So now, Colin Kahl talks containment

At Al-Monitor and at the Washington Free Beacon, Laura Rozen and Adam Kredo have the same hard question for Colin Kahl: Why talk about containing Iran if containing Iran is such a bad option?

Kahl, who handled Iran at the Pentagon from 2009-2011, was an Obama campaign surrogate to the Jewish and Middle East policy communities in the last election.

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Now, at the Center for New American Security think tank, Kahl says containment — allowing Iran to go nuclear, and then dealing with it — is still a bad option, but we should think about it.

Why? Because a military strike may be a worse option, Kahl posits in his paper:

This preference for prevention should not be used as an excuse to avoid thinking through the requirements for effective containment. Although the United States is not likely to acquiesce to the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran, Tehran may be able to achieve an unstoppable breakout capability or develop nuclear weapons in secret before preventive measures have been exhausted. Alternatively, an ineffective military strike could produce minimal damage to Iran’s nuclear program while strengthening Tehran’s motivation to acquire the bomb. Under any of these scenarios, Washington would likely be forced to shift toward containment regardless of current preferences.

Kahl kind of made the same point during the campaign, it’s true — but in other appearances he and the campaign and Obama himself also emphatically rejected the notion that containment was on the table.

Kahl insists prevention is still the best policy. He admits to Rozen that the administration openly planning on containment could look funny:

“If the administration were seen to be exploring a Plan B in the event that prevention fails, it might create the false impression that they were secretly planning to ‘accept’ a nuclear-armed Iran,” Kahl said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

So why make it an issue, especially when the maker of the issue is ex-Obama administration and ex-Obama campaign?

Kahl tells Rozen that it’s a think tank’s role to nudge administrations toward contingencies.

“One of the most important roles a think tank can play is to ask the questions that cannot be asked inside the government,” Kahl said. “I believe, in general, that it is important to plan for the things we don’t want to happen, not just the outcomes we desire.”

This strikes me as an odd explanation: Contingencies are a staple of defense agencies everywhere. There are contingencies to invade Canada should it turn nasty, for heaven’s sake, and the likelihood of an Iran standoff going south are greater, one would imagine, than Stephen Harper going all 1812 on our behinds.

Wouldn’t the Pentagon already be all over a containment contingency? Is Kahl that lacking in confidence in his former employer that he feels the need to go public?

Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.