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Weighing A Policy Of Containment For Iran


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington, sitting in for Neal Conan. The Soviets got the bomb in 1949, and we learned to live with it. North Korea tested its first bomb in 2006, and again, we've just learned to live it. Now many are warning that Iran is racing toward the day when it, too, can call itself a nuclear power, and the broadest consensus seems to be that that cannot be allowed to happen.

The Iranians need to be stopped, either by going to war to stop them, which is the option that many in Israel see as increasingly necessary, or by using various forms of pressure to persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear goal on their own.


In this discussion, the term containment has emerged as almost a kind of political dirty word, containment, an approach that was based on finding ways to keep our nuclear adversaries hemmed in while persuading them that using their weapons against us or our allies would be the very worst move they could ever make.

Again, it was our response to nuclear North Korea and the Soviet empire. But with Iran, what about containing a nuclear Iran? Well, forget it is essentially what the White House is saying. About a half hour ago at a news conference, the president reiterated his policy is not going to be one of containment.

But today, we are asking why not, exactly? What perceptions fuel the president's sense that containment should be off the table? And what are the arguments for containment, which again, to be clear, means that we would be living with an Iran that has nuclear weapons.

Is there actually a case to be made for that? Do you think that containment will work with Iran? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later on the program, we'll have a parents' perspective on children who are caring for their aging parents. But first, Suzanne Maloney studies Iran and policies in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East as a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy - for Mid-East policy at the Brookings Institution. She is also the author of "Iran's Long Reach: Iran as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World." She joins us from the studio at Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Suzanne, thanks for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION.


SUZANNE MALONEY: Thanks so much for having me.

DONVAN: So let's start with a very, very basic primer, a little bit more on the actual term containment, which means what?

MALONEY: Well, containment was a term that was used to describe the American goal in dealing with communist Soviet Union, basically to prevent Soviet Russia from using its military forces to conquer directly or assume indirect control of the countries that bordered along it and integrate those countries into its power bloc.

And so talk about containing a nuclear Iran is really to adapt the term, to adapt the historical usage of the term, but it has become sort of a lexicon for how one would deal with an Iran that has crossed a point of no return with respect to its nuclear weapons capabilities.

DONVAN: So to take a minute longer - a moment longer on the Soviet model, as you describe it, it was to keep Soviet - communism from spreading. It was not to control the spread of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons, per se, and... Go ahead.

MALONEY: It was to contain the spread of Soviet influence, really, Soviet influence and domination. And I think that is why you typically hear about containment with reference to Iran and Iran's presumed bid for regional hegemony - that an Iran with a nuclear weapon would be attempting to assert its influence across the region.

And so our concerns about a nuclear Iran would not simply be, would such a government user or potentially transfer a nuclear weapon to one of its terrorist proxies, but how would it influence the behavior of the Iranian regime in - with respect to conflicts in Lebanon, with respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict and with respect to the oil markets and the export of petroleum from the Gulf.

DONVAN: And now with Iran, it's being posited as an alternative, very much so, as an alternative to direct military action to stop their program. Although again, going back to the Soviet model, it didn't stop war. I mean, the - we fought wars but not - such as the Vietnam War and the Korean War to stop the spread of communist influence - but the idea was that containment was an alternative to all-out, head-on-head war with the Soviets. Is that correct?

MALONEY: I think that's correct. I mean, the idea of containment can really vary depending on, you know, what the model is and what the context is. And so one can look at a soft containment that might be simply preventing Iran from invading its neighbors to a much more aggressive containment, which would involve efforts to fully isolate and cordon off any attempts by Iran to influence those other countries around it.

DONVAN: But as we're using the term now, containment, as I said in the introduction, actually means containment of a nuclear Iran. It means that we accept - we now, ahead of time, accept that we're going to have to deal with a nuclear Iran. It's an alternative to trying to stop them from having nuclear weapons.

