Accessibility links

Middle East: Analysis From Washington -- Bush Transition Marks End Of 'Dual Containment'

  • Charles Recknagel

With the administration of President George W. Bush taking shape in Washington, there are many signs it will pursue a tighter containment of Iraq but explore ways to improve relations with Iran. That reflects a general consensus on the Bush team that it is impossible to internationally isolate both Iraq and Iran at the same time.

Washington, 29 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- If there is one thing most analysts in Washington agree upon regarding the new Bush administration's policies toward Iraq and Iran it is that "dual containment" is finished.

That term, dual containment, was coined in 1993 to define a U.S. strategy of trying to isolate both Iraq and Iran, which were seen as twin threats to America's interests and to pro-Western states in the Middle East.

But dual containment, which was a policy mainstay of the early years of former President Bill Clinton's administration, has experienced severe setbacks in recent times.

Washington has seen its efforts to maintain a strong international consensus for keeping Iraq under tight sanctions challenged by increasing numbers of states which see the humanitarian cost -- or the cost in lost business opportunities -- as too high.

And the U.S. has seen its efforts to politically isolate Iran ignored by even its closest European and Asian allies. In recent months Iran's President Mohammad Khatami has visited Italy, France, Germany, and Japan, all countries whose oil companies are already investing in Iran's energy sector or looking for ways to do so.

Ted Carpenter, an expert on U.S. foreign policy at the Cato Institute in Washington, says that in the wake of such challenges, dual containment appears to many in both the outgoing Clinton and incoming Bush administrations as unworkable and not sustainable.

He says many on the Bush team are convinced Washington can only effectively concentrate its efforts on isolating one of the two Gulf region powers. Ted Carpenter:

"There is an overall conclusion within the Bush foreign policy team that the dual containment policy in the Persian Gulf, that is a containment policy directed both against Iraq and Iran, is not workable and really hasn't worked for several years."

He continues:

"There is also more or less a consensus that Iraq is the more dangerous power of the two and therefore the United States might have to at least move toward a less confrontational policy toward Iran if not eventually toward a normalized relationship with that country."

Carpenter says another reason for concentrating on Iraq is that many in Washington are now convinced that sanctions to isolate countries only work if they are multilateral and have wide international support. Iraq remains under UN sanctions, while Iran is under U.S. sanctions only.

This re-evaluation of sanctions policy was expressed by Secretary of State Colin Powell in his confirmation hearings in Washington earlier this month. Powell said he doubted the effectiveness of unilateral sanctions in general and, turning to Iran, said that important differences between Washington and Tehran need not preclude greater interaction, be it more normal commerce or increased dialogue.

Ray Takeyh, a regional expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, says many policy planners feel isolating Iran became impossible as early as 1997, when moderate President Khatami was elected and many European governments reached out to him in order to strengthen Iran's reformers. Ray Takeyh:

"Dual containment has been finished for a long time. Really you can make the case that dual containment was finished in 1997, when Iran begins to have a reformist government in power. [And] it was hard to contain these two very large states from having a role in the Middle East."

Takeyh says a policy change now to isolate only Iraq would reflect a belief that only Baghdad represents an immediate threat to regional security. Takeyh:

"[Iraq] is a state which is perceived as an immediate threat. And it is a state which America's allies in the region are more concerned about, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Israel, because it has a volatile leader who has invaded his neighbors twice, and is determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction and use them because he has used them before."

He continues:

"So the shift of opinion is toward containment and coercion of Iraq under its existing leadership, as opposed to a reformist Iran which has a good-neighbor policy with the Gulf states and, actually, has been dogmatic toward Israel but is too far from Israeli to have some sort of an impact."

Iran continues to refuse to recognize Israel as a state and opposes the Israeli-Arab peace process.

Analysts say one of the central questions for the new Bush team will be how fast Washington should move in a rapprochement with Tehran. And they say the answer will depend largely on how Tehran responds to new US overtures which are likely to be forthcoming.

Ted Carpenter predicts the Bush administration will move cautiously in its first months as it looks for signs that its gestures would not be rebuffed.

"The administration is likely to move cautiously in its initial months at least, in part because it is waiting for a clear signal from Tehran that the Iranian government is interested in moving toward a normalized relationship. There are serious questions about the views of the Iranian government, there are even more serious questions about whether the so-called reformers have the political clout to carry out a policy of normalization."

Carpenter says that with so many questions about Iran still open, the new administration will be extremely cautious about putting itself in the embarrassing position of making gestures which are not reciprocated.

The Bush team charged the Clinton administration with doing just that in recent years as the last U.S. administration, too, sought to move away from dual containment. And it hardly wants to now become the target of such criticism itself. There remains a sizable group of proponents in Congress for taking a hard-line policy toward Iran and they will be quick to label any new overtures as appeasement if Washington is not able to show something gained in exchange