The art of “gray-hull diplomacy”

Rules of force.

I received a question last week from a correspondent:

I was wondering if you could suggest some manners in which the US could make the military option more credible against Iran.

To my request for clarification, the correspondent replied that this question was more about how to credibly intimidate Iran than about how to effectively interdict Iran’s nuclear program with military force.

It’s a very good question.  How should an American president use the military in an intimidating, persuasive manner, to induce Iran to give up her nuclear-weapons purpose?  Very little has been discussed on this topic in the forums of punditry; virtually all treatments focus on the feasibility or proper method of a military attack campaign.  Is there an “intimidation option,” short of a shooting war?  And if so, what would it look like?

The first principle in answering these questions is that intimidation is personal, not mechanical.  There is no force package that is more effectively intimidating than another, if the will to carry out one’s threats is not considered credible.  The short and non-flippant answer to my correspondent’s question is, “Get another president in the White House.”  Changing an opponent’s intentions through intimidation is entirely about credibility, and credibility comes from the threatener’s history and perceived character.

This is especially true as regards the United States.  We have three aircraft carrier strike groups in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf right now, something no other nation can possibly do.  (We won’t have three a few weeks from now; two of the carriers are swapping out on station, and thereafter our two-carrier presence will be maintained.)  We have Air Force strike-fighters in the Gulf, about 15,000 US Army troops in Kuwait, and tens of thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan, along with air assets.  We have an amphibious group with a Marine battalion in the Gulf region as well.  In spite of our drawdown over the last 20 years, we retain forces in Europe and Turkey, as well as the still-large package of permanently-stationed forces we have in the Far East.

We have the conventional forces to be intimidating with.  The question about our credibility is not related to the believability of our military capacities.  It’s about the leadership and will behind them.

But from a methodological standpoint, leadership and will can produce different courses of action, and they are not all equally effective.  Presidents Bush and Obama have chosen not to use the US military to increase the pressure on Iran, and the “escalation” path adopted by the Perm-5 + 1 has been selected for its extreme slowness and incremental nature.

It’s worth taking a moment to clarify the point that we aren’t using military power to increase pressure on Iran.  The US forces in Southwest Asia have been drawn down absolutely since 2008, and outside of Afghanistan, what we have kept or sent to the theater since then has been purely defensive.  Incremental defensive preparations, such as the introduction of additional minesweepers or anti-missile batteries around the Gulf, are not a means of intimidation.  They are not attack assets.  The current mix of US forces in the Gulf region indicates that we believe Israel and/or Iran might mount a military initiative.  It does not indicate that we intend to.  The US force posture around the Gulf is a defensive one, indicating our intention to have the option of reacting.

The UN and US sanctions on Iran have, meanwhile, been incremental and very slow-acting.  The issue for our purposes is not whether that is “good” or “bad,” but whether it is effective.  Objectively, the sanctions in place are not discouraging or usefully delaying Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons.  Nations like China, India, and Germany continue to do robust business with Iran, not only supplying Iran with hard currency by buying her oil, but selling her technology and materials for her nuclear program.  In spite of the annoying impediments created by the international community, Iran continues to expand her uranium-enrichment operations and to deny IAEA access to suspect facilities.  The program of multilateral talks with Iran merely serves Iran’s purpose of dragging out the current situation, which is favorable for her objectives.

The mere presence of military forces is not automatically intimidating, nor is there an intimidation formula that prescribes levels or combinations of force.  What intimidation boils down to in this case is Iran’s perception of what we intend to do with our forces, on an operationally significant timeline.

Both clauses in that sentence are essential:  it doesn’t matter if there are three, four, or five carriers in the Gulf, if Iran doesn’t believe we intend to use them in the near future against her nuclear program.  Iran’s highest priority is developing nuclear weapons, and whatever she can wait out or endure to achieve that end, she will.  Multiple carriers sitting off her coast for months on end have made no difference to her intentions, and they aren’t going to.

