Journal Essay

Containing Iran: What Does It Mean?

Dalia Dassa Kaye and Eric Lorber

Spring 2012, Volume XIX, Number 1

Dr. Kaye is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and currently a visiting professor and fellow at UCLA's International Institute and Burkle Center. Mr. Lorber is a PhD candidate in political science at Duke University and a JD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Even before the onset of the Arab Spring of 2011, leading analysts spoke of containment as the dominant prescription for America's Iran policy.1 Yet the Arab uprisings have sharpened concerns about Iran and its nuclear ambitions, with many believing that Iran is well placed to capitalize on the turmoil to enhance its regional position.2 Not surprisingly, "containment" options again feature prominently in Washington assessments about how to address the Iranian challenge.3 Growing debate about military options,4 and even an actual attack against Iran, would not reduce the salience of containment in U.S. strategy, given that such a strike would be unlikely to halt Iran's program and may even accelerate it.5

Containment, of course, provides a familiar way for analysts and policy makers to think about Iran policy. The definitive U.S. grand strategy during the Cold War, containment is increasingly touted as the best available option for dealing with hostile states like Iran, where neither war nor peace appears an attractive or viable alternative. Containment during the Cold War was not a panacea; its variations were plagued with theoretical inconsistencies, difficulties in application and many close calls, when the Cold War almost became hot. Despite these challenges, containment did ultimately contribute to what many view as a successful strategy in eroding Soviet power. But can this approach work with adversaries like Iran?

In order to answer this question, we need to understand what containment means. The concept has proven to be problematically broad and ill defined. Scholars and practitioners have, under its mantle, advocated a range of policies, including rollback, internal intervention, punitive sanctions, deterrence, and even accommodation and acceptance of problematic behavior.6 As Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis observed, "Containment is something with which most people in the national security community have spent most of their lives.... We have become so accustomed to it that we rarely stop to consider what its precise goals are supposed to be.…"7

The lack of clarity about containment — both its means and its goals — is particularly astonishing with respect to U.S. Iran policy. The United States has arguably pursued de facto containment of Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but a review of U.S. policies over the last 30 years suggests that the understanding of containment has varied significantly — so much so that proponents of the strategy occasionally call for completely contradictory policies, from preventing an Iranian nuclear capability to living with one.8

Such conceptual confusion can have serious policy consequences. Policy makers relying on containment as a foreign-policy strategy toward Iran but not properly understanding its requirements and limits risk unduly circumscribing alternatives or applying it inappropriately. Indeed, containment has often been so distorted toward punitive measures against Iran that key aspects of George Kennan's original concept from his 1946 Foreign Affairs article, particularly regarding diplomacy and alliance management, have largely been lost. While our assessment of containment suggests that this strategy shows promise in addressing the Iranian challenge if better understood and applied, the challenges to successfully implementing containment policies are significantly greater than was the case with the Soviet Union. This is in large part because of more hostile regional attitudes toward the United States and ambivalent attitudes and postures toward Iran among U.S. allies.


On the face of it, containment as a U.S. approach towards Iran appears unproblematic. As one study observes, containment may "be the easiest policy option toward Iran to conceptualize, both because it is effectively what the United States has pursued for most of the past 30 years and because it would be roughly congruent with how the United States contained the Soviet Union during the Cold War.…"9 Yet further examination of U.S. containment of Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 suggests that the goals and practice of containment have varied substantially over time. Since 1979, U.S. policy has focused largely on a series of punitive measures — primarily unilateral and multilateral sanctions — to prevent Iran from expanding its regional influence, fostering terrorism, sabotaging Arab-Israeli peace efforts and, in later years, acquiring a nuclear capability that could be weaponized.

In the 1980s, containment translated into a ban on U.S. arms and dual-use material to Iran, as well as assistance to Iraq in its war against Iran for much of the decade. In the 1990s, after the United States reversed its tilt toward Iraq and launched Operation Desert Storm, the United States pursued "dual containment" to prevent both Iran and Iraq from dominating Gulf security.10 Dual containment significantly expanded trade restrictions against Iran (trade with Iran was still extensive through the 1980s despite a ban on arms sales),11 imposing a total embargo on economic interaction with Iran in President Clinton's first term. Continued domestic pressure for heightened sanctions led to the 1996 Iran Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which penalized foreign companies investing in Iran's oil industry. In the following decade, the United States pursued additional sanctions, particularly on Iran's financial sector, including sanctions against Iran's central bank by the end of 2011.12 U.S. efforts also continued at the UN Security Council (UNSC) to persuade allies to bolster sanctions focused on Iran's nuclear activity. Since the 2003 Iraq War, the United States has also been shoring up the military capabilities of Gulf allies to enhance its containment policy.13

