By Jonathan Adelman, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. The views expressed are his own.
Despite the rhetoric of the Obama administration and tougher sanctions, hard realities suggest a likely American policy of not attacking Iran but seeking to contain it.
For Iran, the benefits of nuclear weapons are significant: becoming the ninth member of the world’s exclusive nuclear club, spurring nationalist ardor at home, potentially dominating the Middle East, enhancing its leadership of the world’s neutralist bloc, offsetting the likely loss of their main Arab ally Syria and deterring an American attack. America’s desire to stop Iran, meanwhile, is constrained by many factors: withdrawal of an aircraft carrier battle fleet from the Persian Gulf, $80 billion in Iranian hard currency reserves, opposition from Russia and China, foreign efforts to help Iran evade international sanctions, American war weariness, economic malaise, Congressional hyper partisanship and the Obama policy of leading from behind.
Trying to contain a nuclear Iran avoids an unpopular military strike, regional war and harsher sanctions. And most appealing of all, containment succeeded for 40 years with the Soviet Union, culminating in its dissolution in 1991.
There is only one critical problem with the alluring temptation of containment —the Islamic Republic of Iran is no Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a global superpower, with a vast military-industrial complex and Red Army whose World War II victories helped defeat Nazi Germany. During the Cold War the Soviet Union had several thousand strategic nuclear weapons capable of destroying the United States. The Red Army dominated Eastern and much of Central Europe and threatened Western Europe.
By contrast, Iran is a second rate military and economic power. It reactivated its nuclear program in 1984 and has still not exploded its first atomic bomb. In the 1980s, even after eight years, it could not defeat Iraq, a task that the United States accomplished in three weeks in 2003. With only several hundred atomic scientists, Iran relies heavily on foreign help for its nuclear project. It possesses a modest missile force, weak army and no modern navy. Iran lags far behind Israel, with its strong air force and 100 to 200 atomic bombs, and NATO stalwart Turkey. Iran’s $13,000 GNP/capita lags far behind the United States ($49,000), United Arab Emirates ($49,000) and Israel ($32,000).
Second, Iran lacks Soviet global political influence and ideological clout. Moscow was the center of international communism that embraced one third of the world’s population. Iran’s Islamic fundamentalism resonates only among 2 percent of the world’s population (mostly 100+ million Shiites). It has few state allies (Syria, North Korea, Venezuela, Iraq?) and only two non-state actors (Hezbollah and Hamas).
Third, the Soviet Union was largely rational in its foreign policy. When the Berlin Blockade (1948), Cuban missile crisis (1962) and invasion of Afghanistan (1979) failed, it withdrew its forces. It maintained embassies in enemy countries and a hot line with Washington after 1962. Moscow conducted prolonged negotiations with the West that resulted in several treaties. Iran does not have embassies or hot lines with its “enemies,” supports international terrorism, conducts cyber attacks on Western targets and often talks recklessly of destroying Israel.
Fourth, the Soviet nuclear threat was remote, many thousands of miles away, and slowed by liquid fueled rockets that took hours to fire. Iranian rockets, on the other hand, are solid fuel and only hundreds of miles from their targets.
Finally, there is the nature of leadership. The Soviet elite were dominated by secular college graduates, heavily engineers, who had a rational international perspective. The Iranian elite are dominated by radical mullahs with a limited world view.
Containment of a nuclear power under any circumstances is a risky business. Containment even of the relatively rational Soviet Union almost led to a nuclear war over Cuba in 1962. Imagine what could happen in trying to contain an Iran lacking many of the rational aspects of the Soviet Union.
A rogue state operating outside the normal international boundaries is more likely to take radical gambles. A militarily, economically and politically weak regime, led by radical mullahs with an eschatological world view on the coming of the Mahdi, may take chances for great goals that no other state would ever take. The danger of accidental launch under presumed attack is far higher for the amateurish Iranian Revolutionary Guards than the professional officers and KGB Border Guards in charge of Soviet nuclear weapons.
As in Greek mythology, the siren song of containing a nuclear Iran is hugely tempting and alluring – but in the end may lead to shipwreck and disaster.