Dual containment

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Dual containment was an official United States foreign policy aimed at containing Iraq and Iran, Israel's two most important strategic adversaries in the Middle East. Although the policy originated during the Carter administration and was continued through subsequent administrations,[1] the term was first officially used in May 1993 by Martin Indyk at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and officially announced on February 24, 1994 at a symposium of the Middle East Policy Council by Indyk, then the senior director for Middle East Affairs of the National Security Council (NSC).[2][3] It represented a continuation of U.S. foreign policy toward Iran and Iraq during the Cold War, specifically, Bill Clinton's attempt to revise a Persian Gulf strategy after the Gulf War.

Strategic rationale[edit]

The United States had a long-standing strategic doctrine in the Middle East not to let any one country become so powerful that they could control the entire Gulf region's oil supply. For this reason, the U.S. looked to both Saudi Arabia and Iran under the Shah as "twin pillars" of regional security.[4] (See offshore balancing.)

Clinton wanted to make the Israeli–Palestinian peace process a major priority in his foreign policy, and he wanted to ensure Iraq and Iran would not be in a position to interfere with that agenda.[5] Iraq was already under containment by the U.S. and its allies in the form of the Iraqi no-fly zones. Iran had been cut off from the U.S. ever since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Although Clinton held out hope for eventual changes in regime policy from these countries, containment seemed like the only viable option in the near term.[6]

Although the U.S. had planned in the 1980s to directly balance Iraq and Iran against each other, this became untenable and unnecessary by the early 1990s. Both countries had been exhausted militarily and financially from the Iran–Iraq War, and the Soviet Union was no longer around to be a security benefactor for either country.[7]

Clinton tasked his national security advisor, Tony Lake, with crafting a new strategy.

Policy vision and implementation[edit]


The Joint Chiefs of Staff favored exploring dialogue with Saddam Hussein, but Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, the CIA, and the U.S. State Department wanted a harder line. The State Department, however, was concerned about the possibility of sectarian war in the event that Saddam was overthrown. They settled on an approach they called "aggressive containment," a strategy of containment "through sanctions and the occasional resort to force."[8]

Lake rejected giving the CIA immediate authority to begin exploring options of a potential officer-led coup against Saddam. However, it was agreed that the administration would give political to support to the Iraqi National Congress and continue the no-fly zones protecting Kurdish and Shia populations in Iraq.[9]

Clinton authorized the use of punitive military force against Saddam's regime as part of this strategy, such as in 1993, when it was discovered that the Iraqi leader had plotted to assassinate George H. W. Bush,[10] and in 1998 when Saddam expelled United Nations weapons inspectors.[11]


Clinton's team saw Iran as a "rogue state" fundamentally opposed to American interests in the Middle East.[12]

Overthrow was not a viable policy option given the lack of organized opposition and American intelligence assets on the ground. Positive inducement to behavioral changes was also dismissed due to the Iranian regime's deep distrust of the U.S. Finally, punitive military action was ruled out on the grounds that Iran's retaliatory capabilities were considered too great, and the benefits of these strikes were too uncertain. Thus, it was decided to continue American efforts to prevent Iran's acquisition of ballistic missiles and access to international finance. This approach, known as "active containment," was designed to convince the Iranian elite to pursue rapprochement with the West over time.[13]

On May 6, 1995, President Clinton signed an executive order to bolster the Iranian containment. It banned arms sales to Iran, including dual-use technologies, and banned importing Iranian goods. It also established a diplomatic position of blocking Iran from all international lending.[citation needed]


According to Indyk, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia tried to show support for the policy by promising to buy dozens of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas civilian airliners in mid-1993, ensuring that US industries could count on financial support from Saudi Arabia even without the opportunities that would have been afforded them with a rapprochement with Iran.[14]

However, the United Arab Emirates, by the late 1990s, told US officials that they thought that Saddam Hussein was meeting his international obligations and that containment of Iraq was no longer necessary.[15] The containment of Iraq by sanctions became increasingly unpopular internationally, and the sanctions regime weakened significantly by 2000.[16]

Daniel Pipes supported the policy in a testimony to the US Congress in March 1995 and gave praise for its strategy and policy but criticized the tactics of its implementation. He said that US policy should not be forced to engage Iran or Iraq unless either acted responsibly.[17]

Articles in Foreign Affairs[18] and for the Cato Institute[19] in 1994 criticized dual containment as "shot through with logical flaws and practical inconsistencies and is based on faulty geopolitical premises" and requiring "a prolonged U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region."

Resemblance to Kennan's containment of the Soviet Union[edit]

The idea was inspired by George F. Kennan's ideas of containment of the USSR during the Cold War; critics have argued,[2] however, that it did not respect Kennan's key demand for containment to succeed: the principle of power-balancing.