This general story line of punitive measures was periodically interrupted with episodes of secret as well as public engagement, but such efforts did not lead to any sustained U.S.-Iranian negotiations; political dynamics on both sides consistently scuttled attempts to redefine the relationship.14 President Obama's efforts in his first months in office to reach out to the Iranians were apparently rejected.15 Some analysts argue that the Obama administration's engagement efforts have lacked sincerity and have been overshadowed by policies focused on pressure and isolation.16 The tumultuous Iranian elections of June 2009 further complicated prospects for productive U.S.-Iranian diplomacy. Hardliners consolidated power in Tehran, and the growing internal power struggles between the supreme leader and the Iranian president are likely to only further impede negotiation efforts, as is the alleged Iranian terror plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

As Iranian repression increased after the 2009 elections, the United States also began focusing more attention on human-rights abuses in Iran, targeting specific Iranian officials involved. The Arab uprisings of 2011 have only encouraged the U.S. administration to offer more open political and rhetorical support to the Iranian opposition movement as it resurfaced on the streets in the aftermath of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts. In sum, U.S. policies toward Iran have consistently favored pressure over engagement to isolate Iran and prevent it from pursuing behavior inimical to U.S. interests.

Containment of Iran has also coincided with what at times appeared to be direct efforts at regime change, even if such efforts were never sustained or well resourced. In 1994, for example, some members of Congress directed $18 million to the CIA to undermine the Iranian government.17 In 2006, Congress allocated $75 million for regime change in Iran to support nongovernmental groups opposed to the regime. U.S. protection after the 2003 war of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) in Iraq — an exiled Iranian dissident group listed by the United States since 1997 as a foreign terrorist organization — continued to foster perceptions in Iran that American policy was really about regime change. Since the green movement emerged in 2009, the Iranian regime regularly has accused opposition forces of receiving support from outside actors, particularly the United States. While the Iranian leadership may find such accusations a useful way to delegitimize the opposition and deflect attention away from local sources of unrest, they also reveal a deep-seated fear of U.S. efforts to topple the regime from within.

In contrast to views of containment as a form of prevention or regime change, other interpretations of containment toward Iran suggest a form of acceptance. For example, a Brookings Institution study defines containment less as a preventive strategy with respect to Iran's pursuit of nuclear capabilities and more as acceptance and deterrence — learning to live with a nuclear-armed Iran.18 This containment approach relies on bolstering deterrence and keeping Iran weak. The different meanings policy makers and analysts have attributed to containment and the varying policies it has produced underscore the confusion and contradictions surrounding this strategy.


Throughout the Cold War, containment was not a monolithic strategy. It varied from Kennan's initial notion of blocking and mellowing Soviet power to NSC-68's more muscular approach of significant military build-up to combat Soviet expansion wherever it occurred. But it is Kennan's conceptualization of containment and the time period in which he developed it that may have the most relevance to the Iran case. To demonstrate this, we address some of the key objections analysts may have with such a comparison.

First, some might argue that Cold War containment of Soviets is an inappropriate comparison because Iran is not a global military power seeking territorial expansion. Rather, Iran is a regional power with inferior conventional capabilities that seeks to increase its political and ideological reach in the broader region. The Brookings study notes, for example, that Iran's power projection is based on subversion, whereas containment of the Soviets "was a literal description of Washington's goal in seeking to prevent Moscow from using its conventional military might to conquer countries that bordered the Soviet bloc and integrate them into it."19

It is important, however, to revisit how Kennan perceived the Soviet threat when he initially formulated his concept. At the time he wrote his "X" article, Soviet military capabilities were limited. The Soviets had no navy and had not yet tested a nuclear weapon. The real concern at that time centered not on the Soviet Union's conventional military capabilities but on its ability and desire to use its ideological influence to subvert the governments of surrounding states friendly to the West.20 Likewise, even though assessments of Iranian power vary, analysts across the political spectrum view the more significant threat as emanating from Iran's political and ideological influence across the region, not from its conventional military capabilities.21 It is this influence that U.S. policy makers would like to "contain." In this sense, the Iranian threat today resembles the threat posed by the Soviets in the early postwar period.

Second, some may question whether a regional power with weak conventional capabilities justifies a containment policy developed to counter a global rival that threatened not just U.S. allies but also the U.S. homeland itself. Indeed, the question of whether the Iranian challenge requires significant U.S. investment deserves serious consideration in U.S. regional strategy. But, rightly or wrongly, U.S. policy has in recent years elevated the Iranian threat to a critical national-security priority. As the 2006 U.S. National Security Strategy asserted, "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran."22 In the Obama administration, consideration of the Iranian threat affected critical long-term defense planning on decisions such as the deployment of missile-defense systems to respond to potential Iranian aggression.23 U.S. policy makers and analysts regularly refer to Iran and concerns about Iranian gains when assessing the strategic implications of the 2011 Arab uprisings or the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. U.S. intelligence officials have publicly stated concerns that Iran may instigate attacks within the United States as the regime perceives growing threats to its survival.24 Iran's ability to challenge a wide range of critical U.S. security interests, from Iraq to Lebanon, heightens concerns about its political and ideological influence in the region.