MALONEY: Well, let me just clarify that I don't think containment is anyone's preferred option, and I think that what the administration has described about both the window of opportunity for diplomacy and the focus of this administration's - and frankly all prior U.S. administrations' - strategy on preventing Iran from achieving a weapons capability, a nuclear weapons capability, is absolutely the most appropriate one.

But I do think that it is a considerable problem in our strategic thinking, in our strategic discourse, particularly for a country that has now experienced more than a decade of war in two separate arenas in the greater Middle East, to not be able to even contemplate or discuss publicly what a sort of containment strategy might look like and how we might approach that.

DONVAN: How might we, and what might it look like?

MALONEY: Well, I think there would be a number of different options. There would certainly be a military dimension, although one can argue that we already have the basic building blocks of a military containment strategy in place with respect to our tremendous relationships across all of the region, as well as prepositioning of materiel and American troops in the Gulf and as well as all - really ringing Iran.

There is a strategic and an economic dimension of containment, and again, I think we have components of some of that policy already in place. And finally there would be a diplomatic dimension and an attempt to sort of create a really robust framework for U.S. policy and for maintaining an alliance of countries to deal with a nuclear Iran that would also, I think, have to extend to the provision of explicit security guarantees to some of those allies, most particularly Israel but potentially also some of the Gulf countries.

So, you know, these are the sorts of elements of the containment strategy that one might think about, but once again, we need to keep the focus on preventing the program.

DONVAN: Yeah, and I do understand you're saying what the president is saying as preventing them from getting it in the first place, although he doesn't seem at this point to be talking nearly as overtly as the Israelis about the need for military action, he's reserving that option.

But I want to bring you back to the notion of trying to make containment work when I think the perception is that if containment was what was successful with the Soviets, it was partly based on the reality that the Soviets weren't suicidal. They didn't - they were - it was made clear to them that if they launched a nuclear attack, they would receive a nuclear attack, and we were banking on their rationality and their similarity to us.

And the conversation seems to involve here the notion that the Iranians aren't like that, that containment wouldn't work because the Iranians wouldn't make those sorts of calculations. What about that thought?

MALONEY: Well, there is a certain presumption that exists, that somehow the Iranian regime is not wholly rational, that its relationships with terrorist proxies and organizations that we have deemed terrorist would make it a much greater risk.

But I would argue that there is no evidence that the Iranian regime, over the course of now 33 years, has engaged in suicidal behavior. In fact, basically at every point, the Iranian regime has hedged its bets, has sacrificed its ideological constraints in order to preserve the regime and to preserve its strategic capabilities.

And so as a result, you know, even after eight years of war with Iraq, a war that the founder of the revolution said would not be over until the Islamic Republic had taken Saddam Hussein and taken Baghdad, the Iranians agreed to accept a ceasefire and live with a very unpromising outcome to that war, simply because it was a necessity for them.

So this is a regime that can calculate costs and benefits and act in a rational manner.

DONVAN: All right, I want to bring in Matthew Kroenig to the conversation. He is a Stanton Nuclear Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and assistant professor of government at Georgetown. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Matthew, thanks for joining us on TALK OF THE NATION.

What Suzanne is basically saying is that - and she makes it clear that, like the president, she thinks the best outcome at the present moment is prevention of the Iranians having success at gaining a nuclear weapon - but in making the case for containment being at least a reasonable way, a reasonable accommodation of potential reality, she says that it could work.

I want to ask you, do you think that a strategy of containment could work with Iran?

MATTHEW KROENIG: Well, containment has an aura of respectability because it is seen to have worked during the Cold War. But, you know, let's be very clear about what we're talking about here. We're talking about simply acquiescing to an Iranian nuclear capability, and a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a grave threat to international peace and security, it would likely lead to further proliferation in the Middle East, as other countries in the region try to get nuclear weapons in response.

Iran itself would likely become a nuclear supplier, potentially transferring sensitive nuclear material to U.S. enemies, states, and possibly even terrorist groups. Iran would probably be more aggressive. Right now, we think Iran restrains its foreign policy because it fears a massive military retaliation. With nuclear weapons, it could feel free to push harder, stepping its support to terrorist groups and coercive diplomacy in the region.

