Credible military threat has been effective at pressuring Iran
The U.S. could gain more in negotiations with Iran if it made efforts to make the threat of force credible. Empirically, Iran has backed down when they were made to believe that an attack was imminent.
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Restoring U.S. military credibility will require more than throwaway lines about ‘‘all options’’ being ‘‘on the table.’’ It will instead require three things. First, it will require specificity far clearer than Secretary Panetta’s statement that ‘‘our red line to Iran is not to get a nuclear weapon,’’18 which seemed to suggest that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability was only a concern if a bomb were actually assembled. In addition, the United States must be equally clear about the consequences for the Iranian regime if it crosses those red lines. A credible threat should specify that the United States has the will and capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear and military infrastructure should Iran’s defiance of its international obligations continue.
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It is important to bear in mind, nevertheless, that the purpose of telegraphing a credible military threat is to head off a conflict, not to spark one. While recent tensions in the Gulf, particularly between Iran and Israel, have given rise to worries of regional war, that risk is stoked by the absence of a credible U.S. military threat, not the existence of one. Lacking confidence in U.S. resolve, regional allies who are deeply concerned about Iran’s capabilities and intentions but who lack the United States’ resourceswhether Israel or the Gulf statesmay take it upon themselves to act, forcing the United States into a conflict on terms that are notWashington’s own. A credible U.S. military threat would calm those allies and reduce the risk of premature conflict. On the other hand, there is good historical reason to believe that if presented with a serious and imminent threat of U.S. attack, combined with existing pressures, Tehran may back down. Many observers argue it was the downing (albeit accidental) of a civilian Iranian airliner by the USS Vincennes that prompted Iran finally to agree to a ceasefire with Iraq in the late 1980s. And the possibility of a ‘‘right turn’’ by the U.S. Army from Iraq into Iran may well have prompted Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment and nuclear weaponization research and enter into talks with the European Union in 2003.
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The strenuous American efforts to ease the tensions and reassure Iran, while understandable, were counterproductive. If Iran’s intention in issuing its threats was to gauge the U.S. appetite for conflict, it can only have been comforted by the response. It revealed a superpower not girding itself, even reluctantly, for a military conflict, but scrambling to avoid one, seemingly bent on convincing itself and others that a war would be futile. This episode likely only underscored what Iran may see as the United States’ diminishing appetite or capacity for conflict, a perception fueled by the U.S. withdrawal fromIraq, its impending withdrawal from Afghanistan, large planned cuts to the U.S. defense budget as well as the size of U.S. forces, and the backseat approach the United States took (and celebrated) in Libya.
Ironically, downplaying the threat of force may increase the odds that the United States will be left with little choice but either to employ force or accept an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. While Washington and its allies clearly and appropriately see military action as a last resort, this should not imply that establishing the credibility of the threat of force be left to a later, final phase of their approach to Iran. Indeed, the threat of force is not an alternative to sanctions or negotiations, but a complement to them in forming a coherent Iran strategy.
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With the impact of additional sanctions questionable, additional pressure on the Iranian regime to negotiate in good faith can come from the credible threat of military action against Iran’s nuclear program. Realistically, that threat can come only from the United States or Israel. Regrettably, senior Obama administration officials have suggested that there is little or no likelihood that the United States would ever actually use force, and they have conveyed opposition to an Israeli strike as well. There is strong evidence, however, to suggest that it is precisely the threat of military action that actually enables peaceful, diplomatic solutions. Fear of military action apparently led Iran to briefly halt its nuclear program after the United States toppled Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003. It also led Moammar Qaddafi of Libya to halt his country’s nuclear program. Had Qaddafi instead continued the program and acquired nuclear weapons, it is unlikely NATO would have intervened in Libya’s civil war in 2011; a lesson not lost on Iran’s leaders.
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Third, the threat must be backed up by actions aimed at convincing Iran and others that Washington’s warnings are not mere rhetoric. A task force convened by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) recently issued several recommendations along these lines. They suggest bolstering the capabilities of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, to include an additional Carrier Battle Group and a Mine Countermeasures Squadron. Such steps would be further strengthened by the deployment of a Special Forces ‘‘mothership’’ to the region, as the U.S. military is reportedly considering. BPC also suggests conducting military exercises to demonstrate the U.S. ability to overcome Iran’s preferred tactics, such as ‘‘swarming attacks’’ by small boats; bolstering the offensive military capabilities of Gulf states, which should be accompanied by an intensification of the U.S. regional strategic dialogue with those states; and the prepositioning of U.S. military hardware in the region, such as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator bunker-buster bomb.