Containment helped define US foreign policy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Inspired by a view of the USSR as expansionist and intractably opposed to capitalist states, containment was viewed as the most cost-effective method to prevent Soviet extension without resorting to cataclysmic war.
The policy was perhaps best described by George Kennan in his 1947 'X' article, in which he claimed "it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies."
Yet, although the X article was written about the idiosyncracies of the Soviet system, containment is not a policy necessarily specific to the unique characteristics of the Cold War. Many in Washington appear to currently view a similar policy as an option in its dealings with a very different but similarly ideologically opposed rival, namely Iran.
For the present, Washington's commitment to this policy remains partial, as other policies are pursued to prevent Iran gaining a nuclear capability, and hence containment is not a viable option. However, should other policies fail entirely, and Iran become emboldened in its foreign policy by a nuclear status, containment is likely to characterise the US' policy towards the Islamic Republic.
Containment, at present, appears the policy option most likely to be used should all other avenues fail to defuse the international stand-off over the Islamic Republic's uranium enrichment programme. Given the lack of success that has been forthcoming from other policies, including a new incentive package from the five permanent United Nations Security Council members plus Germany and Washington's decision to join direct discussions with Iran, to resolve the disagreements, the possibility of a focus on containment is increasing.
The containment policy would not seek to deter use of nuclear weapons by Iran or its allies. Washington believes itself able to deter Tehran from the use of nuclear weapons with its own advanced, extensive and secure nuclear arsenal. Rather, containment would attempt to prevent an Iran emboldened by nuclear weapons using its proxies or conventional forces in regional operations to extend the country's influence.
The range of possible regional operations is significant, largely owing to the unstable international politics of the Gulf region. Beyond the possible use of Iranian proxies in Iraq and Lebanon, three Persian Gulf islands disputed the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tonb islands – remain longstanding flashpoints. Moreover, Hossein Shariatmadari, appointed to the editorship of the hardline Iranian daily Kayhan by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, raised regional anxiety with a 9 July 2007 editorial suggesting that the island nation of Bahrain should, after almost five centuries of separation, return to Iranian control, while the member states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar), remain concerned about Iranian statements over Tehran's ability to close the Strait of Hormuz.
This does not demonstrate that such conflict is likely, nor that Tehran harbours expansionist tendencies or an irrepressible desire for expeditionary operations, but it does reflect a clear range of possible conflict areas in the region.
Given these scenarios, it is unsurprising that the US might seek to rely on a strategy that underlay US strategy during the Cold War. To succeed in an Iranian context, any containment would necessarily rely on three factors: troop deployments and US basing overseas, weapons sales to countries surrounding Iran, and diplomatic alliances. However, political constraints, regional sensitivities and concern over dealing with some regional regimes are all hindering US preparations for a containment strategy, and hence Washington's ability to enforce containment is currently limited.
In terms of US basing, there is already a demonstrable trend towards containment. US forces surround Iran, with a total of approximately 250,000 troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, the six GCC states and Turkey. Although President Bush announced a drawdown of 8,000 troops from Iraq on 9 September, he simultaneously outlined an increase of 4,500 personnel in Afghanistan, demonstrating that even as the Iraq deployment winds down amid domestic pressure, Washington remains militarily committed to the region around Iran.
However, while these operations appear to field a formidable aggregate force, in reality the majority of these troops are already engaged in operations related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moreover, many of the facilities used by the US are both temporary in nature and subject to rigorous political control by regional states. Because the US presence in Saudi Arabia became a rally point for Islamist militants, for example, the Kuwaiti government imposed strict regulations on the movement of US military personnel stationed in their country. US troops, for example, are not allowed to visit tourist sites or markets in Kuwait except on periodic, escorted group tours. The Kuwaiti government also designates portions of Camp Arifjan as temporary and insists that when US forces depart, no trace of their presence should remain. In practice, this means that US officers must spend weeks engaging the Kuwaiti bureaucracy if they wish to do so much as pave a road through their tent city.
Similarly, while the US military and Oman maintain a façade of co-operation, the Omani leadership undermined US confidence in its reliability when, at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, it withheld permission for several days for the US Air Force to conduct operations against the Taliban from airfields on Omani territory because of its desire to preserve the appearance of neutrality in a fight involving co-religionists.
Qatar's importance to the US has grown since the 1995 palace coup that installed Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa ath-Thani. Al-Ubeid today is perhaps the most important US base in the region, but it alone cannot alone sustain a containment strategy. Nor does any containment mission have the depth provided by active Saudi participation. Most US military departed Prince Sultan Air Base, 80 kilometers south of Riyadh, only five years ago, leaving facility maintenance and upgrade in the hands of Saudi officials whose standards may not be up to US military requirements.