To intimidate Iran with military force, there are three basic requirements.  First, the force must be designed for the threat.  We can’t invade Iran with the 15,000 troops in Kuwait (nor, I hasten to add, should we want to invade Iran at all).  It would be foolish to imply that we might invade Iran with ground troops if we clearly don’t have the forces in the area to do the job.  A more realistic threat would be, say, a select embargo of Iran, which we could accomplish through military force, either more easily – with the cooperation of Iran’s neighbors and trading partners – or less easily, if we had to literally warn off the entire world with the US military.

We don’t have the forces in theater to make good on the latter threat, nor have we seriously implied such a threat.  Iran therefore has no reason to behave as if this is a meaningful threat.

The second basic requirement is a strict, relatively brief timeline for enforcement and/or Iran’s compliance.  A deadline of “next year sometime” is meaningless, and continued talks, without any verifiable effort at compliance, are merely a delaying tactic.

The third requirement is a realistic, executable, and meaningful threat.  As long as threats are vague and only vaguely implied, Iran has nothing to respond to, and will merely continue what she’s doing with some additional amount of irritation.  A threat that meets the criteria – realistic, executable, and meaningful – might be something like a military embargo of Iran’s maritime oil and gas trade.  Such an embargo wouldn’t stop all oil and gas from getting into or out of Iran, but it would stop a lot, and for an operationally significant amount of time.  (Eventually, Iran and her neighbors would develop ways of moving the oil and gas by other means.)  This threat would require holding Iran’s naval, coastal, and air assets at risk, with the threat that if they were used they would be destroyed.

Essential to any such threat would be a next level of threat to hold over Iran, and a program of compliance for her leadership.  Threats like the one outlined above gradually lose their meaning and become mere features of the regional trade system if they are not followed up with rapid, credible escalation.  Saddam adapted to the military embargo of his oil and gas trade – and people at the UN were making money off of it within a few years.  So was Iran, which took a big cut from the sanctions-busters who for 12 years  ferried oil and other contraband to and from Iraq in small freighters and dhows.

A credible US president might approach the Iran-nuclear problem by giving Iran a short, specified amount of time to comply with a set of requirements for inspection and turnover of enriched uranium.  The threat would be escalatory – from the current level of sanctions to a military attack on Iran’s nuclear and missile facilities – and would be backed up by a deployment of forces sufficient to make good the threat.  The US would assume a posture of sea and air control in Iran’s southern portion during this period, clarifying that the Iranians courted destruction of their military assets if their posture became provocative.

The build-up – which should visibly include at least three carrier strike groups, one or two amphibious task forces, additional squadrons of Air Force strike-fighters, the deployment of bombers (B-2 and B-52) to Guam, and a beefed-up Army force in Kuwait, with special forces, air defense, infantry, and civil security capabilities, along with an increased missile defense footprint around the Gulf – would take as much as 45 days, but could probably be largely accomplished in 30.  This would make for a meaningfully rapid timeline on which to require Iranian compliance.

Ideally, the threat and build-up, executed by a credible president, would themselves induce the mullahs to offer major concessions.  Even the most committed radicals do so when the odds are against them, as we saw with North Vietnam after Nixon began systematically destroying their strategic capabilities, eliminated their logistic path through Cambodia, and mined Haiphong harbor to prevent their resupply by the Soviet Union.  Although the US did not ultimately follow up the Paris Peace Accord with vigilance and support to South Vietnam, the agreement itself was favorable for Saigon and Washington, and it was obtained only because Nixon put Hanoi on the defensive both militarily and politically.  Even the China gambit was not as important as making it militarily impossible for the North Vietnamese to hold their position.

Iran, for her part, closed down, renamed, and took underground certain elements of her nuclear weapons program in mid-2003 – when the US had routed Saddam and taken over Iraq.  This process in Iran is the one that was interpreted by the US intelligence community’s leadership, in 2007, as a termination of Iran’s weaponization effort.  Ironically, if that’s what it was, it was clearly undertaken because of the shift created by US military action in Iran’s security situation.  (There is strong evidence that Iran didn’t cease her weaponization effort, but instead labored to hide it better – and in either case, the action was in response to the rapid, decisive US military victory over Saddam.  The decisive use of force does send a signal that changes minds and hearts.)

