Rethinking 'Dual Containment' of Iraq and Iran

At the start of President Clinton's second term, the US Persian Gulf policy of "dual containment" of Iraq and Iran is at an impasse.

Saddam Hussein remains in power in Iraq, while the coalition that defeated him in the Gulf war is eroding. Meanwhile, toughened US sanctions against Iran have produced no major achievements and are driving the US and its Group of Seven allies apart.

More a slogan than a strategy, "dual containment" may not be sustainable much longer. A more nuanced and differentiated approach is in order, one in tune with America's longer-term interests. This new policy would keep Saddam boxed in but would supplement such resolve with policy modifications to keep the Gulf war coalition united.

Adapting US Iraq policy

In Iraq the US confronts a police state led by an erratic tyrant whose capacity for regional action is currently constrained. Although keeping Iraq a pariah is costly, no military policy other than containment can be adopted while Saddam remains in power. The US must be prepared to maintain containment unilaterally should the will of others falter. Similarly, retaining the economic embargo is necessary because Saddam would likely use profits to fund military development.

The US may, however, need to consider a revised approach to certain aspects of Iraq's containment because not all of them can be implemented unilaterally. While America's basic goal should continue to be to keep Saddam in a straitjacket, the US may need to adjust the fit to ensure the straitjacket holds. There should be five corollaries to the basic containment policy.

1. The international community must credibly demonstrate its concern for the Iraqi people even if their ruler does not. While sanctions against Iraq continue to be necessary, Iraq should be permitted to sell some oil and use the proceeds under UN control to alleviate humanitarian problems.

2. The US should reassure Iraqis and their neighbors that it is committed to the integrity of the Iraqi state. The ultimate US policy would be an Iraq that retains its existing borders and, after Saddam's departure, takes its place as a legitimate member of the international community.

3. The US should consult more closely with Turkey on areas of common interest. Turkey's continued support for US policy in northern Iraq, including Operation Northern Watch, is crucial. To secure Turkey's support, Washington should confer on how best to pursue stability in Iraqi Kurdistan.

4. The US should send a clear signal that it is prepared to work with a post-Saddam regime. That such a regime be benign and democratic is desirable but unlikely, and should not be a prerequisite for Iraq's reintegration into regional politics. To start relations with as clean a slate as possible, and potentially induce aspiring successors in Iraq, the US should consult with interested allies about whether a post-Saddam regime should be offered relief from debts or war reparations.

5. If and when Saddam's regime crosses clearly drawn lines, particularly with regard to weapons of mass destruction and threats to other countries, the US should punish it severely. For several years the US has responded to Iraqi provocation with more bluster than action; Operation Desert Storm shows the reverse is a better strategy.

Adapting US Iran policy

In Iran the US confronts a traditionally imperial country with potentially considerable military and economic capabilities that occupies a crucial position both for the Gulf and for relations between the West and Central Asia.

Iran's geopolitical importance is greater than Iraq's, and its challenge is more complex. Unilateral US sanctions against Iran have been ineffectual, and the attempt to coerce others has been a mistake. The US should sit down with its allies and identify each other's interests, what policies logically follow, and how disagreements can be handled.

Iran's conventional military buildup will pose no threat to US regional supremacy. While progress in the Middle East peace process is an important US interest, opposition by Iran or any other country should not be grounds for international excommunication.

Those concerned about Iran's support of Islamic militancy should note that the Iranian regime, unable to govern effectively, has lost appeal both at home and abroad. The US must not demonize Islam, inside which sectarian, ethnic, and geographic cleavages militate against the rise of a unified, Iran-led threat.

On the other hand, terrorism and nuclear weapons directly threaten US national interests. Both threats can be addressed by specific policy instruments rather than the current crude and counterproductive attempt to cordon off the entire country. A more nuanced approach could yield greater benefits at lower cost.

Since Iran has backed terrorists, the international community should continue to censure it for these acts. Direct attacks on US citizens would require clear retaliatory measures. As a response to terrorism in general, however, containment is not a solution.

In response to Iran's worrisome quest for a nuclear weapons capability, the US should push the controls and inspection provisions of the existing nuclear nonproliferation regime to their limits and continue to make counterproliferation a top priority. In addition, the notion of using carrots as well as sticks should be considered.

Another US interest is the resuscitation of US-Iranian commercial relations. Washington should be open-minded regarding resumption of activity by US oil companies in Iran, and should permit commercial deals unless they contribute specifically to objectionable Iranian behavior.

This new course in the Gulf would not involve a dramatic policy reversal and is not likely to yield vast benefits in the immediate future. What it would do is enable the US to sustain its policy and keep options open for the long term. Absent such statesmanship, it is all too likely that US policy in the Gulf will continue to be driven by domestic political imperatives rather than national interests, with the hard-line slogans of recent years making long-term goals increasingly difficult to achieve.

* Zbigniew Brzezinski served as assistant to the president for national security affairs, 1977-80; Brent Scowcroft, 1989-93. Richard Murphy is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

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