The conclusion of Iran's nuclear deal indicates that the US is moving away from a policy of deterrence to one of containment. Deterrence is aimed at getting adversaries to stop taking certain actions by using threats or other coercive measures, while containment is geared towards stopping the expansion and influence of an adversary. The Iran Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCPOA) reflects a containment policy as it aims to limit Iran's nuclear development capabilities. The question which this article addresses is why there is such a change in the US policy -- from deterrence to containment -- and what it aims to achieve.
There are a lot of debates both inside and outside the US about the feasibility and practicality of JCPOA. It is important to consider that containment as a strategy is adopted when it is difficult to set aside differences with the adversary, but also not feasible to carry out military attacks. The US has been following the policy of deterrence over the last decade, and it has been unable to stop Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions. Since the discovery of Iran's nuclear weapons program in 2005, several countries and even the UN have imposed sanctions on Iran. As a result of this, Iran's oil exports fell. In May 2013, to 700,000 barrels per day (from about 2.5 million in 2011), having a huge impact on its economy. However, this does not deter Iran from pursuing its independent nuclear weapons policy. There were rumblings about military action also, especially by Israel, but it Iran was not deterred.
"The strategy of containment offers the middle way to both sides, while also minimising diplomatic and political costs."
In the present context, preemptive strikes on Iran have been one of the options available to the US, but this is rife with problems. First, the US military attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan did not win public approval. Another attack in the Middle East could bring down the popularity of President Obama. Second, is it is difficult to estimate the damage which the US could sustain on the Iranian facilities as these are built underground and are specifically guarded against a destructive attack. Third, any such attacks could bring Russia (which has supported Iran's nuclear program) into the equation and could further damage the US-Russian relations.
Subsequently, Obama's administration saw an avenue in economic sanctions to deal with the nuclear weapons program, but this too failed to make any impact. Therefore, the US has now moved towards containment as its primary strategy to deal with Iran.
This nuclear deal will help to pacify US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia about Iran's nuclear program, to some extent, without forcing Iran to withdraw it completely. The US has also bought itself some time to devise a strategy to counter nuclear proliferation. For example, soon after the nuclear deal, the US offered to increase its military aid to Israel by $1.5 billion per year, demonstrating its capability to make Israel's defence strong while putting a curb on Iran's nuclear activities. Furthermore, Iran will be receiving economic benefits from the US under the deal. Once Iran becomes economically vibrant by the lifting of sanctions, it will be difficult for it to go nuclear and risk economic purgatory.
As for Iran, it has chosen to sign the nuclear deal largely for economic and political reasons. Hassan Rouhani won the elections in June 2013, indicating that the public of Iran has tired of a crumbling economy and confrontation with the West. Since he has taken office, he has focused on the issue of solving the matter of Iran's nuclear weapons program and to end Iran's isolation. This deal will not only help to ease sanctions and to help Iran economically but will also keep open the nuclear option for Iran, thus circumventing domestic criticism of folding under pressure from Western powers. This will help Hassan Rouhani's government to sustain public support for its policies.
The strategy of containment offers the middle way to both sides, while also minimising diplomatic and political costs. This nuclear deal will surely make Iran a "nuclear threshold state", but not an "independent nuclear weapons state."