So this could an even more crisis-prone region. And if Iran and additional states in the region have nuclear weapons, any one of these crises could result in nuclear war. And experts estimate that Iran could have delivery vehicles capable of reaching the east coast of the United States within about five years.

So in the future, one of these crises could result in a nuclear detonation on the American homeland. So a nuclear-armed Iran is very dangerous. If they got nuclear weapons, we could in place a deterrence and containment regime, as she suggests, but, you know, again, this is talking about a massive increase of U.S. political and military commitments in the region.

So this would mean signing formal security guarantees with Saudi, other Gulf states and Israel, extending our nuclear umbrella over those countries as we did during the Cold War. And so again, let's call a spade a spade. What we're talking about doing here is fighting a nuclear war on behalf of Saudi Arabia, on behalf of Gulf states, on behalf of Israel. I'm not sure that that's something that the American public is willing to commit to. So it's a dangerous option.

DONVAN: Matthew - we're talking about Iran with Matthew Kroenig and Suzanne Maloney, and we also want to bring you into the conversation. The question is: Do you think that containment could work with Iran at a time when the president has ruled that off the table? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is Stay with us. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. We're talking about Iran and the possibility of containment as a policy. President Obama today stressed that diplomacy, he believes, can still resolve the crisis over Iran's nuclear ambitions, but if that does not work, and if Iran does some day, and against international efforts, develop nuclear weapons, do you think that containment would work with Iran?

Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our guests today are Suzanne Maloney, she is a former policy advisor to the U.S. State Department and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution; and Matthew Kroenig, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University.

And Matthew Kroenig, before the break, you were talking about the great threat that a nuclear Iran could pose in its ability to actually push back now in a way that it can't without nuclear weapons and even its possibility, potentially, to reach the North American continent with ballistic missiles.

And what I want to put to you is the example of North Korea, where potentially - again, these things are true with North Korea, and with North Korea, we didn't quite have the debate and the discussion and perhaps the option to do something about it militarily ahead of time in the same way that's being discussed now. But in what way are we able to tolerate a nuclear North Korea in a way that would be different from a nuclear Iran?

KROENIG: Well, I think if nuclear North Korea as a model for a what a nuclear Iran would look like we should be very concerned. Since acquiring nuclear weapons, North Korea has transferred sensitive nuclear technology to Syria and possibly to Burma and other states. They've arguably been more aggressive vis-a-vis South Korea, attacking a South Korean warship recently.

And North Korea has only had nuclear weapons for a couple of years. It conducted its first test in 2006. And so we haven't seen the full range of consequences from a nuclear-armed North Korea. North Korea could have nuclear weapons for decades. In fact, there's only been one country historically to voluntarily give up nuclear weapons, so when you're talking about proliferation to Iran or North Korea, you're talking about a threat that the United States is going to have to live with potentially for decades or longer.

So we could still have a nuclear exchange with North Korea. So I think looking at the North Korea model gives me reason to be very concerned about proliferation in Iran.

DONVAN: We've received some emails from listeners, and I just want to share a few of those. We have one from Harvey(ph), who writes: Iran has as much right to nuclear arms as anyone else. Rhetoric is silly. We are the only country to have used nuclear weapons during war. When it comes to projecting power, we are not innocent. We need to learn to live with other nations on an equal footing.

And from another listener whose name is not given: The difference between Iran and the containment countries today is that they are not filled with religious groups hell-bent on destroying America. There should be no way that Iran or any other nation, equally unstable, should ever have nuclear weapons. And there actually is a name on this one. That's from David(ph) in New York.

And Matthew, Suzanne had made the point that - against the argument that essentially - I mean, to put it bluntly and rudely but in a way I think everybody will understand, that the Iranian leadership is insane, is not sane. She actually pushes back and says that they show a great deal of rationality, reasoned self-interest, commitment to life, their own lives, and their perpetuation, and they are not suicidal. Can you take on that perspective, that they're as reasonable as the Soviets had been?