According to Kennan, the United States and Russia should respect the other's spheres of interest. That way the two could get along, building themselves up and developing their societies. However, they must, under no circumstances, go to war with each other. To be sure, with two such diametrically opposed systems, relations would never be warm, or even cooperative. However, as long as the two did not try to destroy each other, catastrophe could be avoided. What Kennan was expressing was the concept of balancing, the idea that, in the world of international politics, a proper balance could be struck between potential adversaries, which would produce a stable situation that could be prolonged indefinitely.

In the case of Iraq and Iran in the 1990s, US policymakers confronted them with what amounted to a dictat: the two either remade themselves according to US desires, or the US would simply keep up the sanctions until they did.


As a consequence of the policy, the U.S. had to station large number of troops nearby. Troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia, an area that many in the region regard as "holy soil," which offended many locals and is cited by Osama bin Laden as one reason for his hatred against the United States policies and part of his motivation for the September 11 attacks.

Traditional American policies had been not to engage with troops on the ground in the Middle East, but to stay "over the horizon", ready to move in at short notice. The only time the U.S. had deviated from this policy was during its intervention in the civil war in Lebanon, and that led to the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing.

By the mid-1990s there was considerable dissatisfaction with dual containment, because it made the United States the mortal enemy of two countries that hated each other, and forced Washington to bear the burden of containing both. Pressed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other pro-Israel forces,[20] Clinton toughened up the policy in the spring of 1995 by imposing an economic embargo on Iran. But AIPAC and the others wanted more.[20] The result was the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, which imposed sanctions on any foreign company investing more than $40 million to develop petroleum resources in Iran or Libya.

The sanctions against Iraq came to be criticized domestically in the United States and in other countries because of the humanitarian toll that they took on civilian Iraqis. A study by the Food and Agriculture Organization in late 1995 estimated that more than half a million Iraqi children had died because of the economic effects of the sanctions.[21]


By the late 1990s, however, neo-conservatives were arguing that dual containment was not enough and that regime change in Iraq was essential. By toppling Saddam and turning Iraq into a vibrant democracy, they argued, the U.S. would trigger a far-reaching process of change throughout the Middle East. The same line of thinking was evident in the 'Clean Break' study the neo-conservatives wrote for Benjamin Netanyahu, which he then rejected. Now Iraq is a strong ally of Iran.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The United States and Iran: Sanctions, Wars and the Policy of Dual Containment, by Sasan Fayazmanesh, 2008
  2. ^ a b Landpower and dual containment - rethinking America's policy in the gulf. - by Stephen C. Pelletiere, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, November 1999
  3. ^ America's Misguided Policy of Dual Containment in the Persian Gulf - Cato Foreign Policy Briefing No. 33, by Barbara Convay, Cato Institute, November 10, 1994
  4. ^ Indyk, pp. 32–33.
  5. ^ Indyk, Martin (2009-01-06). Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East. Simon & Schuster. pp. 30, 32. ISBN 9781416597254. Retrieved 22 December 2013.
  6. ^ Indyk, p. 32.
  7. ^ Indyk, pp. 33–36.
  8. ^ Indyk, pp. 36–37.
  9. ^ Indyk, p. 38.
  10. ^ David Von Drehle & R. Jeffrey Smith (27 June 1993). "U.S. Strikes Iraq for Plot to Kill Bush". The Washington Post. Retrieved 22 December 2013.
  11. ^ "Transcript: President Clinton explains Iraq strike". CNN. 16 December 1998. Retrieved 22 December 2013.
  12. ^ Indyk, p. 39.
  13. ^ Indyk pp. 39–41.
  14. ^ Indyk, pp. 56–57.
  15. ^ Mirhosseini, p. 37.
  16. ^ Thalif Deen (September 27, 2000). "UN's 10-year-old Embargo on Iraq Threatens to Unravel". Common Dreams NewsCenter. Archived from the original on 28 June 2012. Retrieved 21 February 2014.
  17. ^ Daniel Pipes (2 March 1995). "Two Cheers for Dual Containment". Retrieved 22 December 2013.
  18. ^ F. Gregory Gause III (March–April 1994). "The Illogic of Dual Containment". Foreign Affairs. 73 (2): 56–66. doi:10.2307/20045919.
  19. ^ Barbara Conry (10 November 1994). "America's Misguided Policy of Dual Containment in the Persian Gulf". Cato Foreign Policy Briefing. Cato Institute. 33.
  20. ^ a b c The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy - by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, London Review of Books, 23 March 2006
  21. ^ Crossette, Barbara (1 December 1995). "Iraq Sanctions Kill Children, U.N. Reports". The New York Times. p. 9. Retrieved 21 February 2014.

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