It is thus interesting to observe how this “on and off” US policy toward Iran and Iraq constitutes a defining feature of US policy throughout its contemporary political history. The US policy of “containment” was initially formulated against the Soviet Union and its communist ideology. The founding document was the National Security Council Report 68 (April 14, 1950) drafted by George Kennan. This NSC-68 document, which sowed the seeds of the Cold War period, would guide the US foreign policy agenda from the 1950s and would similarly shape US foreign policy strategy.
The commitment of US administrations to halt all manifestations of Soviet expansion outside its Eastern European orbit, for fear that any region targeted by the Soviets would surrender to the communists, was the core of containment. This period constitutes the first phase of how containment was understood and applied through the official “Defense (and) Cooperation Agreement” with Turkey and Iran (in 1951 and 1952, respectively), as well as via the 1955 Baghdad Pact (which became the Central Treaty Organization, in 1959). This policy was further expanded to the oil-rich Middle Eastern region, whose territorial security was placed at the top of US foreign policy as an area of geostrategic importance and a buffer zone against communism, under Eisenhower’s Doctrine (Jan. 5, 1957). Thus, the US policy of containment in the Middle East became imperative.
The US “containment” of Iraq via the Kurds, driven by fear of Saddam’s regional domination given the Iraqi-USSR alliance (1972) and Nixon’s “Twin Pillars” doctrine (1969–1974), marked a second phase in the evolution of the US containment strategy. For the first time, the US policy would target any power that threatened its regional interests, not just the USSR. US alliances with selective state actors as its regional proxies, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, and with specific non-state players such as the Kurds of Iraq, served the US aim of keeping the regional balance of power in check. Thus, the US would not only avert a potential Soviet expansion in the Middle East but also appease potentially hostile Iraqi actions that could jeopardize US interests in the oil-rich Gulf. Consequently, US relations with Iran, as its staunchest ally in the Gulf region during the 1970s, widened the gap in US-Iraqi relations.
Reshaping of containment under Khomeinism and Carter presidency
The notion of containment was reshaped again under the impact of the rise of Khomeinism in Iran (1979) during the presidency of Democrat Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) vis-à-vis his “dual policy” and was further stimulated on the eve of the first Gulf War (1980–1988). While supporting Iraq, the US also supplied arms to Iran in fear that the USSR would gain ground in the country. Thus, the “dual containment” of both Khomeini’s Shiism (seen as another expansionist ideology) and Iraq replaced the “Twin Pillars” dogma.
US containment not only of Iraq and Iran but also of the Kurds at that time shifted once more to the US “containment” of Iranian expansionism with Saddam’s support (National Security Directive 139, April 5, 1984). US rapprochement with Iraq, which replaced what had been the Iranian bastion in the Gulf after the fall of the shah, was accompanied by the alienation of the US administration from Iraq’s Kurds under the Reagan presidency (1981-1989). These policies served the US strategic interest of eliminating Ayatollah Khomeini by replacing Iran with Iraq as the second pillar of US foreign policy in order to maintain the fragile regional status quo. Yet, the US favoring of Saddam’s Iraq in the 1980s as an attempt to weaken and bring Iran to heel was again thwarted in the 1990s. US determination to appease or encourage either Iran or Iraq as regional allies would continue in the post-Cold War era.
The second Gulf War (1990-1991) is of particular importance in understanding the orientation of US foreign policy. The Halabja massacre of the Kurds by the Iraqi regime (1988), the creation of the Safe Haven and the subsequent establishment of the de-facto Kurdish state in the north that led to the establishment of a US interactive relationship with Iraq’s Kurds reoriented US plans toward Saddam’s containment. US Kurdish policy in the aftermath of the Kurdish extermination by Saddam’s regime, coupled with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (Aug. 2, 1990), crystallized the US administration’s characterization of the Iraqi regime as a disobedient and uncontrollable regional player that could put US control over the supply of regional oil in jeopardy. This led the US to take control of the country and ultimately to remove Saddam from power. US conditional “containment” of Iraq, which included “regime change” as an explicit US objective, based on NSD 54 (Jan. 15 1991), confirmed the potential use of the US military force against Iraq if vital US security interests in the region were jeopardized in case of a massive Iraqi assault. Following George W. Bush’s policy of “dual containment,” Bill Clinton’s presidency (1993-2001) marked the seventh stage vis-à-vis the US “containment” of both state actors, articulated through the Iraq Liberation Act (1998) as well as the maintenance of UN economic sanctions and non-state ones -- namely global terrorist groups -- in addition to Iran’s containment as one of Clinton’s long-term policies to maintain the regional status quo.
One can trace the roots of the current US Iranian policy to this period. Likewise, the US administration considered Iran’s containment a sine qua non policy given US perceptions of Iran’s willingness to acquire nuclear and conventional weapons, undermine the Arab-Israeli peace process and its promotion of terrorism on a worldwide scale (Martin Indyk, 1993).
The second Gulf War established the Kurdish factor as a major driving force behind the implementation of US foreign policy during the 1990s with their emergence as indispensable allies, able to shore up the US administration’s determination to preserve its hegemony during the post-Cold War period. Nonetheless, the war seems to have had exactly the reverse effect. Ironically, Iraq’s containment, escalated in 2003 with the Iraqi War, enabled Iran to emerge as a strong regional power, an outcome the US wanted to avoid. Whether US foreign policy, following the policy of containment or its current successor, regional democratization dictated by US President George W. Bush’s “New World Order,” has so far succeeded in the Middle Eastern region is open to question, given the current developments in Syria and Iraq, Iran’s uncontrolled policies and its hostile relations with the US. The 2003 Iraqi War had counterproductive effects on US strategic interests as it facilitated Iran’s regional empowerment. Despite President Barack Obama’s calls to the Islamic Republic of Iran for dialogue aiming at bilateral relations based upon mutual interests, respect and US recognition of Tehran’s international right to peaceful nuclear power, within the context of containment, the US policy over a prolonged period of regional involvement where high costs have outweighed the benefits has ultimately led to an increase in diverse regional threats.
*Dr. Marianna Charountaki completed her Ph.D. in Middle East Studies in the Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter (UK). She is the author of the book “The Kurds and US Foreign Policy: International relations in the Middle East since 1945,” (Routledge, 2010).