I received a question last week from a correspondent:
I was wondering if you could suggest some manners in which the US could make the military option more credible against Iran.
To my request for clarification, the correspondent replied that this question was more about how to credibly intimidate Iran than about how to effectively interdict Iran’s nuclear program with military force.
It’s a very good question. How should an American president use the military in an intimidating, persuasive manner, to induce Iran to give up her nuclear-weapons purpose? Very little has been discussed on this topic in the forums of punditry; virtually all treatments focus on the feasibility or proper method of a military attack campaign. Is there an “intimidation option,” short of a shooting war? And if so, what would it look like?
The first principle in answering these questions is that intimidation is personal, not mechanical. There is no force package that is more effectively intimidating than another, if the will to carry out one’s threats is not considered credible. The short and non-flippant answer to my correspondent’s question is, “Get another president in the White House.” Changing an opponent’s intentions through intimidation is entirely about credibility, and credibility comes from the threatener’s history and perceived character.
This is especially true as regards the United States. We have three aircraft carrier strike groups in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf right now, something no other nation can possibly do. (We won’t have three a few weeks from now; two of the carriers are swapping out on station, and thereafter our two-carrier presence will be maintained.) We have Air Force strike-fighters in the Gulf, about 15,000 US Army troops in Kuwait, and tens of thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan, along with air assets. We have an amphibious group with a Marine battalion in the Gulf region as well. In spite of our drawdown over the last 20 years, we retain forces in Europe and Turkey, as well as the still-large package of permanently-stationed forces we have in the Far East.
We have the conventional forces to be intimidating with. The question about our credibility is not related to the believability of our military capacities. It’s about the leadership and will behind them.
But from a methodological standpoint, leadership and will can produce different courses of action, and they are not all equally effective. Presidents Bush and Obama have chosen not to use the US military to increase the pressure on Iran, and the “escalation” path adopted by the Perm-5 + 1 has been selected for its extreme slowness and incremental nature.
It’s worth taking a moment to clarify the point that we aren’t using military power to increase pressure on Iran. The US forces in Southwest Asia have been drawn down absolutely since 2008, and outside of Afghanistan, what we have kept or sent to the theater since then has been purely defensive. Incremental defensive preparations, such as the introduction of additional minesweepers or anti-missile batteries around the Gulf, are not a means of intimidation. They are not attack assets. The current mix of US forces in the Gulf region indicates that we believe Israel and/or Iran might mount a military initiative. It does not indicate that we intend to. The US force posture around the Gulf is a defensive one, indicating our intention to have the option of reacting.
The UN and US sanctions on Iran have, meanwhile, been incremental and very slow-acting. The issue for our purposes is not whether that is “good” or “bad,” but whether it is effective. Objectively, the sanctions in place are not discouraging or usefully delaying Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons. Nations like China, India, and Germany continue to do robust business with Iran, not only supplying Iran with hard currency by buying her oil, but selling her technology and materials for her nuclear program. In spite of the annoying impediments created by the international community, Iran continues to expand her uranium-enrichment operations and to deny IAEA access to suspect facilities. The program of multilateral talks with Iran merely serves Iran’s purpose of dragging out the current situation, which is favorable for her objectives.
The mere presence of military forces is not automatically intimidating, nor is there an intimidation formula that prescribes levels or combinations of force. What intimidation boils down to in this case is Iran’s perception of what we intend to do with our forces, on an operationally significant timeline.