Ideally, the threat and build-up, executed by a credible president, would themselves induce the mullahs to offer major concessions. Even the most committed radicals do so when the odds are against them, as we saw with North Vietnam after Nixon began systematically destroying their strategic capabilities, eliminated their logistic path through Cambodia, and mined Haiphong harbor to prevent their resupply by the Soviet Union. Although the US did not ultimately follow up the Paris Peace Accord with vigilance and support to South Vietnam, the agreement itself was favorable for Saigon and Washington, and it was obtained only because Nixon put Hanoi on the defensive both militarily and politically. Even the China gambit was not as important as making it militarily impossible for the North Vietnamese to hold their position.
Iran, for her part, closed down, renamed, and took underground certain elements of her nuclear weapons program in mid-2003 – when the US had routed Saddam and taken over Iraq. This process in Iran is the one that was interpreted by the US intelligence community’s leadership, in 2007, as a termination of Iran’s weaponization effort. Ironically, if that’s what it was, it was clearly undertaken because of the shift created by US military action in Iran’s security situation. (There is strong evidence that Iran didn’t cease her weaponization effort, but instead labored to hide it better – and in either case, the action was in response to the rapid, decisive US military victory over Saddam. The decisive use of force does send a signal that changes minds and hearts.)
I don’t assess that Obama could get Iran to capitulate without firing a shot. But it’s possible that another president could. If Iran did not lay open her whole nuclear program to inspection and allow it to be carted off in pieces by the UN – and she probably would not – continued vigilance would be necessary. The defanging of Iran’s nuclear aspirations would be an extended “negotiation,” rather than a done deal, signed and delivered on a date certain.
But in outlining a scenario like this, I regard that as a lower cost to pay than actually attacking Iran. The option of threat and build-up would remain viable for reuse as long as the US had our current capabilities and military superiority. The overall US policy should be encouraging liberalization in Iran (and a liberalizing stability for the region), so that a regime of threats and intimidation was merely a stopgap until there was an Iran with a better character to deal with. Although there might be a role for special, non-kinetic military capabilities in such a policy, the role of force, per se, would be minor to nil.
This is one possible outline of a threat-intimidation scenario. I haven’t discussed lining up allied support – or at least tacit acceptance – which is obviously an important consideration. How much that process might limit America’s options would depend mainly on how we approached the matter, since there is still no one who could literally thwart us in undertaking this kind of policy. That said, I believe we would get more support than many imagine if we had a decisive objective and a robust approach. What causes the support from our allies to fall off is acting tentatively and without a clear purpose. The Gulf Cooperation Council nations would give us very different levels of support, for example, if we clearly intended to quickly force concessions out of Iran and protect our regional partners, versus using a drawn-out plan of incrementalism that would allow Iran to keep adjusting and ramping up her own insidious threats to the region.
Probably the key point to take away is that merely moving military force around isn’t usefully intimidating. A gray hull (naval ship) itself – or any other form of military might – isn’t a clear indicator of intention. It doesn’t give your opponent anything specific to understand or respond to. If it’s a new form of force in the situation, it ratchets up the tension without creating the potential for a satisfactory resolution. If it sits there long enough to become old, it’s just part of the landscape, and has no power to intimidate unless you escalate its mission.