To Keep the Peace with Iran, Threaten to Strike
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While the United States cannot undo these lessons of history, it can sharpen the choice faced by the regime by credibly threatening military force and thereby signaling that oil sanctions are not in fact the last arrow in the Western quiver. Indeed, the only thing that might be worse in the regime’s view than acceding to Western demands at the negotiating table would be a military defeat. While many analysts have predicted that Iranians would rally around the flag in the case of war, they would not necessarily rally around a regime that had brought economic ruin and military humiliation to a once-proud and prosperous nation. The regime will be aware of the role that such defeats or perceptions of humiliation played in the demise of their predecessors, including the Qajar dynasty in the early 20th century, Reza Shah in the mid-20th century, and the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979, which Iran’s current rulers themselves upended. The regime’s domestic foeswho are numerous and not insignificantcould condemn a U.S. attack and in the same breath condemn Khamenei and his recklessness for exposing Iran to such confrontation. Indeed, the fact that the Iranian regime has struck at the United States only through proxies and asymmetric means suggests the regime understands what an outright conflict would mean for its survival.
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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.
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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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Of course, Iran’s major oil customers are neither in North America nor Europe, but AsiaChina, India, Japan, and South Korea foremost among them. India has indicated that it will not comply with the U.S. and EU sanctions, though recent history suggests that Indian refineries may encounter difficulties in paying their Iranian suppliers.7 China has also indicated its non-compliance with the new U.S. sanctions, despite the Obama administration’s decision (announced, significantly, while Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was in the Middle East) to impose sanctions on the petroleum firm Zhuhai Zhenrong for violating the U.S. extraterritorial ban on firms sending refined petroleum to Iran. Some reports have emphasized the apparent reduction in Chinese oil purchases from Iran in January and February of 2012 compared to the same months in 2011, as well as Wen’s courting of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf suppliers during a January 2012 trip to the region. But this analysis selectively ignores two important factorsfirst, China’s oil imports from Iran in 2011 were 30 percent higher than in 2010, despite the fact that its overall oil imports were up only six percent.8 This means that China has been growing more, not less, reliant on Iranian supplies. In addition, China’s overall demand for imported oil appears certain to increase, meaning that it may see a need for a constant or even increased level of Iranian imports, even if Iran’s share of its total imports declines.
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A key consideration for Israeli and U.S. officials alike is the ‘‘window of opportunity’’ to conduct an effective attack on Iran, based on a number of factors. Key among them is the military capability of the state conducting the strike. Israeli officials are undoubtedly aware that U.S. capability is greater, which for Israel is a blessing and a curse: a blessing because this means a U.S.-led attack could be more effective than an Israeli attack (in addition to attracting less strenuous regional and international condemnation), and a curse because the United States, like Israel, is apt to wait until the latest possible date to conduct an attack, which because of the United States’ greater military capability is later than in Israel’s case. This means that the passage of time and progress of Iran’s nuclear capabilities will eventually result in the Iranian program being still vulnerable to a U.S. attack but out of Israel’s reach. This leads to a straightforward calculation for Israel: if it trusts the United States to carry out a timely and effective attack, it will defer its own action in the hope that conflict can be avoided; if that trust is lacking, its interests demand a unilateral attack before the opportunity to do so is foreclosed. Establishing and maintaining this trust requires that the U.S. military threat be credible.
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Prominent Chinese defense intellectuals have characterized China as being engaged in a budding strategic rivalry with the United States, and they have specifically observed that Iran occupying a strategic position in a vital region and, unlike Saudi Arabia, owing nothing to the United Statescould be an important partner in this rivalry. For example, Major General Zhang Shiping, affiliated with China’s Academy of Military Sciences, has suggested that Iran could serve as a strategic location for a Chinese military base.17 As a result of these economic and strategic motivations, Beijing has been careful to maintain strong ties with Tehran, providing it with material and diplomatic support, while doing just enough to comply with international sanctions to avoid conflict with the United States.
China would need to reassess its approach to Iran, however, if it deemed the threat of a U.S. strike on Iran to be credible. Such an attack would complicate Beijing’s economic and strategic interests alike by presenting it with a prospect worse than complying with sanctions. A conflict in the Gulf could both drive up energy prices, a vital consideration for China as a major oil importer, and at least temporarily cut off the export of oil from Iran entirely. Such a conflict could also end with the demise of the Iranian regime and its replacement with one oriented toward the West, or at least less friendly to Chinese interests.
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Relying as does any authoritarian regime on controlof travel, information, commerce, etc.and repression for its rule, the Iranian regime worries about the ultimate consequences of any opening to the West. Even if Iran’s leaders came to believe that the West did not seek regime change, they would likely worry that the erosion of the regime’s foundation would be the inevitable result of cooperation with the United States, whatever Washington’s motives. Indeed, Khamenei has warned that American culture is perhaps more dangerous than a military attack, as it would lead to ‘‘moral corruption’’ and ultimately the decay of the clerical system of rule.5 While many Iraniansmost of whom were not alive to experience the Pahlavi era or the 1979 revolutionmay disagree with such views, Iran’s apparent political paralysis likely would make it difficult for alternative approaches to gain traction. Indeed, it appears that the October 2009 TRR deala modest initiative which did not even address the core nuclear dispute, much less U.S.—Iran relationswas accepted by Iranian negotiators in Vienna only to meet the resistance of both hardliners and opposition leaders in Tehran.
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There is little sign that Tehran is ready to agree to the demands it has thus far rejected. Indeed, the regime may feel increasingly constrained from doing so. The nuclear question is one on which it has staked not just its external security, but its domestic legitimacy. Iran’s leaders have sought to turn ‘‘nuclear rights’’ into a national rallying cry, both figuratively and literallyat (certainly stage-managed) pro-regime rallies, participants can be found holding signs referring to these supposed rights. For Iran’s leaders to back down now, in the face of withering pressure, would be to admit defeat. And this defeat would be especially hard to swallow for a leadership that has faced increasing domestic opposition and internal fissures since the outbreak of street protests in June 2009. As the regime’s base of support has become narrower and more hardline, its room for maneuver on any compromise with the West has likely diminished.
Indeed, there are strong signs that the Iranian regimeand in particular its Supreme Leader, Ali Khameneisees any significant accommodation with the West as threatening, rather than appealing. Khamenei has said that ‘‘relations would provide the possibility to the Americans to infiltrate Iran and would pave the way for their intelligence and spy agents,’’ and even when he authorized trilateral U.S.—Iran—Iraq talks in 2007 asserted that ‘‘the talks will only be about the responsibilities of the occupiers in Iraq.’’4