KROENIG: I think this is actually a point that we basically agree on. For all the inflammatory rhetoric, Iran has been fairly pragmatic in terms of its foreign policy since 1979. So I don't think that they would get nuclear weapons and immediately launch a suicidal nuclear war.

But that said, I still think that there is a lot to worry about with a nuclear-armed Iran, even if they're not suicidal. After all, the United States wasn't suicidal during the Cold War, but we were willing to risk nuclear war a number of times in crises with the Soviet Union, and we came very close to a nuclear exchange.

So I think similarly, a nuclear-armed Iran, you know, on top of all the threats I pointed out to you before of them being more aggressive, further proliferation, and the list goes on, that they would also be willing to risk nuclear in crises with Israel and crises with the United States, and any one of those would have the possibility of escalating.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Dan(ph) from Georgetown, Massachusetts. Hi Dan, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

DAN: Hi, yeah, I kind of agree with the containment because of their history. I think they've shown a lot of restraint over what's happened in their neighborhood in the last 10 years. I - you know, the country is surrounded there by us, and we were all fooled here as U.S. citizens into believing the rhetoric from our own government to get us into the two wars we're in. So I think the conversation is quite ridiculous.

DONVAN: All right, Dan, thanks very much for your comment. I want to come to Alan(ph) in Phoenix, Arizona. Hi, Alan, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ALAN: Howdy.

DONVAN: Hi, you're on the air.

ALAN: The problem of their trustworthiness is irrelevant. Let's assume that they are absolutely, utterly trustworthy somehow. It still doesn't matter because the instant - pardon me, India got the bomb, Pakistan moved heaven and earth to get the bomb. The only reason Japan and South Korea didn't is because both of them amazingly have a phenomenal amount of trust in the United States to cover North Korea.

Nobody in the Middle East trusts the United States that much. The moment the Iranians get the bomb, the Saudis will move heaven and earth to get it. The moment the Saudis do it, the Turks will move heaven and earth to get it. The moment the Saudis do it, the Syrians will move heaven and earth to get it. Then the Iraqis will feel that they have to do everything to get it, and the Israelis will go berserk. Somebody...

DONVAN: So you see sort of a nuclear domino theory taking place. Suzanne Maloney, can you respond to Alan's point on the presence of a nuclear Iran just setting off essentially a domino effect of other nuclear states being born?

MALONEY: Well, I mean, there are a couple of assumptions in that statement that probably bear some correction, you know, at least. Other U.S. allies in other parts of the world have, in fact, pursued nuclear capabilities, including Japan, although they have stopped short of actual weapons capability quite deliberately because of their history.

The history of the Middle East is quite different, and I think there is a considerable risk of a kind of cascadive proliferation, but that risk exists today simply because of the, you know, advances that the Iranians have made over the course of the past decade, since the initial discovery of the covert enrichment program back in 2002.

They have continued to enrich. They have continued to expand their capabilities, and, you know, the difficulty is that at this stage, none of the U.S. allies in the region trust American or Israeli promises that the program will - can be forestalled.

They are quite convinced throughout the Gulf that the Iranians will achieve some sort of a nuclear capability, and so arguably, we are already seeing the very early stages of that kind of cascadive proliferation, and I don't think that it's possible to set back the clock in that respect.

There is a presumption, in fact, that the Saudis have some sort of an arrangement with the Pakistanis. Whether that would have to be more explicit, whether the Saudis would embark on a full-fledged domestic program of nuclear capability, nuclear weapons capability, I think is certainly a concern. But again, we have some capacity to prevent this.

The other piece that I want to stress is simply that we can't judge containment as a sort of alternative to an Iranian nuclear weapon. One, of course...

DONVAN: What do you mean by that?

MALONEY: Well, you know, the sort of negative implications of an Iranian nuclear weapon I think we all agree on, as Matthew set out in his opening remarks. You know, the question and the validity and the utility of containment needs to be assessed against the other alternatives if and when Iran crosses the nuclear weapons threshold, which is: Do you prefer another war in the Middle East and the implications of another war in the Middle East to the possibility of containment? And that needs to be the scale.

