international analysis and commentary

George Kennan in Tehran? The Scenario for a Genuine Containment of Iran


The year 2011 was an extremely challenging one, especially on account of the international financial crisis, and now public opinion is facing another serious cause for concern: is there going to be an attack on Iran?

The strong arguments against such a prospect – ranging from the likelihood of an asymmetrical Iranian response (involving unleashing Hezbollah on Israel) to the impact on the price of oil – should be self-evident. In addition, the umpteenth attack on a Muslim country, whether directly carried out by American forces or merely “authorized” by Washington, would likely spark a wave of anti-Americanism throughout the Islamic and Arab world. And there is always the possibility of an even more serious split in the Western camp than that occasioned by the US attack on Iraq.

Yet an event that seemed impossible only a short while ago may be described today at best as unlikely. There are two main factors preventing us from ruling out an attack: the first is Netanyahu’s complete lack of flexibility, a typical way of dodging serious domestic political issues. The second factor is the US Congress’s unconditional support for Israel, from which President Obama does not appear to be in a position to mark his distance in the run-up to the next election.

The Iranian regime seems, for its part, to be deliberately courting disaster, not with regard to the substance of its position (it is showing a few signs of flexibility over its nuclear program) so much as in terms of its deliberately confrontational rhetoric and of events such as the assault on the British Embassy in Tehran. The fact of the matter is that the regime – in its various factions, and in the dualism between the supreme leader and the president – is effectively united by the overriding priority of its survival, but it is deeply split over the choice between the normalization of international relations and post-revolutionary identity-based radicalism.

In particular, the danger is that the more extreme factions – those that fear that the normalization of relations with the United States may mean the end of the Islamic Republic – not only accept the risk of a military attack but actually consider it the most reliable way of consolidating the regime. We might concede that they are not totally wrong if we look at the historic precedent of Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran back in 1980, which consolidated the Islamic Revolution and forged a new unity, based on strong Iranian nationalism, among otherwise bitterly opposed groups and tendencies.

Today, as in 1980, only a handful of the regime’s opponents would look with favor on a foreign military attack; few Iranians would accord priority to their hatred of the government in office over their love of country.

So, what is the solution? The nuclear issue is serious, although it is less dramatically urgent than certain people would have us believe. It is serious on account of its potential for triggering proliferation in the region, but in the more immediate term there is another even more cogent reason: unless we succeed in halting what seems to be an inexorable march toward nuclear military capability on Iran’s part, the prospect of an Israeli attack could upgrade from the level of a possibility to that of a probability, not to say an outright certainty.

Moreover, the nuclear program is not the only issue. The broader issue is how to turn Iran into “a normal country”, not so much in the sense of a democracy – which does not appear, in light of either US or European practice, to be considered a necessary prerequisite for coexistence and trade – as in the sense of a country playing a normal role in the international community. In other words, how can we drag Iran out of its condition as a pariah state, ever subjected to isolation and to sanctions?

Unfortunately, the “Iranian question” is too often addressed in terms of an alternative between militarist hawks (who depict Iran as a country intentionally moving toward an apocalyptic finale) on one side, and doves (who think that honest dialogue based on recognition of the other side’s viewpoint would be sufficient to resolve the current tension) on the other.

It is as though we had all forgotten how a far more powerful and global challenge – that of the Soviet system – was addressed and overcome (or perhaps it would be more correct to say “how it was lost by Soviet Communism”). It is as though we had forgotten that there does exist a third way between war and appeasement.

Netanyahu and the US neocons brandish aloft the specter of “Munich” and draw contrived parallels between Shiite Iran and Nazi Germany, highlighting the fact that the only thing that eventually stopped Germany was a war; but they carefully avoid referring to other major challenge, the Communist system, or mentioning the fact that the USSR was neither attacked nor isolated and targeted by sanctions, but simply “contained”.

The recent publication of a monumental biography of George Kennan by historian John Lewis Gaddis should prompt us to take a fresh look at an extraordinarily interesting sequence of events in 20th century history. “Containment” – a brilliant idea which Kennan put forward in 1946 (in his famous “Long Telegram”) and which he subsequently developed in an article in Foreign Affairs (signed “Mr. X”) the following year – failed to win either immediate or universal acceptance; indeed, it came up against the “rollback” strategy (both at the time and on more than one occasion in the following decades). This was an alternative strategy which was only conceivable in a context involving the use of force.

Using the word “containment” seems to conjure up the specter of the Cold War, a long period brimming with tension, with the risk of a nuclear clash or of some destabilizing action in a secondary theater (in other words, not in Europe but in Southeast Asia or in Latin America: see Vietnam and Cuba). But, instead, we should take a comprehensive look at events between 1945 and 1991, when the USSR imploded. Above all, we should refer to the “authentic interpretation” of containment that we can gauge from the political, rather than purely intellectual, positions adopted by George Kennan virtually right up to this death in 2005.

If we do this, we shall see that containment does not just mean preventing your adversary from translating his challenge into territorial expansion and military conquest; it also means engaging him in areas (from the economy to culture) where we know full well that, once we have simply neutralized his strength, all of the other factors are going to play in our favor. In the earliest versions of containment, Kennan foretold the defeat and decline of the Soviet challenge on the grounds that it would prove incapable of competing with the United States or with the broader West.

To quote from Gaddis’s biography, Kennan “always regarded successful containment not as an end in itself, but as the prerequisite for the ultimate process of negotiations.” That is by no means a paradox: the hyper-realist diplomat, the man who devised the winning blueprint for the Cold War, in fact the “cold warrior” par excellence, was the very opposite of the irresponsible and fanatical hawks who are pushing for an attack on Iran today.

During the Vietnam War, he adopted an openly critical stance, railing vehemently against “the spectacle of Americans attacking a poor, weak people, and in particular a people of a different race and color… a spectacle which is damaging the United States’ image in the world.” In fact, it was precisely on account of his opposition to the war that, despite being deeply conservative in spirit, he offered his support to liberal Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 election campaign.

Reagan’s foreign policy, with its arms race and its “Empire of Evil” rhetoric, prompted him to deplore what he termed an “ignorant administration, devoid of intelligence and arrogant, as well as frivolous and rash.”

In 2002, speaking in the course of a debate on the “pre-emptive war” against Iraq, Kennan – then aged 98 – once again adopted a stance against the militarization of US foreign policy, pointing out that “war has its own dynamic which is capable of dragging us way beyond what we may have initially set out to achieve.”

In other words, the rationale of containment is not the rationale of (cold) war but rather the premise for an amenability to negotiate. This is no reason for the adversary to be allowed to perceive such amenability as a sign of weakness. Naturally, it is impossible to countenance such a strategy if we convince ourselves that our adversary does not seek survival and victory but death, like a suicide bomber. Yet that is certainly not the Iranian regime’s position. The Iranian regime is rational in the extreme; indeed, it is even opportunistic in its more extremist factions: after all, radical adventurism is a form of gambling, not a death wish.

If George Kennan could still share with us his lucidity and his experience – which can be applied well beyond the mere horizon of the Cold War – he would advise us to set aside the false and fatalistic alternative between waging war and simply doing nothing. He would urge us to view sanctions not as a step in an escalation leading to war, but as a “negative incentive”, discouraging the adversary to engage in real negotiations; to remember that isolation actually favors non-democratic regimes (have we forgotten the result of the 50-year US embargo against Cuba?); and to responsibly weigh up the real cost of a military attack on Iran.