In Israel recently, Governor Mitt Romney talked repeatedly about the need to “employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course.” This may seem like the usual boilerplate about “all options on the table.” But in fact this formulation is a significant and welcome departure from current U.S. policy — and from the circular debate over the use of force against Iran.
They key word in Governor Romney’s formulation was “dissuade.” The implication is that the military force must be among the range of measures available to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. That is the right way to think about the use of force against Iran: What can we do to convince the Iranians to abandon their program?
By contrast, the way the Washington foreign-policy establishment (including senior officials in both the Bush and Obama administrations) typically thinks about the use of force against Iran is to ask what force is necessary to destroy their nuclear program if diplomacy fails. Then, we are told that military strikes will only slow Iran down a few years, so there’s no point in using them at all.
What is artificial in this construct is the unstated assumption that there is some a priori reason that military force can be used only when diplomacy has failed. But there is no such a priori reason. Even the most limited military measures can be at least as convincing as economic sanctions. Even if the accumulation of economic sanctions has started to cause real pain for Tehran — and the latest sanctions are a welcome addition — there is ample reason to doubt whether they can ultimately succeed without the added inducement of military pressure.
Some will object that the threat of military force in the near term could severely diminish international support for continued economic sanctions. That is an important point. But before we get to it, let’s think about the idea of using force not in order to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, but in order to dissuade Iran from pursuing it.
If you start by asking what kinds of military measures could dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, the first thing you realize is that you are looking at a vastly greater range of options than those that are typically considered when asking what would be needed to destroy Iran’s nuclear program.
Having started with an artificially limited question, the establishment typically concludes that strikes would have to involve hundreds of sorties conducted over a period of weeks; that they would not have a high probability of fully destroying the relevant facilities; that Iran would likely retaliate in a major way, perhaps by closing the Strait of Hormuz; and that it would simply reconstitute its program and proceed in secrecy, its thirst for nuclear weapons and its domestic political support significantly strengthened. The flawed premise in this chain of reasoning is the false idea that military options are useful only if dissuasion fails.
By contrast, Governor Romney seems to understand that, in the first instance, the utility of military power is not to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability, but rather to convince the Iranians to abandon it. He is not alone: Prior to joining the administration, deputy defense secretary Ashton Carter noted that limited military force could be integral to a diplomatic strategy.
In part of a diplomatic strategy aimed at dissuading Iran, the spectrum of possible effects one might seek through the use of force runs the gamut of military capabilities, from small-scale, non-violent tactical demonstrations to applications of strategically decisive force.
On one end of the spectrum, nonviolent incursions into Iran’s territorial waters or airspace — which are “acts of war” only in the most demonstrative sense — may be highly unnerving to Tehran without incurring a great risk of retaliation. On the other end of the spectrum are the most dissuasive military measures of all — strategic “decapitation” strikes that eliminate the regime’s ability to exert any sort of military power beyond its borders, and which threaten the very survival of the regime.