Testimony of James Jeffrey: Implications of the Iran Nuclear Agreement for U.S. Policy in the Middle East
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With or without the support of the international community, however, if there is no agreement, then the main restraint on Iranian breakout would have to be U.S. and partner intelligence collection and U.S. readiness, understood by all, to use force if Iran approaches a nuclear weapons capability. While that is stated U.S. policy, albeit expressed indirectly such as "preserve all options," the president has effectively undercut this policy by repeated warnings about inevitable "war" if no agreement is reached. Without an agreement a military confrontation would be more likely, but not inevitable. Of course, a military confrontation with Iran could be costly and risk escalation, but, absent spectacularly bad U.S. decisions, it is unlikely to produce either a U.S. defeat or a "war" in the sense normally used in American political debate -- endless, bloody ground combat by hundreds of thousands of troops as in Iraq or Vietnam. Based on my experience I know how uncertain any resort to force is, but all our security interests are ultimately anchored on willingness to use force, and success doing so.
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Fifth, even with an agreement, the ultimate restraint on Iran reaching a nuclear weapons capability resides as well in the capability and intent of the U.S. to stop Iran militarily from reaching a nuclear weapons capability. Thus, the U.S. Congress could usefully support such a deterrence policy by passing in one or another form an advance authorization for the use of military force against an Iran in breakout. The administration for its part should make clear what its redline is for military action against Iran -- what Iranian steps or situation would be considered a "threshold" requiring the U.S. to act on its "prevent a nuclear-armed Iran" policy. Clarity on congressional and thus American public support for military action, and clarity on when that action would be taken, would go far to refurbish American deterrence and make it less likely that we would be tested.