I don’t assess that Obama could get Iran to capitulate without firing a shot.  But it’s possible that another president could.  If Iran did not lay open her whole nuclear program to inspection and allow it to be carted off in pieces by the UN – and she probably would not – continued vigilance would be necessary.  The defanging of Iran’s nuclear aspirations would be an extended “negotiation,” rather than a done deal, signed and delivered on a date certain.

But in outlining a scenario like this, I regard that as a lower cost to pay than actually attacking Iran.  The option of threat and build-up would remain viable for reuse as long as the US had our current capabilities and military superiority.  The overall US policy should be encouraging liberalization in Iran (and a liberalizing stability for the region), so that a regime of threats and intimidation was merely a stopgap until there was an Iran with a better character to deal with.  Although there might be a role for special, non-kinetic military capabilities in such a policy, the role of force, per se, would be minor to nil.

This is one possible outline of a threat-intimidation scenario.  I haven’t discussed lining up allied support – or at least tacit acceptance – which is obviously an important consideration.  How much that process might limit America’s options would depend mainly on how we approached the matter, since there is still no one who could literally thwart us in undertaking this kind of policy.  That said, I believe we would get more support than many imagine if we had a decisive objective and a robust approach.  What causes the support from our allies to fall off is acting tentatively and without a clear purpose.  The Gulf Cooperation Council nations would give us very different levels of support, for example, if we clearly intended to quickly force concessions out of Iran and protect our regional partners, versus using a drawn-out plan of incrementalism that would allow Iran to keep adjusting and ramping up her own insidious threats to the region.

Probably the key point to take away is that merely moving military force around isn’t usefully intimidating.  A gray hull (naval ship) itself – or any other form of military might – isn’t a clear indicator of intention.  It doesn’t give your opponent anything specific to understand or respond to.  If it’s a new form of force in the situation, it ratchets up the tension without creating the potential for a satisfactory resolution. If it sits there long enough to become old, it’s just part of the landscape, and has no power to intimidate unless you escalate its mission.

Force without purpose and will is just metal and explosives.  To have the intimidating effect needed to achieve political purposes, force has to come with specific statements of intent, instructions to the object of intimidation, and above all, credibility.  Only if it has those things can it make a positive difference.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

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25 thoughts on “The art of “gray-hull diplomacy””

  1. Um…

    I always thought that the best method was the simplest; tell him that you’re going to kick his ass, he understands that you mean it, and are capable of doing it with one hand tied behind your back.

    The ME regimes operate by a 10th Century pre-Enlightenment code of international conduct; attack, issue demands reenforced by terror, negotiate only to buy time, attack again; re-issue demands. This is repeated until the opponent either proves to be stronger and annihilates the attacker – thus dictating terms; or surrenders and pays tribute. There is no negotiation. Negotiation is a sign of weakness or a ploy to buy time to regroup, nothing more.

    What you are laying out is fine and classically Western ethical thinking. Unfortunately it will not work. We are unwilling to do what will work, so we are doomed to fail, bled to death by a thousand cuts from a knife, when we should have just shot the SOB before he got close.

    I will not volunteer my strategy, that would guarantee us a win and a peaceful ME for many generations to come. We wouldn’t have the required level of ruth to do it.

    Remember I am not disagreeing or criticizing your analysis. Only noting that you are laying out the rules for baseball, and they are running an extortion racket. The two don’t meet anywhere.

    IMHO – at any rate… John

  2. a nice mixture of an intelligent explanation and your usual nonsense opinion about the Obama admin…. and your continued willingness to fudge around offering criticism without attempting to offer a thought-out alternative…

    “I don’t assess that Obama could get Iran to capitulate without firing a shot. But it’s possible that another president could. ”

    this is the sort of shift that’s so you…….. it’s possible that you’re not really as empty of ideas as your posts…so what possible course of acton could your possible president use to prevail……..

    have you nothing more than that which I can infer….bomb ’em backwards….and then bomb ’em backwards agin when they re-build…..’ cause no one can stop us….

    1. Labeling as “nonsense” an accurate assessment of the common perception that Obama and his administration’s behavior demonstrates an appeasement oriented, pacifistic mind-set, which is interpreted as fatal weakness by thugs like Putin and Chavez and fanatical radicals like Iran’s Mullahs… only exposes your own blinders.