Finally, others may question whether a strategy that was not unequivocally successful in the Soviet case should be applied to other contexts like Iran. For example, Kennan's approach left many important allies, in particular South Korea, rhetorically outside of the U.S. defense umbrella and thus arguably encouraged aggression against them. 25 While containment certainly had its failings, it was nonetheless successful at blocking Soviet ideological expansion in the immediate postwar period. Kennan's focus on bolstering centers of power in Europe and Asia translated into a diminished risk of Soviet subversion. Although some argue that Europe was already on its way to economic recovery, the Marshall Plan significantly reduced the likelihood of Western European countries falling to domestic communist forces.26 Moreover, rebuilding these countries helped to ensure that they would remain in the Western camp and serve as bulwarks against future Soviet aggression.


While key aspects of Kennan's containment approach may be applicable to Iran in theory, in practice, U.S. "containment" policies have departed significantly from the conceptual roots of this strategy. Kennan believed that the objectives of containment were twofold: the prevention of continued Soviet ideological and territorial expansion, and the long-term mellowing of its foreign policy. The focus was on changing Soviet behavior more than on its ideology or regime. Rather than actively trying to undermine the Soviets from within, Cold War containment stressed the need to deter Soviet adventurism and illustrate the success of the U.S. system as an indirect means to compete and ultimately erode Soviet power. To be sure, U.S. policies included covert activities to destabilize the Soviet Union and its allies.27 But such activities were relatively short-lived and never publicly discussed by policy makers. These stand in stark contrast to reports of U.S. covert efforts against Iran, from attempts to prevent the development of a nuclear program to periodic efforts at regime change.28

Kennan also believed that to modify Soviet behavior over the long term, containment should incorporate a mix of military deterrence and non-military tools like negotiation and economic development of allies. On the military side, Kennan argued for deployment of large numbers of troops to allied countries in Europe to show the Soviets that attempts at territorial expansion and subversion would be met with a strong response.29 He believed that deterring Soviet military aggression and convincing allies that the United States was willing to defend them against a Soviet attack required military force.30 On the non-military side, Kennan advocated negotiation and economic development. He believed that negotiating with the adversary helped the United States better understand its motives and increased the likelihood of more positive interactions in the future.31 He also encouraged massive economic investment and the development of allied regimes in Western Europe and East Asia to prevent Soviet expansion.

In contrast to Kennan's containment policies, the U.S. approach to Iran has emphasized punitive measures while limiting negotiations. U.S. analysts often equate containment of Iran with enhanced military deterrence and economic pressure.32 While sanctions certainly played a role in U.S. containment policies toward the Soviets, they by no means defined containment, as they have with respect to Iran. Indeed, sanctions were always just one component of many and were often balanced with policies focused more on the economic development of allies than the economic strangulation of the adversary. Moreover, sanctions were designed to weaken the Soviets over time through denial of key military capabilities rather than catalyzing an immediate reversal of policy through punitive economic actions, as U.S. efforts toward Iran emphasize.33

The U.S. focus on large-scale arms sales and building military relationships with Arab allies to counter Iran may be an important element of containment, and it mirrors Cold War approaches to deter the Soviets. But the focus on military deterrence and security relationships with authoritarian regimes has not been balanced with the political and economic development of Arab societies, an imbalance that the protest movements across the region have further exposed. The Arab uprisings may create new pressures for U.S. policy to balance its military support for regional allies with economic assistance and support for political reform. It will be difficult, however, to move in this direction quickly, given the deep and widespread U.S. military investment in the region and continued reliance on non-democratic regimes vital to U.S. interests.


Given the similarities in circumstances between the postwar Soviet Union and contemporary Iran, could a containment strategy that more closely tracks with early Cold War policies blunt Iranian influence and "mellow" its behavior over time?

The Domestic Sphere

Iran's interest in expanding its regional influence may resemble the Soviet power projection that concerned Kennan in the early days of the Cold War. But is the Iranian leadership likely to respond to containment strategies?34 Containment assumed the Soviets were ultimately cautious enough that, with the right type of pressure and inducements, they could be convinced to shift policies over time in ways that were less threatening to U.S. interests, and that Soviet national interests ultimately trumped its ideology.35 Extreme insecurity led the Soviets to create a system in which all the key elements of state power were organized to ensure the survival of the regime. External enemies were often used as pretexts for internal crackdowns at home against regime opponents. While such a system did not serve the Soviet people well, it did provide a point of entry for U.S. efforts to shape Soviet actions.

