Iran War Drums Beating?
The nation’s top military officer said today that the Pentagon is planning for “potential military courses of action” against Iran, criticizing what he called the Tehran government’s “increasingly lethal and malign influence” in Iraq. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a conflict with Iran would be “extremely stressing” but not impossible for U.S. forces, pointing specifically to reserve capabilities in the Navy and Air Force. “It would be a mistake to think that we are out of combat capability,” he said at a Pentagon news conference.
Given the presence of hostile capability among various actors with whom we have conflicting interests, one would hope we’re planning for all manner of military scenarios. And noting that we are doing so and that we have the capacity to carry it out (which is more than bluster if we’re merely talking about air strikes) contributes to the strategic ambiguity by making a big show of the stick so as to make the carrot look more enticing.
Still, Mullen made clear that he prefers a diplomatic solution to the tensions with Iran and does not foresee any imminent military action. “I have no expectations that we’re going to get into a conflict with Iran in the immediate future,” he said.
Tyson asserts that Mullen’s speeches are evidence of “a new rhetorical onslaught by the Bush administration against Iran.” She cites a speech at West Point by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates Monday (incidentally, the day of Mullen’s Atlantic Council address) in which he said war with Iran would be “disastrous on a number of levels. But the military option must be kept on the table given the destabilizing policies of the regime and the risks inherent in a future Iranian nuclear threat.”
Here again, though, the message could hardly be more clear: We don’t want war with Iran but we must settle the nuclear issue (and others) diplomatically to avoid that risk.
During the run-up to the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, the demands set forth to avoid war involved enough loss of face for the other side that they were unlikely to be met. I don’t recall any administration official saying that military action would be “a disaster” for us. This simply doesn’t smell the same.
Bernard Finel argues that this heightened rhetoric is based on misguided premises.
The argument is that diplomacy only works when backed up by force, or that at the very least putting a little fright into the Iranian leadership (maintaining strategic ambiguity) is unambiguously a good idea. Well, it doesn’t and it isn’t.
Diplomacy does not always rely on implicit threats, and even when it does rely on threats, those threats need not be military. And strategic ambiguity is not particularly useful when it unquestionably strengthens extremist demagogues in Iran by seeming to support their rhetoric. Just like Chekov’s gun which if placed on the mantle in act one must be used by act three, placing the threat of force on the bargaining table also increases the likelihood it will be used. As a general rule, people don’t like to make concessions at the point of a gun, and any concessions they make under such circumstances will likely be overturned at the first opportune moment. There would undoubtedly be some emotional satisfaction in lashing out at Iran, but there is no coherent long-term strategy sustaining that course of action. As a wag once argued, “the only thing worse than a nuclear Iran is a nuclear Iran that we recently bombed.”
We learned to play the nuclear game during the Cold War and developed our theory of strategic deterrence around the idea of mutually assured destruction. We threatened to wipe the other guys off the face of the map if they launched a nuclear strike against us and left the option on the table to strike them first. This brinksmanship came dangerously close to being tested, most notably with the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it otherwise worked.
In the case of Iran, though, Finel is likely right. For one thing, the threat of military action is only effective if it’s credible. Given that it’s almost universally acknowledged that it would be virtually impossible to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities from the air and that a ground invasion would be a disaster, I’m not sure how credible the saber rattling is. Further, the Iranian regime is in a precarious situation, with plenty of domestic opposition and regional and international uncertainties. The last thing they want is the public humiliation of being backed into a corner by the Great Satan and flinching.
There has to be a quiet, back door means of carrying on negotiations, even multi-laterally, to create a settlement acceptable to all. The Iranian regime doesn’t need nuclear weapons but they do need security guarantees and sustainable long term energy. Beyond that, I don’t have much of a sense of how the deal would be put together and what it would look like. But I’m pretty sure it won’t be settled through the threat or use of arms.