Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Don’t ‘Contain’ Iran

Whatever else you want to say about Iranian foreign policy, irredentist is a terrible description of it.

Steven Cook proposes a sort of “third way” Iran policy that seems designed to please no one. He dismisses the idea of rejoining the JCPOA and makes some bizarre claims in the process:

A return to the nuclear agreement or a new JCPOA would create the same dynamics as the original deal, in which the authors and signatories have incentive to overlook violations or other related problems, such as Iran’s irredentist approach to the region [bold mine-DL].

Returning to the nuclear deal would not solve all outstanding problems between the U.S. and Iran, but then no nonproliferation agreement was ever going to do that. The advantage of rejoining the agreement is that it would at least resolve one issue and create the foundation for addressing others. Iran committed no major violations of the JCPOA for the first three and a half years, and it began reducing its compliance with the agreement more than a year after the U.S. reneged on it and started waging economic war. The “same dynamics as the original deal” were pretty good as far as Iranian compliance was concerned.

The remark about an “irredentist approach” is very strange. Irredentism has a very specific meaning, and it does not describe what Iran has been doing at any point in the last forty years. Irredentism is a policy of reclaiming lands that were historically part of the country in question. The word comes from the Italian to refer to their “unredeemed” territories that were still under foreign rule, and it has been applied widely to describe nationalist movements that seek to unite territories as part of a single state. Iran has not been laying claim to lands that once belonged to it. Unlike some other states, it isn’t annexing any new territory, nor is it likely to. Whatever else you want to say about Iranian foreign policy, irredentist is a terrible description of it. This isn’t just a matter of poor word choice. It suggests a basic confusion about what Iran is trying to do with its regional activities, and that leads to a bad policy prescription when Cook calls for containment.

Containment implies that there is an expansionist power that needs to be contained and that it would otherwise run rampant without that containment. It makes the same mistake that the Clinton administration made when it pursued “dual containment” against Iraq and Iran. This is a containment policy directed against a state that lacks the capability to dominate the region. At best, it is a waste of resources that could and should be put to better use elsewhere, and it is in pursuit of an unnecessary goal. The more likely outcome is that it locks the U.S. and Iran into a cycle of more fruitless confrontation. Cook says that the Clinton administration pursued containment “with success” in the 1990s, but what did they have to show for this so-called “success”? The comparison with Cold War-era containment is even less persuasive, and it implies a serious commitment to defending regional clients that the U.S. shouldn’t be making.

A containment policy for Iran would trap the U.S. in an open-ended mission to police the Middle East for decades to come. It would require the U.S. to deepen its ties to unreliable clients that have increasingly become liabilities. It would put the U.S. and Iran on a collision course. There is no compelling U.S. interest to do any of this. Instead of perpetuating the same pointless hostility between our governments, the next administration should rejoin the JCPOA, cancel all of the new and reimposed sanctions that the Trump administration has been using, and establish channels of communication with Iran to prevent conflict and to calm things down in the event of an incident. From there the U.S. should move towards normalizing relations with Iran as much as possible. That would not eliminate all disputes and it would not end all of the activities by the Iranian government that Washington dislikes, but it would provide the U.S. with a means to resolve some disagreements through regular diplomatic exchanges.

The U.S. has expended far too much time, money, and manpower on this part of the world when we have far more important matters to attend to elsewhere in the world and at home, and “containing” Iran would be more of the same for no good reason.



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