DONVAN: What are the implications of another war in the Middle East that would make - I want to put this also, after you answer the question, to Matthew. What are the implications of a war in the Middle East that to you I think would make a containment policy preferable to the results of a war in the Middle East?

MALONEY: I think the implications of another war in the Middle East and a military strike on Iran are quite problematic. First of all, we recognize - and I think this is shared across the board, including by former senior Israeli officials - that any strike, best-case scenario an American strike, worst-case scenario an Israeli strike, which would be more limited in its capacity, would only set back the program for some limited period of time.

If it were an Israeli strike, it might set back the Iranian nuclear program by as little as a year or as much as a handful of years.

DONVAN: So you're saying we'd be back here at this discussion again, then, in a few years?

MALONEY: We would, and we would almost certainly persuade the Iranians to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is at least an opportunity for us to have some insight into the program, the inspectors that are present on the ground to this day as a result of the Iranian involvement in the NNPT is an important check.

DONVAN: Let's let Matthew respond to the point that you just made, that even if there were a military strike at this point, if that has to be the solution - and again, Matthew, I think you're also - you're agreeing that a negotiated solution would be better. But if there had to be a military solution, Suzanne is saying that it would be very temporary, that the Iranians would be able to rebuild and get us back in this position again. What about that?

KROENIG: I think Suzanne is asking the right question. There are a lot of people in Washington who are putting all their eggs in the diplomacy basket. We all hope that that works out. But at some point very soon, we could face this very difficult decision between a strike or a containment. So I think she's asking the right question. I think she comes to the wrong conclusion. I think that these are bad options, but that a strike would be the least bad option.

So it's almost certain the United States would completely destroy Iran's key nuclear facilities. This would, at a minimum, set Iran's nuclear program back. But, of course, the hope would be that something happens to where Iran ends up permanently without nuclear weapons. And there are examples in the past, for example, Syria bombed - I'm sorry - Israel bombed a nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007, and there are no indications that Syria has rebuilt its nuclear facility since then. So it's possible that Iran could simply give up in the aftermath of a strike. But there's a lot that could happen with that additional time to where we end up in a situation where Iran is permanently without nuclear weapons.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Eric(ph) from Mesa, Arizona. Hi, Eric. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ERIC: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to point out that I think the issue of containments may not be - I think deterrence is probably a better term than containment because both the...

DONVAN: I think both of our guests are - understand deterrent as being part of containment, but how are you making the distinction?

ERIC: Well, I make the distinction because, I guess, what I wanted to point out is I don't think Iran has lost the idea that, you know, we do have nuclear submarines, nuclear missile submarines out there. And I don't think that they're going to commit suicide. And I think that the real issue, as your guests had pointed out and I completely agree with what Suzanne has been saying - proliferation that Matthew brings up, that is a legitimate concern, but the real issue is the balance of power in the Gulf. And - but the nuclear weapons issue in and of itself is not really as relevant as I think we're - we make it out.

DONVAN: Why not?

ERIC: Because they're not going to use it, you know...


ERIC: I mean, it would be a suicidal move, and they know it.

DONVAN: But Matthew is making point that...

ERIC: You don't have, you know...

DONVAN: But Matthew is making the point that it gives them a much better hand to play at the table if they have nuclear weapons, that they get to push back...

ERIC: But they're not - they can't use it. They can't do anything with it without basically committing suicide, and they know that.

DONVAN: All right. Eric, thanks very much for making the call. I want to bring in now Jay in Norwood, Massachusetts. You're on TALK OF THE NATION, Jay.