The internal political dynamics in Iran are notoriously difficult to read, even by long-time Iran watchers. This is not only because of the complexity of the Iranian political system with its many competing centers of power, but also because of the limited access granted to Westerners, particularly U.S. analysts.36 That said, Iranian behavior to date suggests that the regime can be responsive to external stimuli in the interest of survival and has often acted in ways that are at odds with its ideology.

As in the Soviet Union, the regime is founded on an ideology and national history that thrives on confrontation and distrust of the outside world, making permanent reconciliation difficult if not impossible, at least with hardline elements.37 Interests often trump ideology in Iranian foreign policy, as they did in the USSR. However, ideology still plays a significant role in rallying support for the regime at home and abroad. Combined with Iran's strong sense of nationalism, this contributes to a hostile view of the outside world, particularly the West. The internal upheaval following the June 2009 Iranian elections reinforced such views among the hardline leadership, who believed Western forces helped fuel the unrest on Iranian streets. Such concerns have only increased in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings. Yet, as in the Soviet case, Iran's complex and divided leadership does not impede its ability to make state decisions based on cost-benefit calculations. As Moshen M. Milani observes,

Even the most ideological of Iran's leaders favor a cost-benefit approach to decision-making…. When Iran needed advanced weapons during the Iran-Iraq War, Khomeini approved secret dealings with Israel and the United States…. Despite its general opposition to the presence of U.S. troops in region, Tehran remained actively neutral during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, seeing it as an opportunity to weaken its archenemy Saddam….The Revolutionary Guards, the most ideological group in the Iranian armed forces, rubbed shoulders with U.S. forces when they assisted the Northern Alliance in overthrowing the Taliban in 2001. Far from being a suicidal ideological regime, Tehran seeks to ensure the survival of the Islamic Republic while advancing the country's interests.38

Many analysts also argue that, even when Iran pursues aggressive and hostile actions towards the United States in its regional policy — such as supporting militant groups like Hamas, Hezbollah or Iraqi militia forces — it does so in large part for deterrent purposes.39 Iran is arguably developing its own capabilities, including a nuclear option, to serve as a deterrent and ultimately a defense against potential attacks by the United States or its allies. At times, hardline factions in the Iranian leadership will exaggerate the external threat to justify brutal crackdowns on opposition forces at home, as during the unrest in 2009 and 2011. Ultimately, however, the Iranian regime's strongest interest is in survival.

This record of pragmatism trumping ideology has led some analysts to argue that, if a nuclear-armed Iran emerged in the future, it could be deterred, just as the Soviets were during the Cold War.40 That said, deterrence was not an unproblematic concept even in the Cold War. The potential for miscalculation and accidents that existed then would be applicable to the Iran case, and perhaps more so, given the lack of direct communication between Washington and Tehran. Regardless of how well one thinks deterrence will "work" with respect to Iran, however, it appears that the Iranian leadership, like that of the Soviets, is sensitive to both the costs and opportunities imposed by external actors.

Regional Alliances and U.S. Ideological Appeal

While the nature of the Iranian threat, power and leadership may have important parallels to Kennan's perception of the Soviets, the critical issues of alliances and U.S. stature appear more problematic. The challenges facing U.S. relationships and prestige in the region are significantly greater than was the case during the Cold War, presenting barriers to a containment strategy.

As Gaddis observed with respect to the Cold War, a key condition that contributed to containment's persistence was that Western allies viewed Soviet domination and repression as worse than U.S. hegemony.41 This overriding fear of the Soviets — combined with unprecedented aid packages through the Marshall Plan and U.S. prestige following the war — solidified the Western alliance. Naturally, allied support for the United States varied across Europe and over time as the Western allies recovered from the war and their reliance on U.S. assistance declined. Still, the line dividing East against West was relatively clear: Western allies were on the American side of the Iron Curtain, and Eastern European nations were within the Soviet orbit.

Can the same said be said of the Middle East, particularly given the uncertain political environment today? Where would the "Green Curtain" be drawn?42 For example, where would Iraq fall, with its leaders maintaining close ties to the Iranian regime but still engaged in a robust military and political relationship with Washington? Will Egypt's new leadership pursue as hostile a stance toward Iran as Hosni Mubarak did? Where will Syria come down, given the growing domestic unrest challenging the Asad regime? Is the United States willing to limit the geographic scope of containment efforts, as Kennan advocated during the Cold War? If so, where would the line be drawn — in Iraq, the Gulf, the Levant, Central Asia, the broader global arena? What about the divergence in views between Arab regimes and Arab publics with respect to Iran or security ties with the United States, views that have become even more relevant in the aftermath of the popular uprisings? Do Arab states, particularly those facing tenuous political transitions, fear Iranian regional influence and meddling more than they fear open alignment with the United States?

