Foreign Policy Briefing No. 33

America’s Misguided Policy of Dual Containment in the Persian Gulf

Executive Summary

The Clinton administration has adopted an ambitious policy in the Persian Gulf: “dual containment” of Iran and Iraq. Though it seeks to avoid previous administrations’ ill-fated attempts to cultivate one regime as an alternative to the other, the Clinton approach invites even more problems.

Dual containment is a risky strategy that relies on a vast and precarious network of alliances, assumes Washington can restrict Iranian and Iraqi military buildups, and requires a prolonged U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf region. Yet the United States has no vital interests in the area to justify a policy that is so costly and entails so great a risk of drawing America into regional conflicts.

If dual containment succeeds, even partially, in isolating Iran and Iraq, the consequences for the United States may be grave. An anti-U.S. alliance between Tehran and Baghdad is not inconceivable. And in the event of either regime’s breakdown, many forces in the gulf region will seek to exploit the ensuing chaos, making a regional war—which the United States will have little hope of avoiding—nearly inevitable.

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Barbara Conry is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.