Paul Pillar

Sheathe, Don't Rattle, the Saber

The Washington Post editorial page criticizes Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for not talking up the possibility of a military strike against Iran in the name of setting back its nuclear program and instead warning of how ill-advised such a use of military force would be. Among the comments by Mr. Gates to which the editorial writers took offense was, "I disagree that only a credible military threat can get Iran to take the actions that it needs to end its nuclear weapons program." He also pointed out that a military strike "will only . . . bring together a divided nation, it will make them absolutely committed to obtaining nuclear weapons and they will just go deeper and more covert.” Secretary Gates is absolutely right. The editorial is not only dead wrong; it exemplifies and promotes a type of commentary on this subject that pushes the United States closer to new disaster in the Middle East.

The primary reason the editorial is wrong is that it advocates saber-rattling that is counterproductive. The war talk increases, not decreases, Iranian motivations to produce nuclear weapons. Prime among those motivations is deterrence of attack by foreign states and especially by the United States. Moreover, decision-making in Tehran on this issue is not just a single cool calculation of costs and benefits; it is the outcome of political tussles within the regime in which anything that accentuates the hardliners' narrative of hostility from the United States enhances the hardliners' power and influence. And although a peaceful nuclear program including uranium enrichment has broad support across the Iranian political spectrum, it is the hardliners who are most likely to press ahead to a nuclear weapons capability. A recently released report by a study group jointly organized by the Stimson Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace makes this point:

Allusions by US officials to the potential use of military options plays into the hands of the ultra hard-liners among Iran’s elites, strengthening their arguments that the country will only be safe from American threats when it has nuclear weapons.

The editorial asserts that “what we do know for sure is that the last decision Iran made to curb its nuclear program, in 2003, came when the regime feared—reasonably or not—that it could be a target of the U.S. forces that had just destroyed the Iraqi army.” We do? What evidence is there that such “fears” affected decision-making that way? The much-noted intelligence estimate in 2007 that reported the suspension of weapons design work in 2003 said no such thing, instead assessing that Tehran's likely motivation was international pressure stemming from revelations about Iran's own nuclear program. And neither the invasion of Iraq nor any of the Bush administration's stick-brandishing against Iran slowed down the production of fissile material, which is the portion of Tehran's program that determines when Iran would be able to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Another reason commentary along the lines of the Post editorial is not only wrong but dangerous is that any threat has a chance of working only if it is credible, and doing and saying what it takes to make a threat credible takes one much of the way to carrying out the threat, however grave would be the consequences for us as well as the adversary. (This is largely a matter of binding ourselves by damaging our future credibility if we don't carry out the threat.) In the case of war with Iran, the consequences for U.S. would be grave indeed. The report of the Stimson-USIP study group summarizes it well:

Unless the US attacks were carried out in support of a UN Security Council mandate (an extremely unlikely contingency), the negative repercussions for US interests would likely be severe, including a potentially protracted period of conflict in many parts of the Middle East, threats to Americans and US-owned facilities around the world, the possibility of a severe, global economic down-turn or even depression resulting from a sharp and persistent rise in oil prices, and the political isolation of the United States from much of the world.

But wait, there's more: an attack also would

likely ensure the success of efforts by Iran’s ultra hardliners to consolidate power, thus postponing hopes for political reform even further and ensuring continuing tensions and conflicts in the Middle East.

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