Make no mistake: A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear-arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the non-proliferation treaty. — President Obama, speech to the UN General Assembly, 25 Sept. 2012
Certainly containing a nuclear-armed Iran will be ugly. The trick is to make it uglier for the regime controlling the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) than it is for anyone else. I suggest sanctions, encirclement, negotiation, countering, and engagement. All of this presupposes stable deterrence, which will become more problematic with time. On the other hand, containment can fail over to prevention whenever the US and its partners deem necessary. We do not have to strike Iran immediately should it get a nuclear weapon or two.
In the beginning, containment will be easy. Iran is more like a richer North Korea than a poorer Soviet Union. At first, it will have few weapons and will be unable to mate them to its Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs). That is not yet an existential threat to US and its partners, including Israel. There will be time.
There will be time to seek even more effective sanctions. Time to help the Persian Gulf states realize the danger they are in, and encourage them to transform the Gulf Cooperation Council into a military alliance, which should reach out to all Iran’s neighbors, completing an encirclement, and diminishing the IRI’s regional military and political influence. Time to negotiate with the IRI, not to get immediate results, but establish the communication necessary for stable deterrence and to get to know who can be influenced and how. There will be time to counter the IRI’s moves in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and at the UN. There will be time to engage the IRI positively on matters of mutual interest, such as limiting desertification due to climate change. And finally, there will be time to work on the IRI’s internal divisions: political, religious, socioeconomic, and ethnic.
There may even be time for Israel to make positive progress on Palestinian statehood, so that it would not be anathema for Israel to help the GCC resist Iran. Faced with such a realignment of Middle East politics the IRI should prefer going without nuclear weapons. Because a nuclear-armed Iran presents a great enough threat to its neighbors to help bring it about.