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Iran: The Case for Containment
by Pat Buchanan, The American Conservative
14 July 2003Pat Buchanan

Containment and deterrence. The policy derided by President Bush as inadequate for an age of rogue states and nuclear weapons remains America’s reliable fallback position in dealing with Iran.


With the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq now the daily target of guerrilla attack—and no exit strategy in sight—the War Party has begun to caw for a policy of “regime change” in Tehran. 

But the president has seemed hesitant and understandably so. For clearly the Pentagon did not prepare him for the criminality, chaos, and resistance we would encounter after the fall of Baghdad or for the possibility that Saddam’s weapons might not be found.

Bush’s problem, however, is there is hard evidence Tehran is conducting a crash program to build nuclear weapons. While U.S. eyes had previously been focused on the Russian-built nuclear plant at Bushehr, a second plant has been discovered. Now, a third has been placed off limits by Tehran to international inspectors.

As Iran is awash in oil, what purpose are they for? If it is to produce electric power, why have the mullahs been so secretive about them? Why have they not invited in UN inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to demonstrate their benign character? The answer suggests itself.

Bush has now declared that the world “cannot tolerate” atomic weapons in Iran. But only America has the power and will to enforce such a policy if Iran is determined to possess such weapons. And what are our options?

The war option—invasion and disarmament of Iran—appears to be off the table. We do not have the ground forces. The UN Security Council has passed no resolution directing Iran to open up its nuclear sites for inspection. The president does not have the authority from Congress to wage war on Iran. And the American people are unprepared for a third war in three years.

As for a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, that would be seen by Iranians as an act of criminal aggression against their country. It would very likely unite the people and regime in furious resolve to pay America back with acts of terror and with aid to the Iraqi intifada, the Afghan resistance, and al-Qaeda. This could lead to all-out war, a war in which America would have no allies.

As for the president’s support for the Iranian students who have been marching against the regime, that seems only to have left those students exposed to the charge of being American dupes.

Another option is to continue working with the Europeans and the Security Council to pressure Iran to open up to IAEA inspection. Eventually, through a threat of economic sanctions, we might force Tehran to put its nuclear facilities under international watch. But if the ayatollahs have made a decision to acquire the same weapons Pakistan and Israel have, then even sanctions may not work. And if Iran presses on with its nuclear program, which may be only two or three years from completion, what do we do?

Bush could face the situation Truman faced when he learned that Stalin, thanks to U.S. traitors and spies, had exploded an atomic bomb four years before we estimated he could build one. It is the situation Lyndon Johnson faced when Mao’s China exploded its first atomic bomb in 1964.

In both crises, America adopted a policy of containing Stalin and Mao with air, land, and sea power and of deterring them from threatening us with nuclear weapons by building a mighty missile and bomber force of our own.

Containment and deterrence. The policy derided by President Bush as inadequate for an age of rogue states and nuclear weapons remains America’s reliable fallback position in dealing with Iran.

Nor is it a policy to be disrespected. Since the fall of the Shah in 1979, America has been isolated from Iran. Result: a generation has grown up that knows nothing of the Shah and sees as its enemy not faraway America, but the mullahs at home who have misruled and repressed them all their lives. Twice, Iranians have voted by 70 percent to throw the mullahs out. Twice, they have been disillusioned by the weakling reformers they have elected.

But, lately, anti-government demonstrators have been back in the streets. The mullahs are steadily losing favor, as a prelude to losing power. Thus, before President Bush heeds the counsel of a War Party that has us bogged down in Iraq, he should reconsider the merits of the policy that won the Cold War: deterrence and containment.

For in power, Islamic fundamentalism has proven itself as great a failure as Bolshevism and Maoism. Time is on our side.

What America needs in its clash with rogue regimes like North Korea and Iran is not pre-emptive wars, but what Mark Twain called the “calm confidence of a Christian with four aces.”

First published in the July 14th issue of the The American Conservative.  Reprinted by permission.  Pat Buchanan, advisor to three presidents, is editor of The American Conservative and hosts MSNBC's Buchanan & Press.


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