Paul Pillar

The Selective Approach to Deterring Iran

Michael Eisenstadt and Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy have just published a monograph that addresses Iranian reactions to a possible Israeli military attack (or “preventive strike” as the subtitle misleadingly puts it) on Iran. They also comment on Iranian reactions to a U.S. strike. The piece contains some sharp analysis. It considers a wide range of possible Iranian responses. It notes many of the calculations that would probably enter into Iranian thinking about responding and that some of those calculations involve conflicting Iranian incentives and interests.

One impression one takes away from this paper—despite WINEP's soft-pedaling the message as showing that an Israeli military attack “would not be the apocalyptic event that some foresee”—is that the consequences would be very bad indeed. There is plenty of room for nasty stuff short of apocalypse, including ballistic-missile barrages, worldwide terrorist campaigns, naval disruptions in the Persian Gulf and other highly damaging things. This raises the question, which the paper does not address, of what could possibly be accomplished by precipitating such a mess. What is the horrible alternative whose avoidance would ever justify such actions (and would such action ever avoid it)?

That leads to a second overall impression, which is that Eisenstadt and Knights are very selective in what they do address. Start with what they say about the consequences of an Israeli or U.S. military strike. The authors focus on consequences that would be the direct result of actions by the Iranian regime. That certainly is a major part of the picture, and that alone would be bad enough. But it is only a part, and the authors blithely and quickly skate over all the other parts. There is, for example, the effect on the political equation inside Iran and the standing of the regime. Eisenstadt and Knights admit only the possibility of a “short-term nationalist backlash” and immediately suggest optimistically that Iranians “could” blame the regime for mishandling the nuclear issue. This dismissal flies in the face of much historical experience of both Iran and other nations that have been the targets of armed attack. Their suggestion is somewhat like saying that Americans could have blamed the Roosevelt administration for mishandling the Japanese oil-embargo issue in 1941. The dismissal also flies in the face of observations from Iranian oppositionists that an armed attack would be a political gift to regime hard-liners.

Then there are all the broader political consequences. Eisenstadt and Knights dismiss these by brushing aside a straw-man prediction that “Arabs would rise up in protest and shake the established order.” The principal concern for U.S. interests is not that but rather how hatred for the United States throughout much of the Muslim world would be stoked by another instance in which the United States or its close confederate Israel was seen as using military might to kill more Muslims. The authors say nothing about either that or the prospect of an attack helping to poison U.S. relations with generations of Iranians. Then there are the economic effects, which Eisenstadt and Knights only hint at with a reference to Iranian actions in the Persian Gulf aimed at keeping “insurance rates and oil prices up.” They do not explore the vast economic damage that underlies those few words.

Another omission is any reference to the fact that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon and—according to the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community—has not so far decided to make one. All the damaging consequences, far from being “preventive,” would instead be very likely to stimulate the very step—Iran constructing a nuclear weapon—that supposedly we want to prevent. Eisenstadt and Knights implicitly admit this by discussing a “clandestine crash weapons program” as a possible Iranian response. In one of their more inventive argumentative twists, they try to turn this into a reason that Iran might moderate its other responses. Their idea is that Iran would calculate that it would have a harder time obtaining the “special materials and equipment” for its nuclear program if it retaliated in ways that “further alienated its few remaining friends.” Even if it were plausible that an Iran that had just suffered an armed attack would be fine-tuning friendships in that particular way, the obvious question is: What about all those international sanctions already aimed at crippling Iran's nuclear program? And why would an armed attack be needed, or even helpful, in getting those sanctions to work?