Uncontained: Obama’s Confused Iran Policy

In The Epic of Sheikh Bedreddin, one of the masterpieces of modern Turkish verse, Nazim Hikmet tells the story of a failed uprising led by a Sufi mystic and warlord against the fifteenth-century Ottoman sultan Mehmed I. Commanding a ragtag band of rebellious peasants and merchants fed up with high taxes, Sheikh Bedreddin battles the sultan’s troops all along the Aegean coast. But the rebels soon end up cornered on the Karaburun Peninsula, where most are slaughtered and Bedreddin is captured. In his poem, Hikmet imagines the last remnants of the rebel army camped outside the gates of the fortress city of Seljuk when a young warrior appears. Moved by the justice of the cause, he offers to storm the gates of Seljuk and raze the fortress all by himself. But Bedreddin, awaiting hanging, tells him:

Seljuk’s gates are narrow
You cannot come and go
It has a fortress
not so easy to raze
Go away, roan-horsed brave,
go on your way . . .

Connoisseurs of early Ottoman history might hear echoes of this tragic poem in the fate of the Iranian democrats who, in June 2009, staged a dignified mass uprising against the tyrants of Tehran, only to find themselves cornered by a ruthless clergy—and abandoned by the world’s leading liberal democracy. At the time, the Obama administration was trying to persuade the mullahs to abandon their nuclear weapons program. And, as one commentator put it, the president was not about to let pro-democracy protests get in the way of his engagement policy. Despite evidence of a violent crackdown against unarmed protestors, for example, the State Department initially refused to disinvite Iranian diplomats from July 4th celebrations held at American embassies around the world. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton finally rescinded the invitations under mounting pressure from the press; not a single Iranian diplomat had accepted one, anyway.

In the subsequent days and months, the Obama administration continued to seek rapprochement with the mullahs. As he had on previous occasions, the president insisted on spelling out the full name of the regime (“the Islamic Republic of Iran”) in a 2010 video postcard transmitted to the country on the occasion of the Persian New Year—an unambiguous signal that regime change was still very much off the table. The theocrats of Tehran, meanwhile, drove the opposition further and further underground. The Green Movement eventually fizzled out: its leaders silenced under house arrest, its rank and file brutalized on the streets and in Iran’s notorious political prisons.

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Nor did the much touted engagement track supposedly driven by the president’s charisma and goodwill check the Islamic Republic’s relentless march toward nuclearization and regional hegemony, which persists to this day. Thus a policy that was ineffective as well as morally dubious robbed the US of a rare opportunity to undermine a dangerous, long-term adversary by embracing a vibrant, indigenous pro-democracy movement aligned with American values as well as American interests in the Middle East.

Since then, a Washington in no mood for an all-out military confrontation, and having had its offers of engagement rudely rebuffed by the mullahs, has settled on containment as the best strategy for dealing with Iran. In a Foreign Affairs feature published less than a year after the summer 2009 uprising, Ray Takeyh and James Lindsay offered the most comprehensive expression of this new position. Even assuming the mullahs were to cross the nuclear threshold, the Council on Foreign Relations analysts wrote, the US “can contain and mitigate the consequences of Iran’s nuclear defiance.” To do so, “Washington will need to lay down clear ‘redlines’ defining what it considers to be unacceptable behavior—and be willing to use military force if Tehran crosses them. It will also need to reassure its friends and allies in the Middle East that it remains firmly committed to preserving the balance of power in the region.” By providing tangible disincentives for expansionist behavior on the part of Tehran and by rewarding Iranian cooperation, Takeyh and Lindsay argued, the US and its allies could derail the regime’s hegemonic ambitions.

This position was soon echoed by other leading lights of the “realist” foreign policy establishment and, by all accounts, more or less endorsed by the Obama administration itself. Yet the case for containment, which was advanced months before the events of the Arab Spring, always assumed a stable regional order in which autocratic Arab elites would serve as counterweights to Persian totalitarianism. At a time when the region’s architecture of power is undergoing massive and unprecedented change, then, containing Iran is a different and altogether more problematic proposition than it was before autocracy came under attack. It will require a vigorous and sustained U.S. military presence in the neighborhood. It will also require American policymakers to try to shape the outcomes of the ongoing Arab revolts. But the Obama administration has repeatedly shown itself both hesitant and incapable of meeting either requirement.


The doctrine of containment has its origins in US-Soviet relations and, more specifically, in George Kennan’s famous “X” paper in 1947, which argued that the threat posed to the liberal democratic West by Soviet totalitarianism could best “be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.” In the view of many historians, it was thanks mostly to successive administrations’ fidelity to Kennan’s vision that the US was finally able, after some four decades of tense rivalry, to precipitate the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union. But the history of the containment policy is by no means a settled matter. Indeed, the efficacy of the policy was the subject of heated debates at the time, with Kennan’s opponents insisting that American power projection and forceful moral leadership could—and, indeed, did—strike the decisive blow against world communism.

