Why Iran can't be contained

Iran is proceeding with an aggressive nuclear weapons program, and a few dogged holdouts notwithstanding, much of the Obama administration has come to terms with that reality. Official Washington has resigned itself to pursuing a containment policy that some argue will limit Iran's ability to proliferate, terrorize and otherwise exploit being a nuclear power. But it is wrong to think a nuclear Iran can be contained.

The containment argument runs along Cold War lines: The price of breakout is too high; the regime cares only about power, not about using weapons; containment will be simple because the Arabs are so scared of Iran they'll do anything to help us; President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doesn't have his finger on the button. In fact, these arguments are either false or misleading.

The Shiite regime in Tehran is far more skilled than its Sunni counterparts in the world of nuclear aspirations and sponsoring terrorists. A careful student of history, it surely realizes that the international community has meted out little punishment to nuclear transgressors. Tehran probably sees itself more in the mold of India, a great power whose nuclear weapons are acknowledged and now accepted, than of North Korea, a lunocracy without serious global aspirations or influence. Those Iranian officials who advocate withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty do so not because they see Iran becoming the Shiite hermit kingdom but because they think Persia no longer needs to be constrained by status-quo powers and their status-quo treaties.

Advocates of containment and deterrence suggest that Iran will be encircled by a "like-minded group" of nations bent on raising the costs of adventurism. This absurd notion rests on weak reeds in Europe and Arabs deeply hesitant to act. And who can blame the neighboring Arabs? Egged on by distant powers to cut Iranian access to banking and shipping, they suspect they will be hung out to dry by the next world leader eyeing a Nobel Peace Prize.

Worse, the common notion of deterrence is ill-designed for the regime in Tehran. Perhaps it is unfair to suggest that today's Iranian leadership is fashioned from different cloth than the Soviets; after all, we are often reminded that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction worked with the Soviet Union for half a century. But even the most ardent hawks have serious doubts about U.S. resolve to "totally obliterate" Iran in the event of a nuclear attack on, say, Israel -- despite Hillary Clinton's threat, as a presidential candidate, to do just that. Rather, most see the usual hemming and hawing about "certainty," "provocations" and "escalation" as the far more likely rhetoric should such an event occur. And if we in Washington see it that way, why would the Iranians think differently?

Many also scoff at the notion that a responsible Iranian leader would risk using or transferring nuclear weapons or technology. We are told that Ahmadinejad (who most acknowledge is crazy enough to use such a weapon) won't make the final decision. But the regime is remarkably opaque, and shifting power centers ensure that even capable intelligence agencies have low levels of certainty about decision-making in Iran's nuclear program. If our intelligence community's prognostications about Iran's reaction to the Obama engagement policy are any indication (apparently they predicted that Iran was desperate to talk), then it seems safe to conclude that no one knows whose finger will be on Iran's nuclear trigger.

It is possible that Iran will amass enough fissile material to make a bomb and then choose not to fashion a weapon or test. But that is not the history of states that have clandestine nuclear programs, particularly those with advanced delivery systems and warheads. It's also possible that once it possesses such a weapon, Iran will neither use it nor share the technology. But there are few things Iran has not been willing to share, and it is certain to be tempted to use its nuclear weapons as a shield from behind which it can engage in adventurism in Lebanon, Iraq and Israel.

Advocates of a containment policy suggest that in the absence of effective diplomacy or sanctions that deliver results, the stark U.S. options are acquiescence or military action. Privately, Obama administration officials confess that they believe Israeli action will preempt our policy debate, as Israel's tolerance for an Iranian nuke is significantly lower than our own. But subcontracting American national security to Israel is an appalling notion, and we cannot assume that an Israeli action would not provoke a wider regional conflict into which the United States would be drawn.

There are few good options available to roll back Iran's nuclear weapons program. Nonetheless, after a year of false starts and failed initiatives, the Obama administration should be pressed to find a new way forward. At the very least, we must hope the president's new policy will not find footing in the false notion that a nuclear Iran can be contained.

Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.