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.
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