A conventional view emerged, particularly following the 2003 Iraq War, that rising Iranian influence in regional affairs sparked hostile reactions from Iran's Arab neighbors — at least their leaderships — and made them more inclined to confront Iran by aligning themselves with the United States.43 Some even suggest that alarm over growing Iranian influence, in conjunction with its nuclear activities, became a larger concern for Arab states than the Palestine issue, at least in the Gulf region.44

This perception affected U.S. military planning, with the initiation of a series of programs, focused largely on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states but also on Egypt and Jordan, designed to bolster the defenses of regional allies to counter Iran.45 During a trip to Bahrain in 2008, Admiral William J. Fallon (then head of U.S. Central Command) suggested that, while "we are not looking for a new NATO-type alliance against Iran," the United States would still like it when the Iranians "look to the Gulf, they see a group united in response to Iranian hegemonic behavior."46 Fallon's successor, General David Petraeus, as well as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, continued to publicly discuss U.S. plans to bolster defense cooperation with Gulf allies with an eye toward Iran.47 And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even spoke of an American "defense umbrella" to protect U.S. regional allies and deter Iranian aggression.48

To be sure, Iran's Arab neighbors are alarmed about what they perceive as emboldened Iranian activity in the region, not just its pursuit of nuclear capabilities but also its willingness to meddle in the internal affairs of vulnerable Arab states, particularly among their Shia populations. Such concern has only increased in the wake of the Arab uprisings. Large Shia populations in countries like Bahrain, where Shia are the majority, are challenging Sunni leadership, even provoking Saudi and GCC military intervention to help quell the protests. The fall of staunchly anti-Iranian leaders like Mubarak — who reportedly privately approved Israel's military actions against Hamas because of concerns over Iranian infiltration 49 — has only further contributed to regional fears of rising Iranian influence. Although U.S. allegations that elements of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps' Qods force sought to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington were met with widespread skepticism,50 the episode is likely to further reinforce Saudi hostility toward Iran.

U.S policy makers have often been disappointed, however, that such concerns have not always translated into support for U.S. Iran policies. The same barriers that posed insurmountable challenges for U.S. efforts to build regional alliances in the past — regional sensitivities over overt U.S force presence, domestic pressures against cooperation with Israel and the United States, and longstanding rivalries among Arab states — still exist and may only grow stronger in today's tumultuous environment.51

Rather than unequivocally opposing Iran, Arab states prefer to hedge against shifts in U.S. strategy and deflect domestic pressure critical of policies viewed as serving American rather than Arab interests by blending confrontation with accommodation. Gulf states thus host U.S. military bases and increase security and defense cooperation with Washington while at the same time maintaining extensive trade and diplomatic relations with Iran. Arab states' positions on Iran have varied greatly, and intra-Arab disputes such as Qatar's consistent undermining of Saudi efforts to build a consensus on Iran suggest that a unified front against Iran may be elusive.52

The costs of explicitly and unequivocally aligning with the United States have often trumped widespread concern about Iran. Even King Abdullah of Jordan, who publicly stated the popular fear of a rising "Shia crescent" in the years following the Iraq War, has toned down his anti-Iranian rhetoric, instead focusing on the dangers posed by a stalled Middle East peace process. This concern is much closer to home and resonates with the sizable Palestinian population within Jordan.53 The domestic unrest in Arab countries today will only increase regime sensitivities about too close an alignment with the United States.

The traditional U.S. focus on bolstering the defense capabilities of regional allies, without the parallel development focus that characterized early Cold War efforts, also prompts accusations that Washington is more concerned about regimes than people. While President Obama made efforts to reverse such perceptions, as with his June 2009 Cairo speech outlining a new relationship with the Muslim world, opinion polling in the Arab world continues to show overwhelmingly negative views toward the United States.54 The equivocal U.S. response during the early days of the unrest in Egypt and the reluctance to criticize human-rights abuses by allies like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia may only reinforce popular negativity toward Washington. Such public sentiment makes it difficult for states to unequivocally align with the United States even if hatred and distrust toward Iran run deep. It also makes it difficult for the United States to leverage its ideological appeal as it did in the Cold War. Whether the NATO intervention in Libya, intended to protect the Libyan people, will alter regional views of the United States is still uncertain. It may only underscore the inconsistency of U.S. policies and bolster the narrative that U.S. involvement in the region is based on military rather than economic relationships.

In addition to the difficulty of appealing to publics, governments in the region have also indicated some interest in diversifying security relationships in recent years, particularly with Russia and China. Although security ties with the United States still dominate the landscape, both Russia and China have significantly expanded economic and diplomatic relationships, creating a more competitive environment for U.S. influence. The appeal of other partners is particularly strong in the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as perceptions of diminished U.S. influence increased.55 Arab-state fears of an American-Iranian rapprochement that could jeopardize their privileged positions with the United States have also contributed to the appeal of expanding relationships with other powers.