It is not necessary to enter this academic debate to note the glaring differences between the communist threat of yesteryear and the theofascist one posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran today. As the Wall Street Journal editorialist Bret Stephens has observed, “Communism was . . . a materialist and (by its own lights) rationalist creed, with a belief in the inevitability of history but not in the afterlife. Marxist-Leninist regimes may be unmatched in their record of murderousness, but they were never great believers in the virtues of martyrdom.” The messianic Shiites of Tehran and Qom, on the other hand, speaking through Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, stand beholden to an apocalyptic cult of death urging them to sow enmity and unrest around the world so as to hasten the return of the “hidden Imam” and, thus, man’s final communion with his Maker.

There are other more practical barriers to containing Iran. While it has a political dimension, containment has always been primarily a military doctrine. To establish and maintain an effective containment regime, the US and its allies would have to be willing to devote vast strategic resources to make it clear to the mullahs that crossing certain “redlines” would indeed result in retaliatory action. The astute Iran watcher Michael Rubin explained in a 2008 Jane’s Intelligence Review article that to succeed against Iran “containment would necessarily rely on three factors: troop deployments and US bases overseas, weapons sales to countries surrounding Iran, and diplomatic alliances.” In light of the unpromising balance of forces, the allies’ eagerness to redeploy troops away from the region, and American reluctance to transfer arms to regional allies, Rubin concluded that “the US currently remains ill prepared for any containment strategy, and is unlikely to be in a position to effectively contain a nuclear Iran in coming years.”

Rubin might well have added a fourth factor weighing against the West’s ability to mount a successful containment program against Tehran. The American government, under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, has shown itself unwilling to respond to Iranian provocations across the region, and particularly in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. In Iraq, American military intelligence has made it clear that the clerical regime has been transferring improvised explosive device technology and training to insurgents, leading to the deaths of dozens of coalition and Iraqi personnel. Yet save for a few headline-grabbing flashpoints, the US has not punished Iranian attempts to sow chaos in Iraq. Likewise, in Afghanistan, NATO has failed to disrupt documented ties between the Iranian regime and the Taliban. Finally, the US has all but abandoned Lebanon—where, in 2005, the flowers of the Arab Spring first bloomed and quickly wilted—to the whims of the Iranian proxy Hezbollah. As Stephens and others have commented, an America already so reluctant to confront the mullahs would certainly not be any more zealous to act on transgressions against “redlines” once Iran gains access to the world’s deadliest weapons.


This year’s outburst of democratic sentiment across the Arab Middle East and North Africa has added new layers of complexity to this already challenging policy terrain, upending the basic assumptions undergirding the case for containment made by Takeyh and Lindsay, who premised their arguments on the US’s continued willingness “to gain favor with Arab dictatorships” by “shelv[ing] its calls for domestic political reforms in those countries.” An effective containment policy against Iran, in other words, required the US to continue to nurture its autocratic clients—seen as bulwarks against Iran’s hegemonic urges—from the Gulf to the Maghreb. Setting aside the morally repulsive nature of such counsel, the radical changes sweeping the Arab Mideast will now prevent the US from balancing the threat of Iranian totalitarianism with a “tolerable” Arab authoritarianism.

It is possible that the Arab Spring will now provide that counterweight. Iranian freedom fighters have heard strong echoes of their own failed revolt in the courage and persistence of Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, Bahraini, and Syrian dissidents. The Persian blogosphere is replete with expressions of solidarity with Arab democrats and soul-searching on the part of Greens hoping to apply the lessons of Sidi Bouzid and Tahrir Square to their own struggle against dictatorship.

Yet the Ahmadinejad regime too has sought to claim (and influence the ultimate outcome of) the Arab Spring. Shortly after Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak abdicated their gaudy thrones, Iran’s leadership sought to claim the Arab revolutionary mantle. “The Iranian nation is witnessing the echo of its voice in other parts of the Muslim world,” declared Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad topped his putative boss: “This is a global revolution, managed by the imam of the ages,” he told crowds gathered at a regime-sponsored rally commemorating the thirty-second anniversary of the 1979 revolution. The Arab Spring, Ahmadinejad claimed, spelled the end of the US’s “satanic” influence over Muslim masses. Meanwhile, Iranian state television looped images from the Egyptian revolt intercut with scenes from the 1979 Islamic Revolution that deposed the shah.

Arab democrats laughed off the Iranian theocrats’ boasts. Thanks to the Internet and social media, young Arabs have long been aware of what daily life under a theocracy is like, and they want none of it. Even the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which has theocratic designs of its own, rejected Khamenei’s claims—if only for tactical reasons. Still, Iran’s hopes of expanding its influence into the space created by the departure of the autocrats are far from frivolous. After all, Arab masses need not embrace wilayat al-faqih—Iran’s model of governance, which vests absolute authority in a supreme religious apparat—to increase the regional power of the mullahs.