Beyond the GCC, given its extensive frontier, Iraq would be vital in any containment of Iran. However, while many members of US Congress support containment of Iran as an alternative to military action, their opposition to upgrading US facilities inside Iraq — such as the Kirkuk and Tallil Air Bases — has undercut the implementation of the containment policy they claim to support. Protracted US-Iraq negotiations over the Status of Forces Agreement has also hampered any containment strategy and muted most debate among defence planners and within the US Congress with regard to the wisdom of permanent bases inside Iraq. While the US and Iraq are likely to agree ultimately on a continued US presence, at least until 2011, the expected gradual drawdown of troops, likely to be hastened should Barack Obama win the US elections, suggests that the ability to effect containment will also gradually diminish.
Another Iranian neighbour, Turkey, could be another vital lynchpin in any US containment strategy, particularly given its membership of NATO. Yet, few US officials presently consider Turkey as a reliable ally in times of regional conflict, primarily owing to the ruling Justice and Development Party's refusal to join the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the sensitivity of 2007 negotiations over renewal of the US lease of portions of Incirlik Air Base, near Adana. In the latter example, the key question about renewal regarded Ankara's demand that it could veto missions originating from the facility, especially as they might regard Iraq and Iran. Recent Turkish overtures toward Iran and the Turkish government's unwillingness to join sanctions against the Islamic Republic have further heightened US concern. While the upper reaches of the Turkish General Staff may still be pro-American, no US planner relies on Turkey as a keystone in containment of Iran.
Finally, Pakistan, bordering Iran to the east, while long a nominal US ally will not participate actively in containment of Iran for reasons of its own instability, its orientation to counter perceived threats from India, and its involvement in Afghanistan.
These various political restrictions to basing rights hinder levels of US troops in the region, and hence any attempts to prepare for containment. Any serious containment strategy will likely require more than the 42,500 US troops currently in the Persian Gulf, many of which only serve support functions. This suggests other policies must be implemented to augment the meager US troops based in the region.
To effectively contain Iran would require upgrading regional facilities to expedite deployment in event of hostility; deploying advanced anti-aircraft weaponry around regional states' economic assets—such as oil fields and industrial infrastructure—which would likely be targets of an Iranian first strike; and perhaps most significantly upgrading regional militaries to wage war independently against Iran for several days until the Pentagon can send reinforcements to the region.
The import of this latter factor is made apparent by an analysis of the strategic balance in the region. At present, US regional allies neither have the troops nor the material to themselves contain Iran. The Islamic Republic has some 540,000 troops spread among the regular military, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), and the paramilitary Basij (which, in September 2007, was nominally folded into the IRGC proper). Saudi Arabia has approximately 200,000 men, and the other GCC states add another 130,000 combined. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan bring another 92,000 troops. Turkey has 402,000 active military personnel, but the current Turkish leadership is unlikely to allow these to be used beyond containment of threats – largely from Kurdish militants -- along its own 499 km frontier with Iran. While the US has invested billions in the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, both are inwardly focused and ill-prepared to counter any external threat.
In terms of materiel, Iran is the single leading military power in the Gulf, although largely holds parity in comparison to the other regional powers in aggregate. Saudi Arabia and the smaller GCC states maintain approximately 2,300 main battle tanks versus 1,700 in Iran. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan add another 900. Iran, meanwhile, maintains the lead in its navy: 260 vessels including a handful of submarine, versus less than 200 vessels for the entire GCC and only six patrol boats for Azerbaijan.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have near parity in combat aircraft numbers — 280 against 290 —although Saudi Arabia has a qualitative edge as its F-15s remains superior to Iran's MiG-29s and Su-24s in an air-to-air capacity. Iran, however, has a superior ballistic missile capability to any immediate neighbours besides Pakistan. Iran's Shahab-3 missile has performed erratically during tests, but now reportedly has a 2,000 km range.
Given this military balance, the US is eager to bolster indigenous GCC military capability and missile defences, improve interoperability and enhance protection of critical infrastructure. In order to achieve this goal, the Bush administration in May 2006 launched a new Gulf Security Dialogue, which includes a series of arms sales to upgrade regional military capabilities, particularly GCC anti-missile capabilities. In December 2007, for example, the Department of Defense notified Congress of the UAE's intention to purchase 288 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) air defence missiles and 216 PAC-2 Guidance Enhanced missiles and of Kuwait's intention to purchase 80 PAC-3s and kits to upgrade 60 earlier generation PAC-2s. Saudi forces themselves man earlier generation Patriot batteries over the past several months, received advanced medium-range air-to-air AIM-120C5 missiles ordered in 2006. While these may not provide protection from Iranian missiles, they do provide deterrence against any potential Iranian manned or unmanned aerial assault on Saudi oil infrastructure. The US installed missile defence emplacements in Qatar as it built al-Udeid and prepositioned armor and heavy equipment to the peninsular country. Turkey is also considering the PAC-3 along with other anti-missile systems manufactured in Israel and Russia. Turkey's procurement process, however, is slow in comparison to other NATO countries, and more vulnerable to political complications.