This landscape of ambivalent allies balancing relations between Iran and the United States, of declining U.S. regional appeal, and of limited ability to influence regional audiences does not bode well for a successful containment strategy. The instability following the Arab uprisings may only create new challenges for the U.S. ability to attract government and popular support for its policies.


The failure to accurately conceptualize containment toward Iran over the years has led to unrealistic expectations and disappointing results for U.S. policy makers. Indeed, more than 30 years of punitive measures and a lack of sustained engagement have not made Iran any less dangerous to its neighbors and U.S. regional interests. A better understanding of containment suggests that U.S. policies toward Iran have significantly strayed from what Kennan had in mind when he created this construct. In this sense, the United States has not yet applied a genuine containment strategy to Iran.

Yet even well-formulated containment policies will face significant obstacles in the Middle East, particularly with respect to U.S. alliance management and ideological appeal. Some elements of current policy will need to remain in a new containment strategy, including military deterrence and economic sanctions. But a better understanding of containment suggests that a different mix of policy tools may be necessary to more effectively "mellow" Iranian behavior over time.

For example, U.S. policies directed toward political and economic development of regional allies could help counter the perception that Washington's relationships are centered solely on defense cooperation with unpopular governments that lack legitimacy. This would be more in line with the way containment was practiced in the early years of the Cold War. The Arab uprisings and widespread popular calls for more freedom and economic opportunity provide an excellent opening for U.S. policy to shift course. This type of containment strategy would thus require a regional approach focused on allies as much as punitive measures against Iran itself. And the approach toward regional allies would balance military deterrence with political, economic and cultural development initiatives that bolster the stability and legitimacy of regional partners.

Such a containment strategy would also require far more extensive direct engagement with Iran to attempt to temper its behavior over the long-term. That said, even limited engagement on areas of common concern, and certainly diplomacy on more contentious issues like the nuclear file, may prove difficult as hardline leaders who may not be interested in cooperation with the West consolidate control in Tehran. Yet, even under such circumstances, engagement may still prove useful. As Kennan recognized, negotiation is not just a means to get the adversary to adjust policies and change preferences. It is also an important tool for learning about the other side, even if we do not immediately see the results we would like.

This type of long-term strategy may not guarantee success, particularly as the current Middle East regional environment is far more hostile to the United States than was Cold War Europe. And domestic political obstacles within both Iran and the United States will make the direct-engagement components of U.S. strategy difficult. Nonetheless, a more comprehensive and sophisticated containment strategy toward Iran should at least be tested to address what is likely to be a long-term and difficult challenge.


1 See, for example, Karim Sadjadpour, "The Sources of Iranian Conduct," Foreign Policy, November 2010,; and Robert Kaplan, "Living with a Nuclear Iran," The Atlantic, September 2010,

2 See Michael Scott Doran, "The Heirs of Nasser," Foreign Affairs, May/June 2011. For a contrary position, see Dalia Dassa Kaye and Frederic Wehrey, "Arab Spring, Persian Winter," Foreign Affairs, July/August 2011; and Dalia Dassa Kaye, "Iran Might Not Be the Big Winner of Mideast Uprisings," Washington Post, March 4, 2011,

3 Michael Makovsky and Blaise Misztal, "Obama's Iran Policy Shifts to Containment," Washington Post, December 9, 2011, See also Thomas Donnelly, Danielle Pletka, and Maseh Zarif, Containing and Deterring a Nuclear Iran (American Enterprise Institute Press, 2011).

4 See Matt Kroenig, "Time to Attack Iran," Foreign Affairs, January/February 2012; and Colin Kahl, "Not Time to Attack Iran," Foreign Affairs, January/February 2012,

5 For a discussion of the relevance of containment both before and even after a nuclear-armed Iran may emerge, including the likelihood that a military strike against Iran may make containment more difficult over the long-run, see James Dobbins, Alireza Nader, Dalia Dassa Kaye and Frederic Wehrey, Coping with a Nuclearizing Iran (RAND Corporation, 2011).

6 For a broad historical overview of these variations, see John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment (Oxford University Press, 1982).

7 John Lewis Gaddis, "Epilogue: The Future of Containment," in Containment: Concept and Policy, eds. Terry L. Deibel and John Lewis Gaddis, Volume Two (National Defense University Press, 1986).

8 For an example of containment as a means to prevent an Iranian bomb, see Art Keller, "It Worked on Saddam," Foreign Policy (August 2010), For a view of containment that suggests adjusting to a nuclear-armed Iran, see James Lindsay and Ray Takeyh, "After Iran Gets the Bomb: Containment and Its Complications," Foreign Affairs 89, no. 2 (2010): 33-49.