      Clearly you’ve ‘forgotten’ Iran’s Mullahs holding American hostages under Carter and the release of those hostages just minutes after the new American president Ronald Reagan was sworn into office. The Mullahs knew that Reagan wouldn’t talk but would do…so if necessary, he’d bomb ‘em backwards… and then bomb ‘em backwards again when they re-build…..’ cause no one can stop us….

      That’s what a different President could accomplish.

      And that attitude is what it will take to stop the Iranian’s fanatical pursuit of nukes. Until the Iranians become convinced that their only choice is utter destruction or abandonment of nukes, that the continued pursuit of nukes will absolutely bring upon them utter destruction…nothing else will dissuade their fanaticism.

      1. GB—you’re correct to point out that you agree with the opticon’s assessment…..

        for those who disagree, such buttress is a comfort.

        Ronald Reagan did what to the Mullahs?

        send a autographed bible, a cake, a pearl-handled six-shooter….and then when they took Americans hostage…..send them a whole big bunch of Stingers to appease them in some slimy and near-traitorous deal?

        and then what did he do when instead of releasing those hostages, the Mullahs sent back a tape of Colonel Buckley being tortured for long hours before being murdered?

        what did that president do after that, GB?

        anything beside go on television years later, after it all came out, and assure Americans that he was working with the “moderate elements” in Tehran?

        you’re a flaming fantasist…. and possibly a very foolish fond old man.

        1. Reagan assumed office in 1981. Iran’s Mullah’s perception of Reagan is what that led to their releasing the American hostages.

          On October 23, 1983 American peacekeeping forces in Beirut, part of a multinational force during the Lebanese Civil War who had been earlier deployed by Reagan, were attacked.

          Reagan’s initial reaction to the attack was to declare that the attack was “despicable”, pledged to keep a military force in Lebanon, and planned to target the Sheik Abdullah barracks in Baalbek, Lebanon, a major training ground for Hezbollah fighters.

          Fear of political criticism by the liberal left and media and reluctance to deepen American involvement in the M.E. led influential voices within the administration to argue against Reagan’s retaliatory impulse. Those voices prevailed, the consequence of which is that Reagan was then viewed as a ‘weak horse’ in the Middle Eastern cultural view. Osama bin Laden would later cite Reagan’s withdrawal of forces as a sign of American weakness.

          Buckley was kidnapped by Hezbollah on March 16, 1984. The perception that Reagan and established the US was a paper tiger was fully established.

          In 1994 when Reagan announced his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, there was also speculation over how long Reagan had demonstrated symptoms of mental degeneration. In her memoirs, former CBS White House correspondent Lesley Stahl recounts her final meeting with the president, in 1986: “Reagan didn’t seem to know who I was…” she was mentally preparing to report that Reagan was senile when toward the end of the interview he regained his alertness and, she put aside her concerns. It’s entirely possible that by the Lebanon bombing of late 1983, Reagan’s advancing but unknown Alzheimer’s was influencing him into undue reliance upon his advisers. Which if so would have also included the Buckley situation.

          But whatever the case, bullies, criminal thugs and ideological fanatics only respect strength. Anything less is an invitation to increased aggression i their view.

          So ‘measured response’, endless negotiations and repeated diplomatic initiatives all in the desperate hope that if only we can communicate clearly enough, listen enough and offer enough conciliation, apologies, regrets and assurances… and actions governed by shared international consensus ensure further aggression.

          How many Hitlers, Nazis, Stalin’s, Pol Pots, Saddam Hussein’s and fanatical Islamic radicals must we endure before the liberal mind set concedes that appeasement encourages aggression and that only the certainty of overwhelming force gives pause to the committed aggressor?

          “Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish!” Euripedes

          1. and, of course, you’re again wrong about the perception of reagan in Tehran. They agreed to release the hostages as a means of scuttling Carter and helping to elect a man of limited intelligence whom they could play for the sucker he was …..and did.

            “Talk truth to an old blind reactionary and he blinks a lot and wonders was it you that dribbled down the leg of his trousers” ….

            1. It was Carter whom had proven to be someone who could be played for a sucker. Why throw away a proven commodity in hopes that another would prove to be even more amenable?

