Richard Betts on deterrence, Iran, and ambiguity

Richard Betts, in a long Foreign Affairs essay on deterrence, talks about Iran:

Nevertheless, rather than planning to deter a prospective Iranian nuclear arsenal, the United States and Israel have preferred preventive war. Although many still hope to turn Iran away from nuclear weapons through sanctions and diplomacy, the debate within and between the United States and Israel over what to do if Iran moves to produce a bomb is about not whether to attack but when. U.S. President Barack Obama has firmly declared that he has not a “policy of containment” but rather “a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” and other administration officials have repeatedly emphasized this point. As promises in foreign policy go, this one is chiseled in stone. Backing down from it when the time comes would be the right thing to do but would represent an embarrassing retreat.

The logic behind rejecting deterrence is that Tehran might decide to use nuclear weapons despite facing devastating retaliation. The risk can never be reduced to zero, but there is no reason to believe that Iran poses more danger than other nasty regimes that have already developed nuclear weapons. The most telling example is North Korea. Although the American public has not paid nearly as much attention to North Korea, Pyongyang’s record of fanatical belligerence and terrorist behavior over the years has been far worse than Tehran’s.

Refusing to accept an iota of risk from Iran ignores the massive risks of the alternative of initiating war. Leaving aside the danger of being blind-sided by unanticipated forms of Iranian reprisal — for example, the use of biological weapons — the obvious risks include Iranian retaliation by overt or covert military means against U.S. assets. The results of the initially successful assault on Iraq in 2003 are a reminder that wars the United States starts do not necessarily end when and how it wants them to. Indeed, the records of the United States and Israel suggest that both countries tend to underestimate the prospective costs of the wars they enter. Washington paid fewer costs than expected during the Gulf War but faced a far higher bill than anticipated in Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and the second war against Iraq. Israel suffered less in the 1967 Six-Day War than expected but was badly surprised by the costs of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1982 Lebanon war, and the 2006 war against Hezbollah.

Launching a war against Iran would also have negative spillover effects. First and foremost, short of an accompanying ground invasion and occupation, an air attack could not guarantee an end to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons; it could guarantee only a delay and would almost certainly drive the Iranians to commit more fervently to building a bomb. If Iran’s capabilities were only temporarily degraded but its intentions were inflamed, the threat might become worse. Striking first would also fracture the international coalition that now stands behind sanctions against Iran, undercut opposition to the regime inside the country, and be seen throughout the world as another case of arrogant American aggression against Muslims.

Those costs might seem justifiable if launching a war against Iran dissuaded other countries from attempting to get their own nuclear deterrents. But it might just as well energize such efforts. George W. Bush’s war to prevent Iraq from getting nuclear weapons did not dissuade North Korea, which went on to test its own weapons a few years later, nor did it turn Iran away. It may have induced Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi to surrender his nuclear program, but a few years later, his reward from Washington turned out to be overthrow and death — hardly an encouraging lesson for U.S. adversaries about the wisdom of renouncing nuclear weapons.

One reason U.S. leaders might be reluctant to apply deterrence these days is that the strategy’s most potent form — the threat to annihilate an enemy’s economy and population in retaliation — is no longer deemed legitimate […] But that inhibition should hardly be a reason to prefer starting a war, nor does it cripple deterrence. An acceptable variant would be to threaten not to annihilate Iran’s population but to annihilate its regime — the leaders, security agencies, and assets of the Iranian government — if it used nuclear weapons. Although in practice, even a discriminating counterattack of that kind would result in plenty of collateral damage, U.S. planners could credibly make the threat and could reinforce it by pledging to invade Iran as well — a step that would be far more reasonable to take after an Iranian nuclear strike than it was against Iraq in 2003. And even if legal concerns constrained the United States from massively retaliating against Iranian civilians, Israeli leaders would surely be willing to do so if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons, since Israel’s national existence would be at stake. Those mutually reinforcing threats — that the fruits of the Iranian Revolution and even Iranian society itself would cease to exist — would be an overwhelming restraint on Tehran.

A nuclear-armed Iran is an alarming prospect. But there is no sure solution to some dangers, and this challenge presents a strategic choice between different risks. There is simply no real evidence that war with Iran would yield any more safety than handling the problem with good old deterrence.

Fine as far as it goes, but it misses what is now the more relevant debate over what will happen if Iran stays below the American red line in perpetuity.

Last week, The Economist reported that “[Obama] has told [Netanyahu] that America is now closer to the threshold for taking such a step” – that step being “an ultimatum to Iran that it must reach a deal on halting enrichment within months or face military action” – and “that he [Obama] is not prepared to allow diplomatic negotiations to run beyond this year without a big change in Iran’s attitude”.

If that is so, and I am somewhat sceptical that Obama would have been so committal, then we run into a problem identified by Betts earlier in his essay:  “the deterrent warning must be loud and clear, so the target cannot misread it. Deterrence should be ambiguous only if it is a bluff”.

Iran is unlikely to take any obvious steps towards weaponisation – say, enrichment beyond 20% or the expulsion of inspectors. So what will that ultimatum look like? There will be considerable ambiguity over where other red lines should be drawn if the talks fail and Iran continues its nuclear advances: introduction of IR2s at Fordow? A certain number of cascades?

This ambiguity may even be realistically irresolvable. Setting a specific date, as Israel wants and The Economist suggests might have occurred, is deeply problematic: true, it is unambiguous (2014 comes when it comes), but it is also entirely non-credible, because Iran could temporarily trim down capabilities, undercut the objective basis for any military action, and slowly build back up to those levels.

More likely is a Schelling-esque approach: that the trigger for any future red line(s) is unambiguous (a specific date) but that the response is left ambiguous. But this still leaves open the possibility that, as Betts warns, Iran interprets this as a bluff.


2 responses to “Richard Betts on deterrence, Iran, and ambiguity

  1. The debate is not about deterrence/containment. Everyone knows that Iran is a rational actor, and they will obviously not use their primitive nuclear weapons, as they believe in the survival of the regime, and know that they will be wiped off the map if they think of using the bomb against Israel, or other US interests in the gulf.

    The question which most analysts avoid, and that includes Stephen Walt in FP, is that, once Iran develops a bomb, what then? What about it using a nuclear umbrella for other proxies like Hezbollah and Hamas? What about it becoming Pakistan part 2? Deterrence works both ways…will US or Israel even think of using force against a nuclear power, even when it is a rogue state, providing nuclear umbrella to non-state actors?

  2. Hi Shashank, great piece. Overall I think Ricard K. Betts is very astute writer and thinker on IR in general. If you get the chance listen to his talk on Sam Huntington and the clash of civilizations frome a few years ago at the Carnegie Centre

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