JAY: Hi there. Thanks for taking my call. I appreciate it. I wanted to make threes points actually. The first is I agree with the containment strategy of your speaker. I do not think Iran is suicidal. And secondly, I think that we have not take into the consequence of the cost of what this is going to take. The Iraq War cost us a trillion dollars, and they were a fraction of the strength of Iran. I think just to round up a war, even if an attack takes a few weeks or months, it would be in the tens of billions of dollars. Well, we're running trillions of dollars of deficits. Brent Scowcroft said that United States couldn't fight a war for three days without borrowing the money from China. And the final point I want to make is that China or India are subverting us right now by buying Iranian oil with gold. So they have to be factored in to what's going to happen here. They're not going to stand by.

DONVAN: All right, Jay. Thanks for your call. You're listening TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Suzanne Maloney, Jay's point about just the cost of war, just the dollar cost of war being something we can't handle right now, does that figure into your description of why a military option would be less preferable to living with a nuclear Iran?

MALONEY: It certainly does, and I think it's not simply the cost of the armaments and the military commitments of actually waging the war, but the impact that a strike on Iran and the expected Iranian retaliation, which would hit Israel as well as American interests throughout the Middle East, and then, particularly, the Persian Gulf would have in the broader global economy and the very fragile recovery that we're seeing now at home and around the world.

I think you'd be looking at a spike in oil prices that would last for weeks, if not months, above $200 a barrel. And that would have catastrophic implications for growth and jobs.

DONVAN: I mean, the reason we're talking about this and this sense of urgency comes now is because the Israelis are concerned that the clock is ticking and a window is closing for them to do something about this because the Iranians are apparently beginning to put stuff underground, and it will soon be out of reach of Israeli bombs, some of it will be. And the Israelis missed their opportunity to do something once - what they would think of as once and for all, taking still the point you make, Suzanne, that they might be able to rebuild. But given that ticking clock situation, I want to ask you, Matthew, is there any indication at all - since both of you say you would prefer a negotiated solution to this, is there any indication at all that the Iranians are ready to listen to a deal and to call this off on their own in exchange for something?

KROENIG: Well, there are signs that they're starting to feel the pressure of sanctions, and there'd been some indications recently that they're ready to come back to the negotiating table. The point, though, of the sanctions is not only to get them to the negotiating table, but to get them to say something meaningful and to put meaningful curbs on their nuclear program. At this point, unfortunately, I'm skeptical that we can get a negotiated settlement. It's just very hard for me to see any overlap between...

DONVAN: I mean, if you were them, Matthew, would you negotiate at this point? Is there - would you see an argument to be made internally that we should stop all of this?

KROENIG: Well, Iran's primary strategic goals are to continue to exist as a state and to become the most dominant state in the region, and nuclear weapons gives them both of those things. And so nuclear weapons, I think, are seen as very valuable, and the supreme leader right now is not looking for a nonproliferation agreement with the country that is known the Great Satan. That's not what he's looking for.

DONVAN: And, Suzanne, the same question to you: do you see indication that the Iranians are perceiving an incentive to back down?

MALONEY: The Iranians had said they're going to come back to the table, and there is now the expectation that there are going to be a set of discussions between the multilateral coalition, the P5-plus-1 as it's known, and Tehran. They're showing some new flexibility on - particularly on inspections of military sites and other issues that have been sticking points. But I, like Matthew, remained very skeptical in part because I think much of what we've done, both the discourse about war, as well as sanctions that were explicitly intended and stated on Capitol Hill, is designed to collapse the Iranian economy have only played into Iran's paranoia.

This is a leadership that is convinced that Washington is not prepared to allow the Islamic republic to continue to exist. And for that reason, I see little evidence or likelihood that they're going to come to the negotiating table in a serious fashion.

DONVAN: All right. I want to thank you both for joining us. Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brooking Institution, and Matthew Kroenig, Stanton Nuclear Security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. As we say, the clock is ticking on this issue, but there's still time to go, so I'm assuming, almost certain, we'll be returning to this topic in the future. But thank you for joining us, both of you.

KROENIG: Thank you.

DONVAN: And thank you to our listeners for your calls. Coming up, we talked last week about the frustration and the guilt felt by many adult children who find themselves taking care of their aging parents. Today, we're going to hear from the other side. We're going to hear from the point of view of those aging parents. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.