Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Threat of Military Action toward Iran is the Best Approach

Polls suggest that most Americans are not excited at the prospect of a war with Iran over its development of nuclear weapons.  While some polls show that a majority of Americans favor military action, other polls show that most Americans favor diplomacy and economic sanctions as the first steps to take.  Not surprisingly, poll results depend heavily on the wording of the questions. 

There can be no doubt that few Americans want to see a nuclear armed Iran.  But there are differing views as to whether the United States and others can stop that from happening.  Some feel that sanctions, if broadly applied, could well pressure Iran to not move forward toward developing nuclear weapons.  Others believe that only military action can bring about that outcome.  Still others believe that neither course of action will succeed.  And then there are no doubt a few who believe Iran does not harbor any intention to develop nuclear weapons.

I do not presume to know the answer.  I do believe Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons.  But I do not know whether economic sanctions or military action, short of total war and a military invasion, will suffice to stop Iran’s efforts.  I am skeptical that either will work.  As to sanctions, unless Russia, China, India and other countries join in the sanctions campaign, I believe it will likely not be effective.  And even were these countries to join, states subject to sanctions are often quite able to continue trade despite the existence of sanctions.  However, economic sanctions are worth a try, particularly given the extent now contemplated which presumably would affect the viability of Iran’s central bank.

As to military action short of total war and an invasion, I am also skeptical that this strategy will work.  I am not expert on the locations of Iran’s nuclear facilities but it appears there are multiple locations and that at least some may be underground and heavily fortified.  Then, too, the element of surprise is lacking, something that may have been present when Israel successfully bombed specific nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria years ago.  Any attack on Iran, rather than leading to a popular uprising that some Americans may believe would quickly occur, will, in my judgment, more likely provoke a nationalist reaction leading Iranians of all walks of life and political views to rally around the state.  Any such attack would likely result in a military response, not only against Israel but against American and other Western interests in the area and beyond.  Other Muslim states, even Arab states that might privately favor the elimination of an Iranian nuclear threat, would likely condemn the military action against Iran.  Even were the Iranian program damaged to the point that it could not immediately continue, it is highly likely that such a program would not end but would resume over time.  The ramifications of military action would be huge.

As for total war and an invasion, I do not believe Americans or most others are wanting to put boots on the ground in Iran to stop its nuclear program or replace its regime.  Some Republican candidates for President and other conservatives may be willing to pursue this strategy although their campaign rhetoric might quickly desert them were any elected President.

While I am skeptical that military action short of total war would be effective to either destroy Iran’s nuclear program or to dissuade Iran from continuing that program in the face of devastating damage from such military action, this does not mean that the threat of such an attack might not work to cause Iran to put its nuclear program on hold for an indefinite period of time. 

Some might question how the threat of attack might work if an attack itself would likely not work.  An attack would, as I suggested above, unite most Iranians, lead to a counter-attack, lead to major military activities in the Middle East and elsewhere, call upon Russia and others to decide what action, if any, to take, and likely lead Iran to redouble its efforts to develop nuclear weapons.  But the threat of an attack would not have all these outcomes.  It might go unheeded by the Iranians.  But it might cause them to hesitate and drawback, depending upon whether they actually believed that the threat would translate into an actual attack. 

The credibility of such a threat is paramount.  When President Obama states that he doesn’t bluff, he is attempting to create certainty that, if Iran does not stand down in the face of a threat of military action, there will be military action, whether Obama wants it or would ultimately actually utilize it given all the risks and uncertainties surrounding military action.  When Netanyahu states Israel’s impatience he too is seeking to persuade Iran that a military attack is imminent; in his case he may have no doubts about that (although frankly he should).

But when Mitt Romney states that, if Obama wins re-election, Iran will develop nuclear weapons, he undercuts American strategy by weakening the credibility of America’s threat of military action.  This is foolish politicking at its worst.

But Romney’s assertions raise the deeper question: how dangerous would a nuclear Iran be?  Obama has said that containment of a nuclear Iran is not acceptable; he will not countenance a nuclear Iran.  Israel has clearly articulated a similar position.

The proliferation of nuclear weapons is a bad thing.  Not only does it make more likely a nuclear “accident,” but it also increases the likelihood that such weapons will fall into the hands of terrorists not constrained in their possible use because they have no nation-state to protect.  In this sense, a nuclear Iran, with its terrorist history and links to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and, to a lesser extent, Hamas, poses a danger.  As well, were Iran to develop nuclear weapons, the likelihood is that neighboring states, such as Saudi Arabia, would also want such weaponry.

But there are already a number of states that have nuclear weapons, some of whom are not terribly stable; probably more unstable than Iran.  Most notable among the unstable are North Korea and Pakistan.  To date, nuclear weapons have not been used in military conflicts in part because of the implications and consequences of their use, including the so-called “balance of terror” and the reasons associated with nuclear deterrence theory.  Deterrence theory is far from an established “fact.”  See http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/ten-serious-flaws-in-nuclear-deterrence-theory/32886.  And we know how strong the American reaction was to the prospect of nuclear weapons in Cuba.  But, by the same token, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction has seemed to work and there is much to be said that countries like Iran and Pakistan, and even North Korea, let alone the United States, Russia, China and Israel, would be and are constrained from using nuclear weapons based upon such fears.

I’m not convinced that the consequences of an actual military strike against Iran, including only a chance that it would permanently deprive Iran of nuclear weapons, justify such a policy.  But the threat of military action certainly makes good sense, even recognizing that were America not to follow through there would be some who would consider us a “paper tiger.”  But such a threat, as policy, only makes sense if the threat appears certain to be carried out.  The more certain that the threat will be carried out, the stronger the likelihood that it will achieve the objective.  Anything that detracts from fostering the belief that the threat will be carried out, including comments made by Mitt Romney (and perhaps this blog as well), undercuts the likelihood of its success.☐