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?

A fundamental topic that Eisenstadt and Knights do not address, beyond a curt dismissal in a footnote, is what difference an Iranian nuclear weapon would make—to Iranian behavior, to peace and stability in the Middle East, or to anything else. As I and some others have observed, what has passed for an argument that an Iranian nuke would be a horrible eventuality (something that most often is just taken for granted) consists chiefly of litanies of things that a nuclear-armed Iran “could” do—in other words, worst-case speculation. This contrasts with the tendency of some of the same purveyors of such speculation to present best-case pictures of the consequences of going to war against Iran. Eisenstadt and Knights try to turn the tables on such observations by titling their paper “Beyond Worst-Case Analysis” and asserting at the outset that “many independent analysts offer what can only be described as worst-case assessments” of the consequences of an attack and that “these analysts almost invariably offer best-case assessments for a policy of deterrence and containment,” with a footnote citation to works by Bruce Riedel and myself. Readers can judge for themselves, but in the article of mine they reference I explicitly distinguished between the worst possible consequences of going to war and the most likely consequences. I wrote that “no one knows what the full ramifications of such a war with Iran would be,” paralleling Eisenstadt and Knights's apt comment that “prudence dictates modesty when attempting to predict the behavior of states embroiled in armed conflict, where uncertainty and the law of unintended consequences rule.” What I had to say about likely Iranian responses was quite consistent with much of what Eisenstadt and Knight present, although I discussed further the broader political and economic repercussions that they gloss over.

What I wrote in the same cited article about the consequences, or nonconsequences, of an Iranian nuke eschewed the “could” mode of discourse that worst-casers and best-casers are so fond of using and instead examined the strategic realities and calculations that Tehran would actually face. The analysis in this respect was similar to the better and more careful aspects of Eisenstadt and Knights's presentation about the choices that Tehran would face in a post-attack environment. The authors would need to engage that analysis before being justified in dismissing it, but they never do.

A major aspect of why an Iranian nuke would not be a destabilizing game-changer—or to borrow WINEP's phrase, “would not be the apocalyptic event that some foresee”—is deterrence. In this regard, it is interesting to note how much reliance Eisenstadt and Knights place on deterrence in their arguments about why Tehran's responses to an armed attack would be moderated. Indeed, they list “deterring Iranian retaliation against U.S. interests” after an attack on Iran as their number-one policy priority. In doing so, they contribute to the glaringly inconsistent treatment of deterrence in discourse about Iran. Deterrence of Iran with a nuclear weapon frequently gets described as far too thin a reed to lean on when facing ideologically crazed mullahs, but after the Iranians become targets of armed attack, they somehow become such calm and cautious decision makers that deterrence can be relied on greatly. Vast historical experience indicates that to the extent that decision making behavior may be this inconsistent, the inconsistency would be in the opposite direction; being on the receiving end of an armed attack is the very circumstance most likely to lead calmness and restraint to evaporate.

Scholars and commentators are entitled to select their topics and define the scope of those topics as they wish. I have had the frustration, in writing on other subjects, of facing criticism along the lines of “but you didn't talk about such-and-such,” when the only appropriate response was, “that's not the topic I was addressing.” I try to select and define topics, however, in a way that fills gaps and helps to correct imbalances and distortions in existing discourse. Eisenstadt and Knights have some useful things to say about the Iranians' options and likely thinking if they ever get attacked by Israel or the United States. More attention to the consequences of such an attack is certainly needed. But in their selection of what to emphasize and what to dismiss or ignore, they have exacerbated rather than lessened the distortions in current discourse about Iran.

Image: marsmet544