rhetoric. And this is just the beginning. To maintain an “Iranian Containment” policy, negative rhetoric must continue. And this creates resentment, anger and fear in Iranian expat community (it’s not healthy). Iranian expats will become increasingly influential, and in turn undermine those that undermine them – directly or indirectly. There will be a political price to pay for this constant negative rhetoric.
- The Policy is having the exact reverse effect, the US is becoming isolated: Take the recent “Warsaw” conference, most allies sent low level foreign office officials. Take Pence’s recent speech at the Munich Security Conference, he expected applause when he sent out greetings from Donald Trump. He got total silence. The policy doesn’t have widescale support. The U.S. is alone in implementing it. This makes it possible for Iran to counter the “Containment” policy. The planet is too large, and too diverse for the U.S. to simply dictate an outcome. Also, interestingly, the U.S. has turned Turkey into a wild card ally, preferring to work closely with Iran rather than align with the U.S. in Syria.
- This policy has Forced the US to keep military investment at very high cost: While this is very profitable for military contractors, at some point the sheer volume of debt incurred by past wars will catch up with the U.S. $22 Trillion dollars in direct sovereign debt, and over $100 Trillion dollars in future liabilities will eventually mean that annual half a trillion dollar defense budgets must be trimmed just to pay down debt. It will also, by the way, mean the same thing for many U.S. allies being persuaded to waste billions on arms like Saudi Arabia. Someone in Washington and/or Whitehall needs to come up with another idea here, because this policy is simply not sustainable. It will become very digital – either Iran will be contained or not. Once Iran breaks out of containment, it will be too late and irreversible for the West. Better to have a regional ally that can also be a huge market for U.S. goods and services and help police the region (in outlaw areas like Afghanistan) than to create multi-generational animosity. Does the U.S. really believe it will have a sustainable long-term partner with Saudis (once their oil runs out) – who by all accounts are deadbeats versus Iran that has a multi-dimensional economy and geography. This sort of ‘attack’ which is what Containment is, is not sustainable.
- This policy fuels hardliners in Tehran: At its core, “Iran Containment” is wishful thinking suggesting that it is useful tool for regime downfall or change. Well, my friends, its been 40 years. Iran has been “contained” for over 40 years, with no effect. Policy makers in America are hoping that the like other repressive regimes, the Iranian regime must be brittle and will—one day—crumble to the will of its citizens. Contrary to the policy’s aims, in fact it has propelled Iranian hardliners, made it more difficult to engineer the rise of pro-western leadership. It destroys trust, destroys constructive behavior, and destroys the capacity to rebuild a relationship. It only fuels America’s enemies. It’s idiotic.
- Feeling threatened, Iran is improving its own military capacity: The days of high dollar arms purchases from Iran have gone. Far from diminishing Iran’s military capacity, Iran has built up its own ability to build weapons and military infrastructure. Iran has advanced its own delivery capability for missiles and adopted an asymmetric military strategy that make it very hard to ensure a slam-dunk battlefront win against it. They have set up millions of militia forces across the region in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan … you name it… and therefore made the whole concept of ‘containment’ stupid. Far from diminishing Iran’s nuclear capability, feeling threatened and let down by the Nuclear accord (and new sanctions and containment) Iran WILL eventually restart its nuclear capacity (and at a much faster speed than in the past) and become a very significant regional threat. If in the past, Iran was used as a bogey man to justify military expenditure, in the future it will become a real threat – forcing the West to spend vast amounts of money to counter its regional influence – at a time when the U.S. will have even greater financial obligations. If the Iraq war almost bankrupted the U.S. – ongoing rivalry with Iran will completely undermine the U.S. economy. Just like Afghanistan bankrupted the Soviet Union, Iran will cause American bankruptcy. This constant antagonism, will in the end, be more expensive for the U.S. than Iran!
