Politics & Policy

Raising Ayatollahs

A bit of corporal punishment might be just the thing for Tehran’s behavior problem.

In Israel recently, Governor Mitt Romney talked repeatedly about the need to “employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course.” This may seem like the usual boilerplate about “all options on the table.” But in fact this formulation is a significant and welcome departure from current U.S. policy — and from the circular debate over the use of force against Iran.

They key word in Governor Romney’s formulation was “dissuade.” The implication is that the military force must be among the range of measures available to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. That is the right way to think about the use of force against Iran: What can we do to convince the Iranians to abandon their program?

By contrast, the way the Washington foreign-policy establishment (including senior officials in both the Bush and Obama administrations) typically thinks about the use of force against Iran is to ask what force is necessary to destroy their nuclear program if diplomacy fails. Then, we are told that military strikes will only slow Iran down a few years, so there’s no point in using them at all.

What is artificial in this construct is the unstated assumption that there is some a priori reason that military force can be used only when diplomacy has failed. But there is no such a priori reason. Even the most limited military measures can be at least as convincing as economic sanctions. Even if the accumulation of economic sanctions has started to cause real pain for Tehran — and the latest sanctions are a welcome addition — there is ample reason to doubt whether they can ultimately succeed without the added inducement of military pressure.

Some will object that the threat of military force in the near term could severely diminish international support for continued economic sanctions. That is an important point. But before we get to it, let’s think about the idea of using force not in order to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, but in order to dissuade Iran from pursuing it.

If you start by asking what kinds of military measures could dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, the first thing you realize is that you are looking at a vastly greater range of options than those that are typically considered when asking what would be needed to destroy Iran’s nuclear program.

Having started with an artificially limited question, the establishment typically concludes that strikes would have to involve hundreds of sorties conducted over a period of weeks; that they would not have a high probability of fully destroying the relevant facilities; that Iran would likely retaliate in a major way, perhaps by closing the Strait of Hormuz; and that it would simply reconstitute its program and proceed in secrecy, its thirst for nuclear weapons and its domestic political support significantly strengthened. The flawed premise in this chain of reasoning is the false idea that military options are useful only if dissuasion fails.

By contrast, Governor Romney seems to understand that, in the first instance, the utility of military power is not to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability, but rather to convince the Iranians to abandon it. He is not alone: Prior to joining the administration, deputy defense secretary Ashton Carter noted that limited military force could be integral to a diplomatic strategy.

In part of a diplomatic strategy aimed at dissuading Iran, the spectrum of possible effects one might seek through the use of force runs the gamut of military capabilities, from small-scale, non-violent tactical demonstrations to applications of strategically decisive force.

On one end of the spectrum, nonviolent incursions into Iran’s territorial waters or airspace — which are “acts of war” only in the most demonstrative sense — may be highly unnerving to Tehran without incurring a great risk of retaliation. On the other end of the spectrum are the most dissuasive military measures of all — strategic “decapitation” strikes that eliminate the regime’s ability to exert any sort of military power beyond its borders, and which threaten the very survival of the regime.

Curiously, of all the military options that are actually available against Iran, perhaps the single most impractical one is the only one that commentators ever seem to consider: a campaign of airstrikes sufficiently powerful to destroy most of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure but not sufficiently powerful to eliminate its capacity and willingness to retaliate and reconstitute the nuclear program. That option maximizes both short-term and long-term risks, and it is no surprise that the establishment readily rejects any tangible prospect of it.

Moreover, as an initial use of force, a major campaign of airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear program is open to an even more serious objection: It might be widely seen as lacking a compelling political justification, given Iran’s strategy of proceeding always in small, incremental steps. Think of it this way. Let’s assume that we all agree that there is some red line that Iran must not cross on pain of being subjected to painful airstrikes against its nuclear program. Just because we agree on that general proposition doesn’t mean that we could ever reach agreement on where the red line is exactly. And in fact, the only thing standing between Iran and nuclear weapons now is a field of incremental steps; most of the major strategic red lines are behind us.

