Two Cheers for Dual Containment
by Daniel Pipes
Testimony prepared for the Subcommittee on the Near East and South Asia Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate
Dual containment toward Iran and Iraq makes excellent sense on two levels, those of policy and strategy; but it falls short in terms of tactics. That's why I give it two cheers, and not three. With your permission, I shall use my few minutes before this Committee to argue in favor of this approach policy and then to offer ideas on a way to improve it.
Like any good policy, dual containment is simple: it holds that the United States government must not appease or cooperate with either Iran or Iraq, but must actively and simultaneously stand opposed to both those states.
Look closely at this sentence and you will find it contains three main elements: activeness, simultaneity, and opposition.
Activeness: We must deal with Iran and Iraq, for those two states dominate the Persian Gulf, a region absolutely critical to American interests by virtue of its containing three-quarters of the world's proven oil reserves.
Simultaneity: We must resist the temptation of working with one party against the other. To do so would leave us entangled with a monster largely of our own creation.
Opposition: We must counter the rulers in Tehran and Baghdad, for both states engage in reprehensible policies at home, in aggression abroad, and in strident anti-Americanism. Left to their own devices, Iranians and Iraqis are likely to try to conquer one another, impede the flow of oil, and develop weapons of mass destruction.
In sum, the importance of the Persian Gulf and the evil of these two states point the United States inescapably to the doctrine of dual containment.
Although dual containment was only articulated as a policy by Martin Indyk of the National Security Council staff in May 1993, it resulted from protracted troubles with Iran and Iraq dating back to 1979, the year when the Islamic Republic came into existence in Iran and Saddam Husayn became president of Iraq. Those troubles resulted in large part from U.S. efforts to work with one state or the other. Bitter experience, in other words, and not theory, have taught us that balance-of-power politics cannot work, and that something else must be tried. In Indyk's words, "we do not accept the argument that we should continue the old balance of power game."
Even a quick survey of U.S. relations with Iran and Iraq since 1979 reveals the extraordinary volume of unpleasantries caused by two distant, medium-sized, and hitherto only moderately important states. Indeed, Iran and Iraq have posed a unique set of problems for Americans.
In the Iranian case, these have included:
Much in common. For all their mutual animosity and the differences in their ideologies, their contrary methods and temperaments, the Iraqi and Iranian regimes have much in common. Both states impose totalitarian controls on their citizens, spout obsessive hate for the United States and Israel, and entertain ambitions of global power. Both wish to sabotage the Arab-Israeli peace process.
Even the details of their outlook bear uncanny resemblance. When Iran and Iraq went to war in September 1980, Khomeini portrayed Saddam as an American stooge who attacked Iran according to plans drawn up by U.S. strategists. Saddam retorted by alleging a Zionist-American-British conspiracy against his rule and dubbing this "the biggest conspiracy in modern history." Each leader saw the other as acting on behalf of Washington.
The two states also aspire to similar goals-to become colossi on the world stage. It sometimes seems as though Khomeini looked around, and seeing nearly a billion Muslims, decided that Islam would best serve as his instrument to make him a world leader. Then Saddam looked around, noted the immense oil resources in his immediate region, and decided control of them would make him ruler of a world power. Both governments see the United States as the primary obstacle to their achievement of these ambitious goals.
A success story. It may be surprising to realize, but American policy in the Persian Gulf since 1977 has largely worked. The Red Army did not exploit the shah's fall to occupy Iran. The Iraq-Iran war did not provoke spiraling oil prices and a worldwide depression. Kuwait did not disappear, Iraqis are not starving by the thousands, nor are Iranian forces occupying Baghdad and on their way to taking over the rest of the Middle East. Tehran did not fulfill its ambitious five-year plan to modernize the military, Saddam could not build nukes.
Yet most Americans would deem Washington's policy in the Persian Gulf region an abject failure. In part, this discrepancy has to do with the imperfect nature of the American accomplishment-disasters averted rather than visions attained. In part, it follows from Washington's secretive, triangular, and somewhat amoral tactics, methods that make many Americans queasy.
But we'd better get used to these deficiencies, for it would be hard to do better in a region dominated by two profoundly anti-American states. And this brings us back to the topic of dual containment.
As with the Soviet opponent in decades past, Washington has three basic policy options vis-à-vis each of Iran and Iraq: co-opt, contain, or roll back.
Co-option implies encouraging the leaderships in Tehran, Baghdad, or both, in the hope of strengthening moderate trends and winning a reduction in bellicose behavior. Co-option offers an attractive course of action, but the record strongly suggests that attempts to moderate Iranian radicalism and Iraqi thuggishness will fail. The Iran/contra debacle exposed the severe limits of foreign influence on Tehran; Saddam's continued hold on power four years after the collapse of his military force proves the same for Iraq.
Nor we can expect that Iran and Iraq will balance each other. Iran today has much greater power than Iraq; its leaders might decide to resume the 1982-88 effort to conquer that country, and they could well succeed. Alternatively, the two regimes keep trying to make up; one day they may succeed, thereby presenting a more-or-less united front against the West.
Rollback can be dismissed out of hand: the American public simply does not have the will to prosecute military campaigns aimed at extirpating the regimes in Tehran and Baghdad, no matter how foul these are. President Bush understood this disinclination four years ago, when the road to Baghdad lay open; and if we lacked the will then, we lack it all the more so today.
This leaves containment. Containment implies laying down clear markers, standing vigilant while avoiding military confrontation, and hoping that internal problems will eventually cause the regimes in Iran and Iraq to fall-a reasonable expectation. The Iranian and Iraqi populations alike have suffered terribly from their leaders' repression at home and adventures abroad. Both countries suffer from much lower standards of living compared to fifteen years ago (in Iraq's case, income may have declined as much as 90 percent). Widespread misery suggests that containment has a good chance of success.