- The Policy Plays into Saudi and Israeli Goals which are NOT the same as U.S. interests: It is very clear that that there is a march to war largely fueled by Saudi Arabia and Israel. Saudi Arabia is deliberately exacerbating tensions with Iran. This is a deliberate diversionary, high risk policy. It shifts the focus from these allies’ misdeeds – their butchery and devastation in places like Yemen, or Gaza and it increases the risk of a mistake, a miscalculation and the region will be up in flames. As Robert Gates so properly stated, Israeli’s and Saudi’s will fight Iran to the last American soldier’s life. This is the Iraq war, redux. It will cost trillions of dollars. Are Americans willing to mortgage their future for the will of Israel and Saudi Arabia?
Washington’s use of containment has been erratic, ranging from passive isolation to highly confrontational. US just can’t keep a consistent policy working. Idiotic administrations in Washington have basically left no good options on the table! Despite trillions of dollars, U.S. has squandered any and all avenues to transform its position regionally. This in turn has placed the U.S. at a severe disadvantage in the region. Iran, could in effect, be the pivoting point for a complete re-alignment of the global economy and U.S. supremacy. Iran could spell the end of the U.S. empire, just like it spelt the end of the British empire when Mossadegh rose and nationalized Iranian oil.
On reflection, the best strategy of ALL, would have been to have a strong ally in the ‘form of Iran’ in the region – that could have accomplished ALL our goals without the U.S. lifting a finger – fight Iraq, clean up Afghanistan, contain Russia, and China, win over all Central Asia, be a great market for U.S. products and services.
Yes, Arabs would have been unhappy about it, but it’s the best counter strategy to China, Russia etc. Now – it might be too late. The regime in Iran will not engage – and is too strong militarily to be defeated. Trump has destroyed all possibility of rapprochement – which in turn places US in very unfortunate strategic position. Very sadly, American policy makers still cannot self-exam and self-reflect on their mistakes and its impact on human history.
An interesting conclusion from the facts, is that the “Iran Containment Policy” is not American at all. It’s a policy that was established in Tel Aviv and Riyadh (and other places) – simply being undertaken by the U.S. on their behalf. Right now, it does NOT serve U.S. interests at all. If there is profit in having airline hubs in Dubai – it surely is NOT for U.S. based airlines (and given the volume of aircraft purchased from Airbus for Dubai based airlines, it’s not for Boeing to pocket for its shareholders). If there is profit in exploiting the southern regions of the Caspian Sea (Iran’s territory) – it surely is NOT for U.S. based oil companies. If there is profit in building sky scrapers along the Persian Gulf or playing sanction buster (via shipping or banking in Dubai for example), it is surely NOT for U.S. based banks or shipping companies. As usually, U.S. policy is designed to generate profits for its allies but at heavy cost to the U.S. while at that same time NOT supporting U.S. long-term strategic interests. Even, the constant ‘talk’ making Iran the subject of evening news or DC policy forums in the U.S. is largely a distraction when there are more serious and critical issues that policy makers need to be focused on. Not the least of which is the emergence of China globally.
When it comes to Iran, the U.S. is stuck in a quick sand, with no real ability to move. 330 Million Americans have relegated their decisions to 7 million Israelis and 35 million Arabs – on what? On Iran and the Iranian influence region (with populations exceeding 200 Million) which are all affected by this U.S. policy.
The truth is, with this kind of idiotic policy making, the American empire deserves to fade into history. This Iranian conundrum represents every element of U.S. political malaise (not the least of which has been the sale of U.S. policy by duly elected U.S. politicians to the highest bidders (be they from Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Israeli-Americans in Las Vegas).
Americans are also clearly victims of underhanded, dirty party-political infighting that created this problem in the first place …. Check out Reagan’s October Surprise, Iran-Contra, Bush’s Hanging Chads (disqualifying Floridian Voters) and Trump’s Russia-Lago.
One thing is for sure, America’s inability to resolve this dilemma with Iran, will ultimately lead to the end of U.S. economic and political dominance, as China and Russia move in and dominate Central Asia and the Middle East, and create fast transportation lanes to Europe with Iran’s full support and assistance.
China has already supplanted the U.S. as Germany’s largest trading partner. And despite sanctions Russia’s trade with Germany grew 25% last year and will soon overtake the U.S. as Germany’s second largest trading partner. Policy makers should just think about that for a few seconds. Mull that over…