Defense secretary Gates recently raised eyebrows by virtually dismissing any possibility of using force to keep Iran from going nuclear. He was quoted as saying that military strikes would only set the Iranians’ program back a few years, “cement their determination to have a nuclear program, and also build into the whole country an undying hatred of whoever hits them.” This is in line with the conclusions of a report released by the Center for a New American Security last year (Iran: Assessing U.S. Strategic Options) — a report which, given the presence of CNAS fellows and scholars throughout the new administration and especially at the Pentagon, can be taken as representative of the advice that Obama is getting.
In a new article out in the Journal of International Security Affairs, I try to offer a critical assessment of the U.S. approach to Iran, with particular attention to the CNAS report. On the “military option,” I argue that most commentators are looking at it the wrong way, that military options do not begin where diplomacy fails, but are rather sometimes necessary in order to make sure diplomacy succeeds. Gates himself suggests the reason why, saying “we need to look at every way we can to increase the cost of that program to them, whether it’s through economic sanctions or other things.” But it seems to me that he’s contradicting himself, because communicating an unwillingness to use force can only reduce the cost of the nuclear program to Iran in terms of their risk calculation.
Here’s the crux of my argument on military options towards Iran:
Much discussion has been devoted to the “military option,” but most of it has been artificially slanted. Commentators almost always start by asking what military strikes would be needed to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. Having framed the question in that way, they naturally conclude that such strikes would involve hundreds of sorties conducted over a period of weeks; that they would not have a high probability of fully destroying the relevant facilities; and that Iran would simply reconstitute its program and proceed in secrecy, its thirst for nuclear weapons and its domestic political support significantly strengthened. This answer is, of course, “cooked” by the flawed initial question, which is founded on the false premise that military options are only useful if diplomacy fails.
The purpose of military power is not in the first instance to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability, but rather to convince the Iranians to abandon it. As former Clinton administration official Ashton Carter recently noted, limited military force can be integral to a diplomatic strategy. In a paradigm of coercive diplomacy, where the possibility of war may hang in the balance, 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.
Of these, ironically enough, the most impractical is the only one that commentators ever seem to consider: a campaign of air strikes sufficiently powerful to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure (mostly) but not sufficiently powerful to affect its capacity to retaliate or its willingness to reconstitute the program. Besides the fact that this would hurt Iran grievously without weakening it, such a campaign—as an initial use of force—might be seen to lack a compelling political justification, given Iran’s strategy of proceeding always in small, incremental steps. If so, it could unify Iranians behind the regime, and fracture public opinion in the West.
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. […]
On another aspect of the crisis, however, I think the Obama administration unfortunately has it right. I do not think that we should insist on Iran’s halting uranium enrichment as a precondition for talks. To make one of your ultimate negotiating objectives a precondition to negotiations is either: (a) the diktat of a victor, or (b) a petulant way to concede defeat. Clearly we are not the first category. Moreover, as I argue in my article, we’ve got bigger problems to worry about where Iran’s nuclear program is concerned than uranium enrichment.
Read the whole thing here.