              And the Iranians didn’t publicly agree to release the hostages prior to the election, so that dynamic couldn’t have affected the election.

              After Reagan died, Time magazine ran an article in which they published excerpts from Reagan’s personal letters when he was Gov of Ca. Anyone reading those letters would be forced to concede that the insights and articulateness evidenced proved that Reagan was highly intelligent.

              Regarding Carter, Reagan and Iran you’re now engaging in historical revisionism fuster. Which means you’ve lost the argument and haven’t the integrity to admit it. Add to that the hypocrisy of your having recently accused the opticon of an inability to concede an argument…

              “Once in a while, we stumble upon the truth, I see that you have decided to pick yourself up and hurry along, as if nothing had happened.” Churchill paraphrased:

  3. The Iranian nuclear arms development situation cannot be isolated from other broad regional events and strategies. Iran has too many options to counter intimidation, rendering it an ineffective strategy under any US administration. In order for a strategy of intimidation to be successful, Iranian counter options, (Hezbollah, Alawites, PKK, Shia populations in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain Yemen, Iraq, the Russia/China card, etc.) must be removed from the board or neutralized.

    The only effective strategy in dealing with the Iranian regime short of invasion or temporarily delaying nuclear weapons development through unilateral air strikes (both risking a general outbreak of hostilities), is through the development of internal insurgency, something I don’t believe we can accomplish satisfactorily . Even this will come with unwanted consequences for our other regional allies/vassals since the Iranian regime will not sit still and allow itself to be internally undermined without causing analogous difficulties in her neighbors. And again, this strategy also risks the outbreak of general hostilities, beyond the region.

    Forgive me for going back to this again, but without a common Western/Russian strategy for dealing with this Iranian nuclear arms issue , it will fester till something dramatic will have to be done about it. Unilaterally, taking account all the consequences, or jointly with the inevitable compromises that that entails.

  4. “Objectively, the sanctions in place are not discouraging or usefully delaying Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons. Nations like China, India, and Germany continue to do robust business with Iran, not only supplying Iran with hard currency by buying her oil, but selling her technology and materials for her nuclear program.”

    I’m amazed that no mention of Russia, the foremost facilitator of Iran’s pursuit of nukes isn’t mentioned in this assessment.

    Clearly, these countries behavior indicates a willingness to assist in Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capability. Yet there are no sanctions taken against these countries, no attempt to impose negative consequences upon them for behavior undeniably inimical to American interests.

    Fuster’s criticism of the opticon’s proposal as somewhat vague and nonspecific is, IMO not entirely invalid. No amount of political or economic pressure will convince the Iranians of America’s seriousness as long as the covert support for Iranian ambitions by Russia, China, Germany and India, et al remains unchallenged. But neither the time needed, nor the ability to weather the economic repercussions of such a confrontation between the US and the enabling nations permit such a course.

    So given our economic condition and the military and economic strain an extensive conventional attack by the US would entail, only the prospect of absolutely certain nuclear attack by the US against Iranian nuclear facilities can now stop Iranian pursuit of nukes.

    Which means that nothing of consequence will happen.

    So Iran will gain nuclear capability, nuclear proliferation will spread throughout the M.E. More unstable, third world nations and fanatical regimes will gain nuclear capability within the next two decades. Terrorist groups will gain access to nukes and they will be used in terrorist attacks. The FBI has already accepted this future scenario as inevitable.

    At some point, after American cities are attacked, portions of the M.E. will become fields of glass. The consequent formation of ‘Fortress America’ under near permanent martial law is a real possibility.

    All because we wouldn’t address the problem properly when we could.

    An established case of gangrene requires amputation or the patient faces the prospect of certain death.

    Hitler could have been stopped in 1937 at far less cost than the 60 million that pacifistic appeasement wrought.

    Neither bullies, criminals or ideological fanatics are dissuaded by appeals to reason.

  5. That said, I believe we would get more support than many imagine if we had a decisive objective and a robust approach. What causes the support from our allies to fall off is acting tentatively and without a clear purpose. The Gulf Cooperation Council nations would give us very different levels of support, for example, if we clearly intended to quickly force concessions out of Iran and protect our regional partners, versus using a drawn-out plan of incrementalism that would allow Iran to keep adjusting and ramping up her own insidious threats to the region.