At the same time, we should not expect quick results, for both these governments are firmly ensconced. The Islamic Republic of Iran is an ideologically motivated state that has shown an ability to organize an efficient state apparatus and a readiness ruthlessly to suppress dissent. Although a Soviet-style implosion is possible, the regime has no real rivals and could last for many years. Saddam is only 57 years old, healthy, exceedingly well protected, and without domestic rivals. His ability in 1991 to withstand crushing military defeat and mass insurgency suggests that, despite all, substantial numbers of Iraqis support him.
Containment is a difficult policy to sustain. It takes years or even decades to work. It means foregoing attractive commercial opportunities. Most challenging, it requires a broad consensus among the industrial states; the U.S. government cannot alone make containment work. Should Tehran and Baghdad secure financing and technology from alternate sources, U.S. efforts at containment have limited impact.
And that's precisely the problem. The Europeans, Russians, and Japanese sell Tehran virtually everything it wishes, including dual-use machinery, Kirov-class submarines, and nuclear technology. They are also eager for the sanctions on Iraq to be lifted so that they can began trading there too. Whether their purpose is to make money or to pursue a strategy of co-option, the Europeans, Russians, and Japanese have made dual containment nearly impossible to implement. Therefore, the key to this policy lies in convincing reluctant partners in Bonn, Moscow, and Tokyo to make it their policy too. Given the mercantile orientation of those countries, such an effort to persuade seems unlikely to succeed.
Dual containment has a second weakness; how do we retain a role in the Persian Gulf in opposition to the region's powers? Iran and Iran inescapably dominate the region. In contrast, Saudi Arabia and the other oil monarchies are too weak a reed to rely on; Turkey and Israel are too far away. Here's why dual containment gets only two cheers; it lacks an enforcement mechanism. Nearly two years after its enunciation, this policy remains more a hope than an operational tool.
Fortunately, we can take steps at least partially to remedy the first of these problems, the matter of foreign trade. The Congress already in 1992 applied very stringent export restrictions to American commerce via the Iran-Iraq Non-Proliferation Act. The time has now come for it to take the next step and pass the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions Act of 1995, introduced in January 1995 by Senator Alfonse D'Amato and calling for "a total trade embargo" between the United States and Iran. Today's news that Conoco has signed a contract of some $1 billion with the Tehran regime makes such a step all the more urgent.
This new legislation would have two main consequences: (1) It prohibits the foreign subsidiaries of American-owned companies (such as Conoco Iran N.V., a Netherlands-based subsidiary of Conoco) from engaging in commerce with Iran, for they take billions of dollars of oil from that country and in so doing undercut our diplomatic efforts to convince the allies and the Russians not to trade with Iran. Granted, such legislation is not likely to have much practical impact, for foreign subsidiaries do not fall under U.S. jurisdiction; but putting these laws on the books would do much to strengthen our moral and political position.
(2) The Act would restrict sales of American oil-field technology to Iran, thereby obstructing Iranian efforts to maintain or even expand the oil and gas production. Not only would the legislation prohibit American companies from making this technology available, but it would also provide a basis for pressuring Western European allies to withhold technology. Within a few years, the lack of this technology could reduce Iranian oil and gas production by one million barrels from what it would otherwise be.
Along these same lines, the Congress should press the Administration to toughen dual containment in another way: while the existing policy rejects the Saddam Husayn regime, it accepts the Islamic Republic of Iran as a permanent fixture. This is a mistake. There is no reason to accept the Islamic Republic; instead, we should always keep in mind the need to work toward a democratic Iran.
We also need to remedy dual containment's lack of an enforcement mechanism. U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia provide a partial remedy, as does building up the Saudi military. Closer cooperation with other Gulf monarchies, Kuwait especially, would be a good idea. But there's no hiding that these steps do not compensate for a powerful ally in the region. That's why the Persian Gulf promises to remain an exciting region.
Dual containment has worked over the past two years. Consider the contrast: Jimmy Carter had to cope with the fall of the shah, the U.S. embassy seizure, and Iraq's attack on Iran. Ronald Reagan had Iran's attack on Iraq, the Iran/contra scandal, and the U.S.S. Stark and U.S.S. Vincennes incidents. George Bush had the October Surprise, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, "Iraqgate," and Saddam's survival in power. But Bill Clinton has so far avoided serious trouble from Iran and Iraq.
That's not to say that we're home free. Saddam Husayn needs to be reminded of American will every so often through a timely show of force, but his provocations today neither threaten large numbers of lives nor disrupt oil supplies. As often as he acts up we can slap him down.
Iran poses more of a problem. Under Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Tehran appears intent to dominate the Persian Gulf. Thus, Iranian troops landed in 1992 on three disputed islands of the Persian Gulf, Abu Musa and the Tumbs, expelled several hundred residents of the United Arab Emirates from there, and declared Iranian sovereignty over the islands; in recent months, the Iranians have significantly militarized these islands. Tehran has made moves to develop an oil and gas field predominantly in waters belonging to Qatar. In early 1993, a Tehran newspaper claimed that the independent country of Bahrain is in fact a part of Iran. Moscow's worrisome sale in January 1995 of nuclear reactors to Iran has become one of the most divisive issues in U.S.-Russian relations.
In conclusion, I urge you to see dual containment as the major doctrinal innovation of the Clinton administration. It is a credible policy that will endure. In contrast to elsewhere in the world-Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, North Korea-where this administration waffles and waivers, it has found an imaginative yet solid approach to the Persian Gulf and has executed it consistently.
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