9 Kenneth Pollack, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America (Random House, 2004).

10 Martin Indyk, "The Clinton Administration's Approach to the Middle East," speech at the Soref Symposium. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Washington, D.C., 1993,

11 Until the Dual Containment policies of the 1990s, U.S. companies were the largest buyers of Iranian oil through subsidiaries in Europe. See Barbara Slavin, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (St. Martin's Press, 2007), 179.

12 Rachel Loeffler, "Bank Shots: How the Financial System Can Isolate Rogues," Foreign Affairs 88, no. 2 (2009): 101-10; Juan Zarate, "Harnessing the Financial Furies: Smart Financial Power and National Security," Washington Quarterly 32, no. 4 (2009): 43-59; and Peter Feaver and Eric Lorber, Coercive Diplomacy: Evaluating the Consequences of Financial Sanctions (Legatum Institute Press, 2010).

13 The Gulf Security Dialogue and Related Arms Sale Proposals, CRS Report to Congress, January 14, 2008, Order Code RL34322.

14 For a detailed account of engagement efforts and their challenges, see International Crisis Group, "U.S.-Iranian Engagement: The View from Tehran," Middle East Briefing 28, no. 2 (June 2009), as of October 6, 2009,, and Barbara Slavin, Bitter Friends.

15 Jay Solomon, "U.S., Allies Confer on New Iran Sanctions," Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2009.

16 Flynt Leverett and Hilary Mann Leverett, "The United States, Iran and the Middle East's New ‘Cold War,'" The International Spectator 45, no. 1 (2010): 75-87. Other overviews of Iran policies in the Obama administration underscore the continued reliance on sanctions. See Andrew Parasiliti, "Iran: Diplomacy and Deterrence," Survival 51 no. 5 (2009): 5-13. A prominent speech on Iran by U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon in November 2011 emphasized punitive measures more than diplomacy:, as of January 3, 2012. For an overview of President Obama's diplomacy and support for the argument that Obama's diplomatic efforts were not exhausted, see Trita Parsi, A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press, 2012).

17 Slavin, Bitter Friends, 183.

18 Kenneth Pollack, Daniel L. Byman, Martin Indyk, Suzanne Maloney, Michael E. O'Hanlon, and Bruce Riedel, Which Path to Persia? Options for a New American Strategy toward Iran (Brookings Institution Press, 2009).

19 Pollack et al., Which Path to Persia?

20 George Kennan, "The Origins of Containment," in Containment: Concept and Policy, eds. Terry L. Deibel and John Lewis Gaddis, Vol. 1 (National Defense University Press, 1986), 26-27.

21 Barbara Slavin, Mullahs, Money, and Militias: How Iran Exerts Its Influence in the Middle East (United States Institute of Peace, 2008).

22 National Security Strategy of the United States (2006), 20, accessed September 22, 2009,

23 In September 2009, President Obama cancelled anti-missile defense programs in Eastern Europe in favor of the U.S. development of sea-based systems geared toward short- and mid-range Iranian missiles. See Barack Obama, "Official Remarks. September 17, 2009,"

24 See the testimony by James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence,

25 For one of the most notable critiques of the strategy, see Walter Lippman, The Cold War: A Study in U.S. Foreign Policy (Harper and Brothers, 1947).

26 On these debates, see John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford University Press, 1997), 39-39. On the success of the Marshall Plan, see Diane Kunz, "The Marshall Plan Reconsidered," Foreign Affairs 76 no. 3 (1997): 162-70.

27 Gregory Mitrovich, Undermining The Kremlin (Cornell University Press, 2000).

28 For a discussion of the different covert actions recently launched against Iran, see David Sanger, "America's Deadly Dynamics with Iran," New York Times, November 5, 2011; Barbara Slavin, "Military Option Recedes Amid Tug-of-War over Iran Policy," IPS, December 9, 2011,

29 George Kennan, "Measures Short of War (Diplomatic)," Naval War College Lectures, September 16, 1946.

30 Ibid.

31 See Kennan, Memoirs, 302-04.

32 Pollack et al. Which Path to Persia?, 196. Pollack outlines similar measures in an earlier work, where a "new containment regime" would entail enhanced sanctions and a variety of military actions. See Pollack, The Persian Puzzle, 414-15.

33 Michael Mastanduno, Economic Containment: CoCom and the Politics of East-West Trade (Cornell University Press, 1992).

34 For a similar, albeit brief, comparison of how well Kennan's strategy adapts to the current Iranian leadership, see Sadjadpour, "The Sources of Iranian Conduct."

35 Gaddis outlines Kennan's views on several instrumental roles for ideology in Soviet thinking: to legitimize the regime, to justify repression, and to associate the Soviet Union with revolutionary movements in other countries to give the Soviets an instrument to project influence outside its borders. See John Lewis Gaddis, "Containment: A Reassessment," Foreign Affairs 55 (1977): 874.