    We don’t need their support, they need ours. Every country in the middle east is threatened by a belligerent neighboring Iran. They realize that their position is far more dangerous than our own. But they’re happy to let the US attempt to intimidate the Persians without an obvious commitment that would alienate their own restive Shias. The US needs to indicate that we would be willing to observe Iranian expansion in the rest of the area without use of our resources unless others are willing to show their own determination, especially financially. The Kuwaitis, Saudis, Jordanians (apparently there is such a thing as a Jordanian) and Egyptians need to start writing checks while they’ve still got money in their accounts.

  6. Iran’s economy, such as it is, runs on only six dispersed integrated refineries and three small topping units. Their front-end tubulars range roughly from a meter to three meters in diameter. They are all pre-loaded for self-fueled detonation given very little thermo kinetic help from above. This is not an air-crewed August 1, 1943 Ploesti raid scenario.

    Front end (crude unit) column replacement lead times now run to 36 months and would require seaborne process units from a cooperative east Asia.

    Only half of Persia’s light fuel requirements are currently supplied by in-country refining. Roughly half is imported just to keep the civilian and military wheels rolling even with strict rationing. Plans to double their indigenous fuel capacity have been stymied for years due to incompetence and an embarrassment of foreign exchange diverted to nuclear ambitions.

    So just what is the problem? More of the same feckless-is-as-fatuous does? Why bother with the hardened buried targets when you can “incentivize” the population for regime change in a cold, dark and immobilized Persia while discouraging the ex-pat engineers from participating in rebuilding the economy so long as uranium enrichment continues? The reverse side of the asymmetric warfare coin is pretty evident if you do not fixate on its obverse face such as the children murdered today in Bulgaria.

    1. Interesting suggestion. If we can so easily immobilize Iran then doing so while providing the weapons and logistical support for a genuine ‘Persian spring’ might well be worth doing. That is, after bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities to halt that program until the uprising can sweep away the theological regime.

      1. Y’all (GB, PM, CM) are making my initial point, in spades.

        Fuster, on the other hand, forgets that he lives at Islamist “ground zero” for a chance to glow in the dark while assuming room temperature.

        Negotiation is pointless because it is a sign of weakness in the eyes of our opponents.

        All through history the passive have moronically pursued fruitless negotiations with adversaries.

        At no time in history has a nation-state or tribal grouping ever negotiated with an opposing nation-state or tribal grouping, successfully. As soon as one side or the other gained what it felt was an advantage, diplomacy was immediately abandoned.

        Some major treaties are enjoined over narrow purpose items, and are still only marginally successful. SALT and START treaties essentially negotiated away excess capacity – that was usually obsolescent or obsolete. Only recently have we been treated to a level of insanity enough to suggest that we disarm – which would be unilaterally.

        Grand “Peace” Treaties and Organizations are largely shams that kick conflicts down the road a bit. In the case of the 10th century mentality of our adversaries, they buy some time to regroup, rearm, reassess before rejoining the fight.

        Finally, the only moderately successful “Peace” Treaties are those that are essentially dictated by the victor over the vanquished. They are imposed, not negotiated.

        The time for negotiations is long past. Several organizations (nation-states, tribes, syndicates, wannabe Caliphates… whatever) in that neck of the woods have been at war with us since the post World War I mandates collapsed.

        Unless or until we are willing to operate in a rational manner, and with the requisite level of.. er um… moral perspective the world will continue down the road to hellfire and damnation.


        1. fuster neither forgets nor forgives nor thinks that we’re ever going to make peace with the Iranian theocracy/

          He was remembers that they hadn’t a freakin thing to do with 9/11. As well, he remembers that our enemies are weak and divided and by being jackarses and tying them all together , we strengthen THEM, not ourselves.

          mighty stupid, why make our work harder than it need be?

      2. I suspect my comment about targeting Iranian crude distillation units was ill drafted. A more focused point of view is that taking Persian refineries off line for the next couple winter seasons cannot be spun by the regime and will be seen as the manifest cost of Iranian underwriting of asymmetric warfare in foreign lands.