Turkey under the Brotherhood-linked Justice and Development Party (AKP) provides an instructive example. While the AKP is rapidly eroding the nation’s heritage of secularism, Turkey—held up by many analysts as an ideal model for a Tunisia or Egypt in transition—remains a far cry from Iranian-style theocracy. Yet the Turks are daily tilting away from the liberal democratic grouping toward the “resistance” axis led by Iran. Anti-Americanism and anti-Israelism have paid electoral dividends for the AKP. It is not difficult to imagine a democratic or quasi-democratic Egypt, with the Brotherhood composing the largest bloc in a coalition government, going in the same direction. While foreign policy demands did not figure prominently in the Egyptian and Tunisian protests, reflexive anti-Americanism and anti-Israel sentiments will likely shape electoral outcomes in the post-Mubarak, post-Ben Ali eras, further alienating the two countries from the West generally and the US in particular.

The Gulf states will be even more vulnerable to Iranian hegemony should popular revolts dislodge the sundry sheikhs and emirs that misrule them. Many—most especially Bahrain, Yemen, and Oman—boast significant Shia populations long subjected to routine and systematic discrimination under the ethno-sectarian apartheid regimes set up by the Sunni monarchies. Shia grievance is the Islamic Republic of Iran’s most potent ammunition against these US-allied states.

Consider Bahrain, which has witnessed sustained, ongoing protests throughout 2011. With tacit approval from the US and material assistance from Iran’s regional archrival Saudi Arabia, the regime there has responded to popular demands with a merciless crackdown against its Shia-majority population. As with their Arab counterparts, most Bahraini dissidents have not associated their uprising with Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. That said, the Bahraini security apparatus and officer class, thus far under the exclusive control of the al-Khalifa family and its cronies, would likely become the target of sustained Iranian infiltration efforts if the monarchy were to fall. Iran would also use its sophisticated propaganda channels, Hezbollah-style welfare handouts, and “anti-imperialist” posture to win the favor of dispossessed Shia. Like it or not, a post-al-Khalifa Bahrain will be far easier for the Iranians to subvert and dominate than is the case today.

The birth pangs of Arab democracy thus risk the perverse and paradoxical effect of strengthening Iranian totalitarianism and making ideological and political containment of the Islamic Republic more of an uphill battle than it was prior to the self-immolation of a desperate Tunisian fruit vendor. To point this out is not to suggest that the US should continue risking the moral and strategic hazards associated with propping up Arab dictators. That strategy has borne rotten fruit for far too long. On the contrary, the turbulent era ahead calls for principled, prolonged American engagement in the region. Economic aid and top-down engagement with emerging elites will only go so far. What is needed and desperately lacking in American policy toward the Mideast is a consistent vision of and commitment to a democratic future for the region. In the coming months and years, American policymakers must actively identify and reward liberal voices, while simultaneously undermining and marginalizing Islamist ones.

Obama’s record on this count has been woefully inadequate thus far. Eager to put the Bush freedom agenda to rest in favor of a more “respectful” approach to the world’s least free region, the administration has repeatedly made it clear that the US has little interest in promoting liberalism in the Middle East. The abandonment of Iran’s embattled dissidents in 2009 was merely the most visible symptom of this orientation. Since then, as the desire for individual freedom and popular dignity has lit up the entire region, the administration’s response to each successive Arab revolt has revealed its failure to learn the lesson of the previous one. The routine has become comically familiar: first, an assurance that the regime in question, friend or foe, is stable; next, a half-hearted call for “reform” and a denunciation of generalized “violence”; and finally, once the dictator has fallen, an insistence that the administration had supported the popular will all along and had played an invisible but significant role in its success. (Even in Libya, where NATO acted to prevent genocide, the leader of the free world insisted that the US play a secondary role and barely bothered to articulate the moral dimension of the mission.)

This inconsistency and mendacity plays right into the Iranian regime’s hands. As underprepared as the US is for containment militarily, it is even less so politically and ideologically.


The failure of the administration’s initial engagement policy toward Iran is apparently not lost on some of its members, who are reportedly having second thoughts about having given Iranian democrats the cold shoulder in 2009. In September 2010, the administration imposed personal sanctions on Iran’s top human rights abusers. In March 2011, it led calls for the appointment of a UN special rapporteur tasked with monitoring human rights in the country. And in a Foggy Bottom address two months later, the president delivered his strongest condemnation yet of clerical brutality in Iran. “We still hear the chants echo from the rooftops of Tehran,” Obama said. “The image of a young woman dying in the streets is still seared in our memory.”

Like the roan-horsed brave joining Sheikh Bedreddin on the eve of his defeat, however, Obama’s small, mostly symbolic gestures in support of Iranian dissidents are too little, too late. While the justice of Iran’s pro-democracy cause has by no means diminished since 2009, its protagonists have lost numbers and morale. Bloodied and exhausted, they have made it to the gates of Seljuk, but find its fortifications too strong to storm. The Green Movement is, for all intents and purposes, defunct. But the subterranean mole of democratic revolt will continue to haunt the mullah regime. Without a doubt, it will resurface again, perhaps in another name and under a different banner. Until then, if containment is indeed the way forward for dealing with the theocratic menace of Tehran, then the US must dramatically enhance its level of engagement with the region, militarily and—even more so—morally.

Sohrab Ahmari is an Iranian-American journalist and coeditor of Arab Spring Dreams, a forthcoming anthology of essays by young Mideast reformers. A different version of this article appears in the fall issue of the French-language journal Les Cahiers de L’Orient.

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