One thing that has puzzled and concerned me a bit is the use of the word “containment” when applied to Iran policy options. Often I see “containment” being held up as the good alternative to military action.I’m not a licensed historian, but as I understand it, the strategy of containment as originally proposed was about stopping the spread of communism. The very word “containment” presupposes that there is some aggressive, expansionist entity which needs to be contained within a geographical boundary. Is Iran really much of an aggressive expansionist force? Does it need containing? What about just ignoring it and letting it be?Anyway, my point is that making the debate be one between preemptive military action and containment sort of reinforces the warmonger frame that Iran is a dangerous expansionist foe, akin to the Soviet Union. And the word containment has such negative connotations and so much historical baggage.I think a more precise word for dealing with a nuclear Iran would be “deterrence”. i.e. can Iran be forever deterred from using a nuclear weapon. I don’t even really like that word though, because it assumes that Iran needs deterring. What if they don’t plan to nuke anyone? Are we deterring Pakistan, or China, or France?
Good point. Bill Keller’s important piece on the subject in the New York Times emphasized containing Iran. But he did use the deterrence concept:
If the U.S. arsenal deterred the Soviet Union for decades of cold war and now keeps North Korea’s nukes in their silos, if India and Pakistan have kept each other in a nuclear stalemate, why would Iran not be similarly deterred by the certainty that using nuclear weapons would bring a hellish reprisal?
Glenn Greenwald in the Guardian today is also using the d-word, emphasizing Iran’s ability to deter attacks:
[On Monday Senator Lindsey Graham] explained the real reason Iranian nuclear weapons should be feared:
“They have two goals: one, regime survival. The best way for the regime surviving, in their mind, is having a nuclear weapon, because when you have a nuclear weapon, nobody attacks you.”
Graham added that the second regime goal is “influence”, that “people listen to you” when you have a nuclear weapon. In other words, we cannot let Iran acquire nuclear weapons because if they get them, we can no longer attack them when we want to and can no longer bully them in their own region.
Graham’s answer is consistent with what various American policy elites have said over the years about America’s enemies generally and Iran specifically: the true threat of nuclear proliferation is that it can deter American aggression.
The most important realist argument for Iran getting nukes, Kenneth Waltz in Foreign Affairs, called nukes “the ultimate deterrent.”
And the scholar Norman Birnbaum, responds to a question at our site, from ProudZionist, criticizing his recent piece in The Nation:
“I would ask Professor Birnbaum one question. Will Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons make the world a more or less safe place?”
From one point of view, Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would act as a deterrent to attacks on Iran, and have a stabilizing effect. From another, it might start a nuclear arms race in the region, where in any case it is difficult to imagine that governments in Algeria and Egypt will indefinitely maintain nuclear arms abstention. Perhaps the question could be rephrased: does Israel’s nuclear arsenal increase its security?