Elliot Abrams and Nicholas Burns Weigh U.S. Options on Iran
June 8, 2010
Washington, D.C. – As the U.N. Security Council prepares to vote on a fourth round of sanctions against Iran, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) held an important debate today on the prospects for containing a nuclear weapons-capable Iran. This timely discussion examined whether the United States possesses the key elements for a successful containment strategy, what consequences would result from failed containment, and whether the Cold War offers any lessons on deterring a nuclear Iran.
Iran draws closer to having nuclear weapons capability every day. An analysis by the BPC indicates that, by July, Tehran could have enough fissile material to create a weapon within three months. As policy debates on Iran shift from prevention to containment, the question of whether a containment strategy is realistic, given the complex political situation in Iran and the Middle East, becomes more pressing.
Moderated by Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post, the debate raised some important cautions with regard to containment. “Containment is an illusion. It won’t work because we’ve lost our credibility,” said Elliot Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and former Deputy National Security Advisor.
Abrams emphasized that containment is not achieved merely through words or diplomatic threats; it also must be backed by a credible threat of force and clearly communicated redlines. “We couldn’t deter Iranian aggression when it didn’t have nukes. Iran would only feel more emboldened after confronting the world with its pursuit of nuclear weapons and getting away with it.”
Ambassador Nicholas Burns, Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, argued that, “containment is not soft policy or appeasement. It is a military policy requiring credibility.” Burns stressed that a proper strategy with Iran is long range, takes into account our larger interests, and inflicts maximum pressure on Iran while keeping U.S. options open. “We should not risk military action without exhausting every other option. Failing to do so would be nothing short of a catastrophe.”
Aside from keeping all U.S. options on the table, Burns feels strongly that the international coalition against Iran should be strengthened by making Iran a priority in the United State’s bilateral relations with Moscow and Beijing.
The debate was part of the BPC’s National Security Project (NSP) Iran series co-chaired by Senators Daniel Coats and Charles Robb, and General (ret.) Chuck Wald. The dialogue was intended to inform the broader public policy debate on Iran, as well as NSI’s final recommendations for its third report on Iran, “When Time Runs Out,” to be released on June 22, 2010.
Foreign Policy Project, Iran Initiative