President Obama's policy of "engagement" with Iran can be viewed as an experiment. There was at least a chance that it was only President Bush — that swaggering, unilateralist cowboy — with whom Iran's theocrats did not want to engage. But a year and half into Obama's tenure, we should recognize the obvious: Iran is ruled by followers of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. For them, there is what Andy McCarthy, in his distressingly clear-eyed new book, The Grand Jihad, calls "the imperative of Islamic domination." For them, as a matter of principle, there must no engagement with America. The goal must be to challenge, confront, humiliate and, in time, Inshallah, defeat the Great Satan.
President Bush's policy of "isolating" Iran — a policy President Obama did not discontinue — has also failed. Iran was never isolated in any serious sense, and today its masters strut across the world stage as never before. My colleague, Claudia Rosett, has documented Iran's growing power at the United Nations and how both Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, are being welcomed in one foreign capital after another.
They have forged strategic alliances with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and Venezuela's anti-American strongman, Hugo Chávez. They have made common cause with Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Syria is Iran's client. Obama's efforts to pry Syria away from Iran have come to nothing. Hezbollah, Iran's terrorist proxy, increasingly manipulates Lebanon. Iran funds and instructs Hamas, which has one aim: the extermination of Israel, the Little Satan. And Iran now may have a foothold in Sudan, which is ruled by Islamists responsible for the genocide of black Muslims in Darfur.
True, the U.N. Security Council last week passed an Iran sanctions resolution. It lacks teeth, but it puts the "international community" on record, not for the first time, as opposing Iran's not-so-secret nuclear-weapons-development program. That makes it easier for Obama to impose serious sanctions of his own, if he has the will to do so.
If he does not, or if he does and the result is insufficient to bring about change we can believe in, expect to hear a lot about the policy that will be proposed to deal with a nuclear Iran: "containment." Within the Obama administration and the Washington foreign-policy establishment, containment already has a growing list of proponents. Bret Stephens names them and demolishes their arguments here. As Stephens persuasively argues, containment is bound to fail — with potentially catastrophic consequences.
George F. Kennan, a diplomat who served at the U.S. embassy in Moscow in the 1940s, is generally credited with conceptualizing containment as America's policy response to the Soviet Union once it became apparent that our World War II ally had become our post-war adversary. Containment was seen as less hawkish than "rollback": attempting to push the Soviet Union out of the Eastern European nations that had been liberated from the Nazi jackboot only to come under the Communist jackboot. But containment was less dovish than "appeasement" — the policy that had failed to keep Hitler from overrunning Europe.
Containment implied using diplomatic, economic, and military measures to keep the Soviet empire boxed in. To enforce containment, American troops remained both in Europe, to the Soviet Union's west, and in Asia, to the Soviet Union's east. In pursuit of containment, the United States fought "proxy wars" against both Korean and Vietnamese Communists. And the U.S. supported Afghan insurgents battling to end Soviet domination of their country.
Applying a containment strategy to Iran almost certainly would necessitate stationing U.S. troops indefinitely in Iraq, to Iran's west, and Afghanistan, to its east. In response, Iran would back anti-American forces in those countries — as, in fact, it has been doing for years, though both the Bush and Obama administrations have ignored that so as to avoid having to do something about it.
Containment would mean that the U.S. would fight low-intensity conflicts for a long time and in many places. Americans have limited patience for such conflicts. Iran's strategists get that.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created, in large measure, to bring together those nations that believed the Soviets needed containing. NATO still exists, but it is unlikely that it can be refashioned to address the threat posed by a nuclear Iran and the regimes and terrorist groups Iran controls. Were NATO to make such a transition, it would almost certainly have to eject Turkey, the alliance's only Muslim-majority member, whose current government is openly Islamist.
Nuclear deterrence also was a key component of containment. It was effective because the Soviets, as materialists and atheists, saw death as highly undesirable. It is not clear that deterrence can succeed with religious extremists who regard life and death differently.
"A nation that excels at dying will be blessed by Allah with a life of dignity and with eternal paradise," said Muhammad al-Baltaji, deputy secretary general of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's parliamentary contingent and a passenger on the flotilla that recently attempted to land in Gaza. (Thanks to MEMRI for the translation.) Similarly and famously, Khomeini said: "We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world."
Those who hold such views cannot be engaged. Attempts to isolate them have been unsuccessful. The notion that a warmed-over Cold War policy will somehow "contain" them is ludicrous — especially once their fingers are on nuclear triggers. To make "containment" the mainstay of American national-security strategy is to undertake an experiment whose results are entirely predictable — and will be very painful for America and what we used to call, in more confident times, the Free World.