Therefore, the decision to use airstrikes in order to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, if it ever comes, will likely not have the benefit of a major provocation on Iran’s part. Now take a step back and consider the ways in which democratic governments typically decide to use military force. Unlike the kingdoms of old, logical calculations of raison d’état are almost unknown in the military exertions of democratic governments. This is actually a major and perhaps fatal vulnerability of the democratic order. Given the pacifistic leanings of most peoples, using force without a major military provocation from the enemy is usually politically impossible for democratic governments, a fact that the Nazis exploited to devastating effect during the 1930s, as they advanced toward a war of conquest by incremental nonviolent steps.  

The elements of a smart diplomatic strategy (including military options) will seek to match Iran’s clever strategy of small steps with small steps of our own. At the “small” end of the “coercive diplomacy” spectrum there are the naval demonstrations and covert operations that are happening already. Between these activities and the “big” end of the spectrum, many military options could serve to enhance the crucial negotiating leverage in our diplomatic strategy.

The key thing is to remember that threat of military force is a lever that can be used right now, in ways big and small, in order to dissuade Iran’s nuclear advance. Iran may certainly retaliate and chose to escalate in response to any use of military force. However, the more Iran still has to lose after any initial use of force against it, the more it will tend to fear the risks of escalation. Conversely, the less it has to lose and the more humiliated it feels, the more it will be tempted to retaliate with the capabilities still at its disposal. That counsels in favor of eliminating the remaining capabilities through strategic strikes targeted at the regime’s very viability.

The only proper way to approach a strategic analysis of military options against Iran is to ask what we can do to dissuade Iran. That perspective allows us to see that our range of military options is quite broad, and that, for an initial use of force, the risks of escalation are lowest toward the two extremes, and highest in the middle, right where strikes against Iran’s nuclear program would be located. This argues for minimal uses of force at the outset, far short of strikes against its nuclear program. Then, if full airstrikes against its nuclear program are finally needed, the risks of Iranian retaliation (and reconstitution of the program) will have to be systematically minimized; that will argue for a more strategic campaign to decapitate and incapacitate the regime itself. 

There is the very real danger that bringing military action into the mix of dissuasive sanctions will diminish the hard-fought unity among the Western capitals now arrayed against Iran. One key is to ensure that differences on long-range policy not be deferred in the interests of current unity (as so disastrously happened in the months before the Iraq War). Such issues must be addressed and resolved now, while there is still time for deliberation. Our governments must try to plan for the scenario that now seems most likely, namely that Iran will force us to choose between military action and a nuclear-armed Iran.

Public opinion will loom large in any consideration of military options. Will our peoples back limited military options beyond the ones currently in use? Where will public opinion go if Iran escalates? The only effective way to attenuate these political risks is to fight for general acceptance of the principle that Iran’s nuclear program is a threat to the peace of the world, and that as a matter of self-defense, any means that prove necessary for convincing Iran to abandon it are justified and legitimate. It is vital to make clear that this right of self-defense has already been triggered by Iran’s reckless bid for nuclear weapons, and needs no further provocation.

All of the courses open to us are risky. But let’s not lose sight of the terrifying risk of Iran’s attaining nuclear weapons. The mullahs would be immeasurably empowered, their worst ambitions powerfully encouraged. The nonproliferation regime could soon be in full collapse. We might soon be facing the very real danger of losing whole urban centers to nuclear terrorism without necessarily being able to identify those responsible.

As Iran brings us nearer to a final choice between military conflict and a nuclear-armed Iran, we must take a much more sober approach to a basic question few have asked: What can we do to dissuade Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? The manifold risks of escalation point to more limited, immediate, and incremental measures than most in the Washington establishment have in mind when they discuss “the military option” for destroying Iran’s program.

Military options may remain on the table when diplomacy fails. But they are most valuable when they can help diplomacy to succeed.

— Mario Loyola is former counsel for foreign and defense policy at the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee. This article is based partly on his 2009 report, “Finding Equilibrium on Iran,” in The Journal of International Security Affairs.

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

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