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Unthinkable: Should We ‘Contain’ Iran?

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I’ve written an extensive review at Big Peace of Kenneth Pollack’s essential new book on Iran, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy. But here’s a summary. Pollack says that because “engagement” with Iran has failed, but war remains the worst option (especially if launched by Israel), we should return to a policy of “containment,” using carrot-and-stick methods to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Pollack is willing to accept that under “containment,” Iran might achieve significant enrichment of uranium just short of “breakout” capacity. That sounds bad–however, he says, it has basically already happened, and it is better to adjust to that reality and adopt a policy that will deter Iran from going futher. At the same time, he says, the U.S. should pressure Iran by emphasizing human rights and helping the opposition.

Here is the problem: Pollack’s version of “containment” looks something like regime change, while Barack Obama’s version of “containment” looks like appeasement. The Obama administration appears to accept the legitimacy of the Iranian regime and has fumbled away the U.S. deterrent through its mishandling of the Syria crisis. Pollack wants a policy that the Obama administration seems unwilling or unable to deliver.

In these circumstances, the likelier outcome is that Israel will become convinced it has to attack Iran pre-emptively, partly because it does not share Pollack’s assumption (or that of the administration) that the Iranian regime is not as crazy as it seems. An Israeli strike may be, as Pollack argues strongly, the worst option, but the possibility of such a strike may be the only way to project a deterrent that Obama has not.


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