With the media churning on the reports of Iranian IEDs in Iraq and fears of a slide into war with Iran over its nuclear program, it's worth spending a few minutes thinking about a different outcome, in which Iran ultimately gets the Bomb, and we enter a new kind of Cold War in the Persian Gulf region. That's what Zbigniew Brzezinski seemed to be hinting at, in his recent testimony on Iraq before Congress, and it's consistent with a new report from the EU on the likelihood of Iran producing enough fissionable material to build a nuclear weapon. As unappealing as the prospect of devoting years or decades to containing a nuclear-armed Iran may seem, it is starting to look more palatable than a wider war in the Middle East, which would have to be prosecuted by a tired and over-extended US military, and probably without allies. And that doesn't even begin to cover the energy implications of such an event.
Two years ago, I put together a lengthy report on Iran's nuclear ambitions. After looking at the relative economics of nuclear power and Iran's vast untapped hydrocarbon reserves, it seemed hard to credit that Iran's efforts were as innocent as they claimed. I concluded that buying time was the best of a batch of poor choices. Unfortunately, although the EU-3 talks with Iran have done just that, we find ourselves with no better options now than then, and if anything the military option looks even less workable. Oil prices have remained high, preserving Iran's economic leverage and the implicit threat of an embargo. Instead of settling down and releasing our deployed forces as a potent and proximate threat against Iran, Iraq is more chaotic, continuing to grind up US troops and equipment. And whatever its strategic and tactical merits, the Surge exacerbates the strain on our over-committed forces.
The most positive development has been the achievement of UN sanctions against Iran for its nuclear efforts. However weak they might seem to some, they demonstrate that even Iran's closest friends on the Security Council will not give it carte blanche. The sanctions have also complicated Mr. Ahmadinejad's life at home, by highlighting the price Iran pays for pursuing nuclear enrichment and drawing attention to his failure to deliver on the economy. In contrast, an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities by either the US or Israel would shatter the international alignment against Iran and shore up Ahmadinejad's shaky base.
So what might a Cold War with Iran look like? Perhaps not much different from what we see today, if we recall that the West bought oil and natural gas from the USSR, at the same time the latter was funding and arming insurgencies around the world. As then, successfully containing a nuclear Iran would require deft diplomacy, and it would hinge on a credible deterrent--which in the odd logic of mutually assured destruction is equally dependent on the willingness of the subject to be deterred. The US can certainly supply the former, on planes, submarines and ICBMs, though there's legitimate doubt about how deterrable a theocracy might prove. A clear shift to a strategy of containment could actually reduce tensions in the region, but it's never going to suppress all the other simmering grievances in the way the old Cold War with the Soviet Union did. And in this world there won't just be an Iranian Bomb; we could eventually see an Egyptian Bomb, a Saudi Bomb, and so on.
Dealing with a rising Islamic power--at least in their own eyes--would doubtless present some unique twists, compared with containing a decaying--though we didn't realize that until later--superpower. The other parties in the region understand the game, too, having participated before, and we might be surprised and disappointed at who lines up on which side. Nevertheless, we can do this, because we've done it before on a much larger scale. No matter how much Iran's leaders might think they've gone to school on that era, they didn't live through it with their fingers on the Button, as we did.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the viability of a containment option for Iran is creating an enduring bi-partisan framework for it in Washington. We aren't living in the days of Truman and Vandenberg, who didn't have to contend with 24-hour news cycles, bloggers, or the complete breakdown of secrecy. It's worth trying, though, because the alternative to a mini-Cold War is another hot one, with victory neither quick nor certain, and consequences no one can predict.