        Imagine if you could not fuel your automobile, heat your home, or light your lights from now until at least the Summer 2014 or 2015. Imagine if you suddenly realized that your country’s 23% unemployment rate was going to further skyrocket and the nation’s brain drain would continue to accelerate. If you were in Iran, would you and 80 million fellow citizens remain passive to the theocrats and policies that led to that condition?

        Nuclear advancement in Iran is irrelevant to the vast majority of Iranians. Targeting nuclear facilities would result in an immediate enhancement of the regime’s (and IRGC’s) political standing amongst the general population. It would result as well in extraordinarily inconclusive (and propagandized) bomb damage assessments along with an unnecessary slaughter of aircrew to no lasting effect. However an unexpected and severe shortage of refined hydrocarbons would be a tangible home and hearth disaster that can be directly pinned on disastrous leadership and their foreign adventures.

        1. Your strategy, initiated a few years ago might well have been viable but at this point, in forgoing an attack upon Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities, you are making the assumption that they are still far enough away from nuclear weapons capacity that your proscription would have time to mature into a successful overthrow of the current regime.

          If that assumption proves to be mistaken, the consequences will be horrific. Iran gaining nuclear weapons capacity is a game changer, once they have the bomb they can blackmail other nations into the needed ‘concessions’ and even seize the needed supplies to keep their regime going, such as Iraq’s main oil refinery less than 310miles from Iran’s border. They will also be able to hold hostage oil tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, by making implied threats toward Europe.

          A nuclear Iran changes everything.

            1. Surprise is always a desirable condition. Moving the needed assets for a successful campaign into position without alerting Iran would be a challenge. Creative thinking might help to achieve that. Attacking with sea and air launched cruise missiles is easily accomplished, maintaining the needed campaign momentum is another matter. Therein lies the challenge.

  7. Now factor in what Israel says was an Iranian-directed bus bombing of Israeli civilians in Bulkgaria. Obviously, I don’t have the evidence to prove it, but what if Israel is convinced that Iran was behind such an act of war? What should be the Israeli response? And would the US back it, or would we choose to support Iran?

  8. GB — regarding the specificity issue, can you tell me what details you are interested in about the outline of a course of action here? (I wouldn’t call it a “proposal,” since it’s a notional outline and not something I am specifically advocating. I know you’re capable of making the distinction. :-))

    One has to make a cut-off in writing these pieces and not go down every tactical side street. But I’d be happy to answer specific questions.

    1. I agree, you haven’t offered any specifics and are really talking about a change in attitude. Which I agree is sorely needed but useless without the development of a strategy and concurrently, the tactics needed to secure that strategy’s goals.

      Reagan’s attitude toward the Soviets is illustrative; shortly after his inauguration, during his first briefing, he explained his strategy toward the Soviets; reportedly he encapsulated it as, “We win, they lose…”

      That attitude led to the development of his strategy, build up our military and force them into an across the board arms race. The Soviet economy couldn’t keep up and the Soviet’s recognized that collapse had become undeniably inevitable. Gorbachev simply recognized the reality he faced and wisely decided to accommodate the US, recognizing that all we actually desired was peaceful coexistence.

      I believe we’ve reached the point where the only means available to stop the Iranian nuclear program is military action. Our strategy should be that the US will not allow any other country to join the nuclear club and will work to eventually outlaw all nuclear weapons. That, in our judgement, any increase in nuclear capability is a world-wide ‘national security’ issue. That we will not allow any further opening of the nuclear ‘Pandora box’.

      I don’t believe that the public will support another invasion, so an extensive air campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities, along with destroying Iran’s oil facilities, using Israeli cooperation to defang Hezbollah and fomenting an Iranian democratic revolution through arms and logistical support is, IMO the only strategy and tactics that can possibly stop Iran’s acquisition of nukes.

      I recognize the political fallout and terrorist retaliations such a policy would generate but IMO, the alternative is a nuclear Iran, which I believe will be far worse.

      The fate of literally millions rests upon the actions of the American President.

      1. GB — I certainly agree that we haven’t enunciated an effective “end state” proposition like “We win, they lose.” Bush and Obama both said that it was unacceptable for Iran to have nuclear weapons, but neither declared a particular goal in that regard. Saying something is “unacceptable” isn’t the same as saying, “We will stop you by any means necessary from doing it.”

