Obama’s Iran Policy Shifts to Containment

As recent events underscore the growing Iranian nuclear threat, the Obama administration appears to be pivoting toward a policy of containment. The emphasis of its rhetoric has shifted from preventing an “unacceptable” nuclear Iran to “isolating” it. When coupled with recent weaker action against Iran, we fear it signals a tacit policy change.

A few days after his election, President Obama called a nuclear Iran “unacceptable.” In February 2009, he pledged “to use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.” By the next year, after a first round of negotiations with Iran had failed and the United Nations and Congress passed tougher sanctions, that pledge had softened. “The United States,” Obama said in July 2010, is “determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

The administration did not dwell publicly on Iran until the Oct. 11 announcement that it foiled an Iranian terrorist plot on U.S. soil — against the Saudi ambassador — and the International Atomic Energy Agency presented damning evidence of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. The president’s response, a Nov. 21 statement announcing new sanctions, marked another subtle, yet significant, rhetorical shift. It downgraded the Iranian threat from “unacceptable” to one of the several “highest national security priorities.” Obama concluded: “Iran has chosen the path of international isolation. . . . [T]he United States will continue to find ways . . . to isolate and increase the pressure upon the Iranian regime.” Yet isolation now appears a goal in its own right, uncoupled from the objective of preventing nuclear capabilities.

The same rhetoric was more explicit in a speech the next day by national security adviser Thomas Donilon. “Iran today,” he declared, “is fundamentally weaker, more isolated, more vulnerable and badly discredited than ever.” Left unsaid was that Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced, more capable and closer than ever to achieving nuclear weapons.

Despite citing Obama’s July 2010 speech, Donilon’s overwhelming theme was isolation. He used some form of the word “isolate” 17 times, “prevent” only three and “unacceptable” not once. Donilon’s thesis was: “We will continue to build a regional defense architecture that prevents Iran from threatening its neighbors. We will continue to deepen Iran’s isolation, regionally and globally.” Reminiscent of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2009 promise to extend a “defense umbrella” over Iran’s neighbors, Donilon’s comments reveal a focus on managing, rather than neutralizing, the Iranian threat.

Administration actions reflect this rhetorical shift. Initially, while pledging to prevent a nuclear Iran at all costs, the administration focused on diplomacy and then a dual-track approach, including sanctions. The latter reached its apogee in mid-2010 with tough U.S. and international sanctions. The administration has not sufficiently enforced these sanctions, nor pressed for full-fledged sanctions against Iran’s central bank, a move backed this month by all 100 senators. Faced with international resistance, the administration’s resolve weakened, and it failed to persuade China, Russia and other countries to support measures firm enough to potentially compel Iran to cease its nuclear program.

Moreover, the administration’s lack of support for a military option undermines its commitment to preventing a nuclear Iran and undercuts its ability to achieve broader international support for sanctions. Despite repeated assertions that they are keeping “all options on the table,” officials seem to be conditioning Americans to view the prospect of a military strike negatively. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his predecessor, Robert Gates, have effectively ruled out U.S. military action by constantly highlighting its risks. Twice recently, Panetta emphasized a strike’s “unintended consequences.” He listed five categories of them in a Dec. 2 speech in which he also referred, many times, to some form of “isolation.” This suggests the administration isn’t prepared to prevent a nuclear Iran at all costs. Nor has it made any credible preparations, such as military exercises and deployments, for a strike.

The administration’s alternative to prevention — isolation — implies containment. But a nuclear Iran could not be contained as the Soviet Union was. Containment requires credibility, a resource United States will have drained if, after numerous warnings to the contrary, we permit Tehran to cross the nuclear threshold. And no matter how isolated, a nuclear Iran is likely to spark a destabilizing cascade of proliferation. Despite its own isolation, North Korea shares its nuclear technology. Iran might, too. Tehran’s enemies, led by Saudi Arabia, would seek safety behind their own nuclear deterrent. And Iran and Israel, as former defense undersecretary Eric Edelman has argued, would have incentives to initiate a nuclear first strike, potentially dragging the United States into the conflict. All this would severely diminish U.S. influence and drive up oil prices.

The Obama administration needs to regain its clarity and refocus its rhetoric and action toward preventing a nuclear Iran. It should do so, if necessary, by “all elements of American power.”

Michael Makovsky, a Pentagon official during the George W. Bush administration, directs the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Project, including its Iran initiative. Blaise Misztal is associate director of the center’s National Security Project.

Originally appeared in The Washington Post on December 9, 2011.