36 See, for example, Jerrold Green, Frederic Wehrey, and Charles Wolf, Jr., Understanding Iran (RAND Corporation, 2009).

37 For an overview of domestic Iranian politics and factions, see Mehran Kamrava, "Iranian National-Security Debates: Factionalism and Lost Opportunities," Middle East Policy 14 no. 2 (2007): 84-100.

38 Moshen Milani, "Tehran's Take: Understanding Iran's U.S. Policy," Foreign Affairs, 88 no. 4 (2009): 46-62, 60.

39 For these views see ibid.; and Shahram Chubin, "Iran's Power in Context," Survival 51 no. 1 (2009): 165-190. Also see Frederic Wehrey et al, Dangerous But Not Omnipotent: Exploring the Reach and Limitations of Iranian Power in the Middle East (RAND, 2009).

40 Barry Posen, A Nuclear-Armed Iran: A Difficult But Not Impossible Policy Problem (Century Foundation, 2006),, as of October 6, 2009. See also Justin Logan, "The Bottom Line on Iran: The Costs and Benefits of Preventive War Versus Deterrence," Cato Policy Analysis, 583 (2006).

41 John Lewis Gaddis, "After Containment: The Legacy of George Kennan in the Age of Terrorism," The New Republic, April 25, 2005: 27.

42 Robin Wright, "U.S. Vs. Iran: Cold War, Too," Washington Post, July 29, 2007.

43 For an overview of U.S. efforts in this area, see Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh, "The Costs of Containing Iran," Foreign Affairs 87, no. 1 (2008): 85-94.

44 Nicholas Kralev, "Cohen Says Fear of Iran Now Tops Wrath Against Israel in Middle East," Washington Times, July 29, 2009. On Arab fears of a nuclear Iran, see Michael Slackman, "Possibility of a Nuclear-Armed Iran Alarms Arabs," New York Times, October 1, 2009.

45 For further details on bilateral cooperation with Gulf allies, see The Gulf Security Dialogue and Related Arms Sale Proposals, CRS Report to Congress, January 14, 2008. For broader overviews of the U.S. regional strategy to counter Iran, see Jay Solomon, "U.S.-Arab Alliance Aims to Deter Terrorism, Iran," Wall Street Journal, August 9, 2007; Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper, "U.S. Arms Plan for Mideast Aims to Counter Iranian Power," New York Times, July 31, 2007; and Robin Wright, "Iran Is Critical As U.S. Unveils Arms Sales in the Middle East," Washington Post, July 31, 2007.

46 Brian Murphy, "Arabs Urged to Join Forces Against Iran," Washington Times, September 19, 2008.

47 See David Petraeus, "Regional Security Architecture. Address to the Fifth Plenary Session of the IISS Regional Security Summit. The Manama Dialogue, Bahrain, December 14, 2008,"; and Robert Gates, "The U.S. and the Regional Balance of Power. Address to the Fifth Plenary Session of the IISS Regional Security Summit. The Manama Dialogue, Bahrain, December 13, 2008,"

48 For an analysis of this statement and potential Gulf reactions, see Emile Hokayem, "Hillary's Grand Idea on Iran May Not Serve the Gulf," The National, July 28, 2009,

49 For such views, see, for example, Asher Susser, "The Regional Ramifications of the Hezbollah-Egypt Conflict. Speech at the Israel Policy Forum, 29 April 2009,"

50 Eric Schmitt and Scott Shane, "U.S. Challenged to Explain Accusations of Iran Plot in the Face of Skepticism," New York Times, October 12, 2011,

51 For previous examples of regional barriers facing U.S. policy aims, see Rashid Khalidi, "An Arab View of Containment," in Containment: Concept and Policy (Note 3), eds. Deibel and Gaddis, 415-421.

52 For further details on divergent Arab approaches to Iran and intra-Arab disputes regarding Iran, particularly vis-à-vis the Saudis, see Nasr and Takeyh, "The Costs of Containing Iran"; and Chubin, "Iran's Power in Context." Also see Dalia Dassa Kaye and Frederic Wehrey, "Containing Iran? Avoiding a Two-Dimensional Strategy in a Four-Dimensional Region," Washington Quarterly, 32, no. 3 (July 2009): 37-53.

53 See, for example, Lally Weymouth, "Interview with King Abdullah," Washington Post, June 22, 2008.

54 See Pew Research Center, Global Attitudes Survey 2010,, as of March 31, 2011.

55 See Frederic Wehrey, Dalia Dassa Kaye, Jessica Watkins, Jeffrey Martini and Robert A. Guffey, The Iraq Effect: The Middle East After the Iraq War (The RAND Corporation, 2010).