Freshly retired U.S. Central Command head General James Mattis caused a stir last week by
Mattis has a long history of eye-catching statements, and the plot was so outrageous and poorly executed that many have expressed doubts that Iran—even Iran—would sponsor it. (Our own Paul Pillar suggested that the plot may have been designed to be discovered, i.e. that rogue elements within the Iranian government hankering for deeper confrontation could have been behind it.) Yet Mattis makes a fair point if he’s right that the plot was ordered from the top. Why would the United States tolerate a confirmed terrorist plot by an unfriendly state, even as it spends hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives to prevent the emergence of terrorism in other countries? Further, letting such an action go unanswered would send a dangerous message of weakness and irresolution.
A chief problem with taking action, however, is that it would rebound on the main U.S. government priority toward Iran: preventing it from acquiring a nuclear weapon. As Geoffrey Kemp and I explained in our book, War with Iran, a key strength of the current U.S. position rests on the delicate international balance that has allowed an unprecedented sanctions regime. A U.S. military action against Iran could lead to major powers withdrawing their support for sanctions, undermining one of Washington’s few points of leverage.
And a military action would have risked a spiraling confrontation with Iran, one which could easily have spread into both Iraq and Afghanistan, and which may have seen terrorism in multiple continents—possibly even within the United States. America can dominate this escalation in theory—the ability of the world’s most powerful military to make a weaker state hurt is limited mainly by our creativity and our qualms. In practice, however, the costs grow. The United States can confront Iran in isolation, but a global power never confronts anything in isolation. The entanglement of U.S. forces in one corner of the globe creates openings in all other corners. Great powers like China and Russia would react negatively, and the conflict would have compounded America’s strategic, military and fiscal overextension. The United States was, at the time, already involved in two major conflicts and experiencing substantive domestic political dysfunction and imbalance. Iran’s weak hand becomes competitive in such a context.
Lesser responses have their own weaknesses. The Hill called for more sanctions after the terror plot was revealed, but this is hardly an appropriate response to a belligerent act—and Congressional calls for more sanctions can’t be a very powerful signal to Tehran anymore, given that they’re issued so frequently. Covert action would have been more symmetrical, but it would not hurt Iran enough to make it stop, and would further entrench the norm of cloak-and-dagger violence between the United States and Israel on one side and Iran on the other—a norm which offers Iran a fig leaf for acts of terror.
One way out of the sort of cyclical violence any military action likely would have caused is to take matters into the courts, answering the latest attack not with further attacks but by trying the perpetrators. Trying the restaurant plotter—which is what the administration did—accomplished this without ever starting the cycle. It also is a smarter response if the government was, contra Mattis, unsure that Tehran had officially authorized the attack. Since we in the public sphere can’t see the intelligence to which Mattis and other officials had access, it’s frankly impossible to do more than speculate on the appropriateness of the administration’s response. The fact that Mattis suggested certainty that Tehran authorized the plot is significant, but Mattis’s reputation for not choosing his words with extreme care is, too.
Had the plot gone through—had the Saudi ambassador been killed, with other Washington bigwigs possibly among the victims—there would not have been so much flexibility. If a foreign power can carry out acts of terror on American soil without paying a grievous price, what is our military for? What purpose does our pursuit of global leadership serve? If, as I’ve suggested, worries about our efforts to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon might factor into our response to an Iranian terror attack, our priorities might not be in balance. An Iranian bomb could have serious consequences for the stability of the Middle East, for the strategic balance on the Gulf and for global nonproliferation. Yet the damage to American interests here is more potential than actual. The U.S. would retain a multitude of tools to manage the Iranian threat—including, at last resort, our vast stockpile of nuclear weapons. The restaurant attack, on the other hand, would have been an egregious violation of U.S. sovereignty and of numerous international norms, and likely would have cost many Americans their lives. The damage to American interests would be concrete, and the risk that inaction would invite further damage would be great. The complex strategic concerns over proliferation are appropriate. But in this case they would have to yield to the more central and visceral concerns of physical security that are at the core of any government’s foreign-policy duties. Mattis might have been running his mouth last week. But he might have been right.