Iran and Credible Deterrence

by Mario Loyola

Earlier this week, General James Mattis, head of Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that keeping just one aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf (down two) makes it “more difficult for me to reassure our friends and deter Iran.”

It’s amazing to think how much our strategists learned about deterrence during the Cold War — and have forgotten since. Deterrence is first of all a question of credibility. You can have all the aircraft carriers in the world, but if you’ve telegraphed to Iran that you’re not going to use them until “diplomacy runs its course” then it’s all for show, and two carriers is the same as none. Conversely, if Iran thought that we might be getting close to a bombing raid or two, then a single aircraft carrier anywhere near the Persian Gulf would be more than enough to “deter” them. 

Most Americans seem not to realize what the Iranians understand full well: that the firepower contained on a single American aircraft carrier is enough to destroy all of Iran’s oil refineries and fuel depots, and every ministry building in Tehran — to make no mention of setting back the nuclear program. That fact would be a source of great diplomatic leverage, if our deterrent had any credibility at all. 

Another question raised by General Mattis’s testimony is this: If the Pentagon measures its Persian Gulf assets in terms of their ability to “deter Iran” what exactly are they trying to deter Iran from doing? Is there anything that Iran could be doing, that it’s not doing, because we’re deterring them? Right now, for all anyone can see, Iran is doing quite whatever it wants. 

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