Considering Containment

Report coauthored by former Obama aide suggests containment must be considered

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad / AP
May 13, 2013

One of the Obama administration’s most senior former Middle East officials says in a report released Monday that the United States needs to develop a plan to contain Iran should it develop a nuclear weapon.

Colin Kahl, who served as Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East until December 2011 when he transitioned to the president’s reelection campaign, writes in a new report that "if all else fails" the administration could be forced to "shift toward containment [of Iran] regardless of current preferences."

Critics of the administration say the report appears to mark a significant departure from the administration’s stated policy of discounting containment as a viable option regarding Iran.

The 80-page report "outlines a containment strategy to manage and mitigate the dangers associated with a nuclear-armed Iran if prevention efforts—up to and including the use of force—fail."

"This preference for prevention [of a nuclear armed Iran] should not be used as an excuse to avoid thinking through the requirements for effective containment," the report states. It was authored by Kahl of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a Georgetown University security studies student, and another CNAS official, a left-leaning policy shop with ties to the administration.

Kahl told the Washington Free Beacon that he is not advocating for containment, but recommending that the White House "plan for the worst."

"I haven't ‘pivoted’ to containment," Kahl said via email in response to the Free Beacon. "As the report notes numerous times, we do not support a shift to containment. Prevention remains the wisest policy."

Kahl said he is not giving up on preventing Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capabilities.

"I still think prevention is possible and that all instruments of national power should be employed toward that goal," he said. "But while I'm hopeful we can still succeed in preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, I also think that we should plan for the worst."

The CNAS report also acknowledges that the White House is not likely to publicly give up on prevention.

"Although the United States is not likely to acquiesce to the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran, Tehran may be able to achieve an unstoppable breakout capability or develop nuclear weapons in secret before preventive measures have been exhausted," the report states.

"Alternatively, an ineffective military strike could produce minimal damage to Iran’s nuclear program while strengthening Tehran’s motivation to acquire the bomb," the report states. "Under any of these scenarios, Washington would likely be forced to shift toward containment regardless of current preferences."

One Iran expert and former Pentagon adviser said the CNAS report represents a significant step in a dangerous direction.

"Kahl and crew seemingly have no sense of the damage to America's standing in the region that a nuclear Iran could do," said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser on Iran and Iraq.

"Why would any state in the Persian Gulf trust America to have its back after men like Kahl counsel the United States to cast aside its past promises to prevent a nuclear Iran?" he asked. "Why would they risk hosting the bases upon which containment would rest?"

Kahl, who acted as one of Obama’s top national security figures and a key campaign official, is sending the wrong message by lending his name to the report, Rubin said.

"Kahl fails to understand the reasons why containment and deterrence are so risky: He doesn't address who would have command and control of an Iranian nuclear bomb," Rubin said.

"In reality, it would be not only the Revolutionary Guards but the most hardline and ideologically pure faction inside that organization," he said.

Kahl maintains that his views "don’t represent the administration position in any way."

"Neither our allies nor Iran is likely to read what I say as representing official views," he said when asked if the report could be misinterpreted by U.S. allies as a tacit endorsement of containment.

"No one would read the report and conclude containment is a great option," Kahl said, explaining that the report clearly notes containment would be "very difficult, risky, complex, and costly."

"Our allies and partners know that the administration has zero desire to pursue containment," he said. "But I also believe that we should plan for the things we don't want to happen, not just the things we hope will happen."

Former George W. Bush administration adviser Elliott Abrams said Kahl's presence on the report suggests "that all options may not really be on the table."

"This kind of report, from someone who held a key job relating to Iran in the Obama administration, suggests just as the Hagel appointment does that all options may not really be on the table," Abrams said.

"But as I read the report, the list of things the United States would need to do to try and contain a nuclear Iran actually proves the opposite—that containment is impossible," he said.

"I think reports like this telegraph to Tehran that they need not take our threats seriously," he said.

CNAS has been funded in part by the progressive anti-nuclear arms group Ploughshares Fund, which aggressively advocates in favor of engagement with Iran and for a rollback of economic sanctions.

CNAS has received funding from Ploughshares since at least 2009 and was awarded a $100,000 grant in February 2013.

The Ploughshares grant is to "support high-impact research and analysis of the Iranian nuclear question and its ramifications for security in the Middle East and the United States," according to a description on the group’s grant database.

Ploughshares donates to many pro-Iran groups that have lobbied to lift economic sanctions on Iran.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was a member of the group’s board until his nomination to head the Pentagon. Ploughshares helped fund a media campaign to boost Hagel’s image during his contentious nomination process.