Iran: Preventing War by Making It Credible
Aug 1, 2012
There are times when the best way to prevent war is to clearly communicate that it is possible. No one can now calculate the odds of a serious conflict in the Gulf, or preventive strikes on Iran, or how the two might interact. The fact is, however, that negotiations are not yet making clear progress, there is a steady rise in tensions and military readiness in the Gulf, the United States is enforcing still more sanctions on Iran, and the last week has seen Israel’s leaders become involved in new debates over the timing and prospects of preventive strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
No one may want war, and there may be good rational reasons for all sides to avoid it. The fact remains, however, that tensions are rising, and the risk of miscalculation is growing. Moreover, it is not clear that Iran truly understands the growing risk it faces that years of Israeli and U.S. warnings can turn into action.
Some talk about a “Sarajevo” or “Guns of August” scenario and a clash or incident followed by unintended escalation to a large-scale conflict. Some talk about Israel reaching its own redlines for military action, long before the United States and its allies, and acting unilaterally, knowing that it may trigger a far larger conflict and one where Iran may suffer far more from the escalation that follows than from Israeli action alone. It is equally possible, however, that war can come from the same conditions that helped trigger World War II—years of negotiations and threats, where the threats failed to be taken seriously until war become all too real.
The U.S. election has added to the ambiguity. There does not seem to be any real difference between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney on this issue, and both parties in Congress seem to support a military option as a last resort. Political maneuvering and opportunism does, however, raise tensions, while the administration’s efforts to damp tensions down may make Iran feel that the threats growing out of U.S. politics are beginning to seem hollow.
The Israeli debate may have the same impact. On the one hand, some argue that the campaign is the right time for Israel to strike because no candidate can afford not to support Israel. On the other hand, the Israeli press keeps reporting that senior Israeli officers and intelligence experts oppose any Israeli strike and feel it might be ineffective. Once again, the net effect is to raise tensions in the region, while possibly undercutting Iranian perceptions of the risk of war.
Other wild cards add to the mix. Iran’s buildup of asymmetric warfare capabilities and missile forces has steadily raised the concerns of its neighbors, who increasingly fear Iran’s nuclear developments as much as Israel. The Syrian crisis has led to growing tensions between Iran and the Southern Gulf states and Turkey. Sunni and Shi’ite tensions are rising in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and the competition for influence in a divided Iraq adds to these tensions, along with Arab suspicions that Iran helped to destabilize Yemen. Lebanon and Hezbollah add to these tensions on the Arab side, while Sunni jihadist extremists increase them on the part of Iran.
One needs to be extremely careful. These forces do not make war attractive or imminent. Even a minor clash could create some kind of short-term panic in oil prices. A failed or limited preventive strike could simply provoke Iran into going nuclear at all costs, lashing out in the Gulf, and could create far more serious problems in terms of world oil markets and the world economy. The United States is already fighting one war. No one can predict how a clash or war would affect Iran’s actions, Sunni-Shi’ite tensions, or events in Iraq and Syria.
It is all too easy to postulate a successful outcome to military action. But, several thousand years of history reinforce the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq about the limits to military power, and make it clear that real-world grand strategy consists largely of living with the unpleasant impact of the law of unintended consequences. It is also far from clear that this mix of tensions has as yet raised the probability of war to anything other than a low-level risk.
For all these reasons, however, this may well be the moment to begin to take action to limit the risk of war as much as possible. To be specific, there are three actions the United States could take.
The first is to reshape the focus of negotiations around clear U.S. redlines. If we really mean we have a military option and will act on it, we need to be far less ambiguous. Iran needs to know there are real limits to how long it can talk and stall. Our allies and all the members of the 5+1 need to know this as well. And Israel and our Southern Gulf allies need to know that they can truly count on the United States to act if Iran does not agree to a negotiated settlement or crosses a clear redline.
We have talked so long in vague terms that the U.S. threat may have begun to seem like political posturing to both Iran and Israel. It may well be a prelude to a U.S. acceptance of a nuclear Iran and a strategy based on containment and deterrence. If we are serious, we need to do far more to convince Iran that it does not have a choice between negotiations and preventive strikes. We also need to convince Israel that it does not have to act on its far more limited window of opportunity as Iran disperses and buries its nuclear facilities.
The second action is to make it clear to Iran that it has no successful options. The United States does not have to reveal its war plan to have its military clearly outline the ways it can defeat Iran’s defenses. There are many ways in which U.S. analysts with official connections can suggest out how easy it would be to escalate to the point of destroying Iran’s refineries and power grid, suppressing its air defenses, and reacting to any low level of asymmetric attack by destroying key Iranian military objectives. The iron law of asymmetric warfare is to never be trapped into fighting on the enemy’s terms and to use force decisively to escalate where this is possible. The time to communicate just how many ways the United States can do this—with the support of key Gulf states—is before a conflict begins.
Similarly, the United States does not have to threaten preventive strikes. It simply has to make its capabilities clear in terms of a wide range of possible scenarios. It can make clear that it might not simply target known and suspect nuclear facilities, but missile and military industrial facilities as well.
The United States can point out that it does not have to destroy hardened Iranian targets. All it has to do is keep closing the access entrances with repetitive strikes. It can make clear to Iran that the United States is not simply planning for a single strike, but considering ongoing intelligence and reconnaissance efforts and follow-on strikes.
The United States has many options for such attacks if they are necessary, and it can talk about them as exercises or war college studies without giving away any details. In fact, the United States can confront Iran with many more options than Iran can react to, while making it clear to our allies just how credible U.S. options can be as a last resort. The United States can—and should—speak softly while providing the clearest possible picture of the fact that it carries a big stick.
The third option is to put the best possible incentives on the table for Iran to accept a negotiated solution in ways that allow it to claim a kind of victory and save face. Preventing some form conflict or war does not have to be a zero-sum game where Iran has to lose. The United States can offer its own form of a grand bargain that gives Iran a clear end to sanctions, along with trade and economic incentives. Russia has already offered nuclear fuel and power incentives. The United States could work with its Gulf allies to offer some form of regional security talks, and these could over time mean building up the Gulf Cooperation Council forces and putting more U.S. forces over the horizon.
The United States can work with Europe, Russia, and China to expand this package of incentives. It can offer Iran help in expanding its petroleum production and exports and financing key pipelines. The United States can seek to work with Turkey, Afghanistan, and Central Asia to offer trade incentives as well. In the process, it can show the Iranian people that there is a very real option that does not isolate and degrade Iran, but rather offers them real progress toward a better life.
It is a reality that the United States cannot do this instantly or without dialogue with its regional allies and members of the 5+1. It is also a reality that the U.S. election makes it difficult to act without partisan divisions, and charges of weakness and warmongering. There are, however, many areas where the United States could at least make a beginning, and it is becoming clear that the status quo may not prevent some form of war—and may even be making it more likely.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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Anthony H. Cordesman