        It’s like the difference between telling your teenager “It’s unacceptable for you to get home after 11 PM,” and actually doing something to punish him or limit his means to stay out after curfew.

        Because you bring up a military action, let me make two points. First, it is not necessary to conduct a ground invasion of Iran. Period. It will never be necessary. US security objectives can and should be accomplished without doing that.

        Second, I agree that intimidating pressure — if it were used on the extended model that I am NOT talking about — would not do the job. Intimidation should be rapidly escalating, with the punishment for Iran to be an air attack on her nuclear and missile (and possibly other military) facilities.

        But if Iran complied with specific requirements, she could avoid being attacked.

        A military build-up would both deter Iranian reactions and ensure that we could deal with them if they arose. The timeline from limited threat to mounting the air attack would be only as long as it took to get the forces for the latter in place. That’s how long Iran would have to make a decision. It would be possible at every moment of the build-up to attack the nuclear-related facilities quickly, if Iran detonated a warhead device.

        Iran hasn’t done that yet. It’s a breakout event that would — if it happened during the build-up — end the pressure-and-demands process and prompt an immediate strike, with the remaining forces rushed to the theater to ensure follow-on capabilities.

        One reason the rapid-response strike would be possible at any moment is that the US has developed a “Prompt Global Strike” doctrine. We started fielding it in late 2007, and we have a concept of operations for using global airpower — B-2s and B-52s — against a problem set like the Iranian nuclear program, in conjunction with tactical airpower from Air Force and Navy, and cruise (and possibly conventionally-armed ballistic) missiles from all of our shooters. Global airpower is airpower that can be brought to bear from the United States, within a matter of hours. The strategic bombers wouldn’t have to forward deploy. They can launch from Whiteman and Barksdale and conduct their missions on the other side of the world.

        I would rather give Iran the chance to comply first than to simply attack, and I think the likelihood of compliance would be much higher if the mullahs were convinced we were serious. They aren’t today, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be.

        In the end, of course, I agree that our current president won’t (and can’t) prosecute such a stringent policy. I don’t see Romney doing it either, frankly, although I think he would give the idea a more interested ear. Ultimately,a credible president wouldn’t have to do this much to prove he was serious. But we are where we are.

        1. J.E.,

          I agree with your assessment of both Obama and Bush’s performance vis a vis Iran.

          I do not think, nor did I mean to imply that you were promulgating an invasion of Iran.

          I fully accept your assessment that the military means exist for the US to end Iranian nuclear ambitions.

          I do think that even with a military attack, half measures will bring unpleasant consequences for the West. Any attack must be decisive, painful and communicate clearly that our patience truly is at an end and that we will use whatever means are necessary, including nuclear attack, to end the potential for a threat.

          However, I do not think that the public and political support for such a policy and actions will exist in the US until after we have lost an American city with millions of deaths.

          So I agree, even should a Pres. Romney lend the most sympathetic of ears, he will in the end do nothing beyond maintaining the needed assets to react to the destruction of a major American city.

          Until we experience another, much greater ‘Pearl Harbor’ we shall refrain from proactive action. Thus we will suffer greatly and ensure that a nuclear war is how the next pearl harbor is settled.

          In a nuclear age, letting the ‘bad guy’ throw the first ‘nuclear punch’ is a formula for the deaths of millions of innocents.

          And our naivete will be nearly as responsible as the actual perpetrators…

  9. Cousin Vinnie — yep, it’s a big development. People forget that Iran has been trying to blow up Israelis in Central Asia and Africa in the past 18 months. There’s a superb chance that Iran was indeed behind this. The perpetrator — the homicide bomber — reportedly had a fake Michigan driver’s license on him, which is interesting. It doesn’t necessarily mean he has ever been to the US, but it suggests a possible link to the radicalized Arabs in MIchigan (as opposed to the ordinary assimilated folks), perhaps in the Lebanese immigrant community there. A Hezbollah tie-in would follow.

    We’ll see how that all shakes out. Iran’s terrorist activism against Israelis isn’t going to subside any time soon, I fear.

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