However, while such advanced equipment can provide regional militaries with a qualitative edge over the Iranian military, again political restrictions exist that will prevent the sale of sensitive equipment. In particular, a traditional desire for Israel to retain a qualitative edge in technology over any real or potential adversaries hampers any attempt to arm regional states. In practice, determinations over arms sales to moderate Arab states are scattered throughout the US executive branch. The Department of State's Office of Political-Military Affairs supervises weapons sales and exports. The National Disclosure Policy Committee, comprised of the secretaries of state and defence, the secretaries of each armed service and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, vets the release of sensitive weapons technology. The intelligence community inputs into both bodies. Lastly, Israeli military officials meet their Pentagon counterparts at the Department of Defense's annual Joint Political Military Group meeting, during which Tel Aviv can voice concern about their adversaries' capabilities.
Even when the executive branch deem weapons sales to moderate Arab states permissible, Congress often intervenes to derail sales of advanced weaponry to Arab states. Most famously, this occurred with the failed attempt to cancel a 1981 sale of advanced airborne early warning and control systems aircraft to Saudi Arabia, but more recently Congress has intervened to sidetrack sale of Joint Direct Attack Munitions technology to Saudi Arabia, even as the Bush administration has approved their sale to the UAE, Oman, and Israel.
As US Army Lt Col William Wunderle and US Air Force Lt Col Andre Briere argue in a Winter 2008 Middle East Quarterly article, any strategy to contain a nuclear Iran will require the US government and Congress to rethink and reformulate calculations on restrictions to arms sales in the region, based on the understanding that the GCC states represent the front line of Israeli defence against a mutual Iranian threat and that no GCC state itself poses a serious threat to Israeli security. While a politically sensitive issue, it is
Beyond the military procurement, training is as important to improve the ability of regional militaries to act autonomously. Here, regional militaries vary in their preparedness. Saudi reluctance to host foreign forces in its territory hampers its contribution to containment and to the protection of its critical infrastructure such as the Jubail, Ras Juaymah, and Ras Tannurah refineries in the Eastern province, and the East-West Crude Oil Pipeline (Petroline), which bisects the country and ends at the Red Sea port of Yanbu. While it is hard to gauge the current ability of the Kuwaiti or Qatari militaries to operate independently, their ability to operate equipment and air defences independently has increased through the current decade with training and exercises.
One further constraint on the US' containment strategy is its unwillingeness to engage fully with regional regimes.
President Bush has since 2002 made democratisation a cornerstone of his policy toward the Middle East. His administration's focus on reform and transformational diplomacy complicated relations with longstanding Arab allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, although long-established relationships as well as the desire to win Arab state support for US operations in Iraq muted the democracy agenda within the Department of State's Near East Affairs Bureau.
This has ensured relative continuity in US diplomatic engagement with the Arab states, but has endangered or transformed relations with other states.
Concern over Uzbekistan's human rights violations led the Uzbek government to demand the departure of US forces in 2005 from the air base at Karshi-Khanabad, which had supported the mission in Afghanistan and is well suited to support containment efforts against the Islamic Republic.
Azerbaijan would be on the front line of any containment effort against Iran. It has previously assisted US efforts to hinder Iran's nuclear development. On 29 March 2008, for example, Azeri customs impounded for five weeks ten tons of nuclear equipment trucked from Russia and destined for the Bushehr reactor. Subsequently released, Baku's actions presumably aided intelligence understanding of the shipment and suggested willingness to help US counterproliferation efforts. Concerns over Azerbaijan's commitment to reform and democracy, however, have hampered the military partnership and sales. On 29 July 2008, Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer expressed worries about the state of democracy in Azerbaijan, a concern which will grow ahead of Azerbaijan's October 2008 presidential elections, and linked progress on democratisation to the broad US-Azerbaijan bilateral relationship.
Contain or restrain?With negotiations over Iran's nuclear enrichment deadlocked and widespread recognition in both Europe and the US over the difficulties and complication of military strikes against Iran, US policy makers increasingly say they are prepared to contain Iran. Implementation of a containment policy, however, remains uneven. While the Gulf Security Dialogue will advance GCC military capabilities, no GCC country with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia appears able to withstand an Iranian attack.
Neither the Bush administration, candidates to succeed him, nor Congress have yet proposed streamlining of the weapons procurement process, augmented deployments of forces, especially air force and navy, to the region, upgrading of existing facilities or establishment of new bases, or re-prioritisation of security and democracy concerns along Iran's northern flank. This suggests that the US currently remains ill prepared for any containment strategy, and is unlikely to be in a position to effectively contain a nuclear Iran in coming years.
Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.