If War Is Not the Answer…
Sunday, June 27, 2010
An explicit U.S. security guarantee protecting the Persian Gulf allies from Iran may look appealing, but it will be difficult to define, tough to credibly implement, and contain its own sizable risks and costs.
On June 9, the United Nations Security Council approved Resolution 1929,1 which imposes further sanctions on Iran for its lack of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Obama administration officials hope that the resolution, combined with follow-on sanctions imposed by the European Union and others, will encourage Iran to return to negotiations. Few observers expect that to occur any time soon, and even President Obama agrees with this conclusion. In his remarks on the Security Council’s action, he predicted “the Iranian government will not change its behavior overnight.”2 Similarly, few hold out hope that Iran will agree to the IAEA’s demand to fully implement the agency’s Safeguard Agreement and Additional Protocol inspection criteria, which would provide the world with some visibility on what Iran is up to. Indeed, Iran is now threatening to reduce its cooperation with the IAEA.3 Nor do many analysts expect the sanctions to materially slow down Iran’s nuclear program.
President Obama will soon have to face the realization that the sanctions strategy against Iran has fared no better than his bid to engage Iran’s leaders in direct negotiations. Iran’s strategy of patiently playing for time, generating diplomatic support from the developing world, and convincing China and Russia to dilute sanctions at the Security Council is working. The United States and its allies have not been able to develop sufficient leverage to disrupt Iran’s strategy.
Iran in turn has divided the Security Council, successfully lobbying China and Russia to either delay or dilute sanctions. It has further bolstered its political defenses by successfully soliciting diplomatic support from increasingly influential developing countries such as Brazil.
Short of war, the only course remaining for the United States and its allies is containment and deterrence. A key component of such a strategy would be a security guarantee, explicitly extending the U.S. nuclear umbrella over its Arab allies around the Persian Gulf. Compared to the prospect of war, and with the other strategies having failed, an explicit U.S. security guarantee may look appealing. In July 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned the possibility of extending a “security umbrella” over the Middle East4 and repeated the idea in February 2010.5 Michael O’Hanlon and Bruce Riedel, both senior fellows at the Brookings Institution, recently made the argument for sanctions, deterrence, containment, and a security guarantee against military action.6
But a security guarantee protecting the Persian Gulf allies from Iran will not be easy. It will be difficult to define, tough to credibly implement, and contain its own risks and costs. Before agreeing to a security guarantee, U.S. policy makers need to consider these costs and risks. They should prepare programs that will increase the chance of such a strategy’s success. Perhaps most important, U.S. policy makers need to be open with the American public about what a commitment to a security guarantee will mean. As was the case during the Cold War, broad public acceptance is necessary if a security guarantee is to be credible and sustainable.
Iran’s winning strategy
Iran’s diplomatic strategy has been successful. While Iran has steadily persisted with its nuclear program, it has minimally cooperated with the IAEA’s inspectors regarding some elements of its effort and rejected cooperation with respect to others. In response, the IAEA Board of Directors has protested to the Security Council, repeatedly listing in its periodic reports Iran’s lack of cooperation and its suspicions about Iran’s military intentions.7 Iran in turn has divided the Security Council, successfully lobbying China and Russia (both with expanding economic interests in Iran) to either delay or dilute sanctions. Iran has further bolstered its political defenses by successfully soliciting diplomatic support from increasingly influential developing countries such as Brazil and Turkey, both of which voted against Resolution 1929.
Eventually Iran will achieve the intimidating effect of a nuclear arsenal while simultaneously avoiding the consequences for doing so.
Iran’s strategy exploits the consequences of the 2003 intelligence failures concerning Iraq’s weapons programs. The IAEA and Western intelligence agencies, chastened by the 2003 intelligence debacle in Iraq, will very likely refrain from making any clear declarations about Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities. This hesitancy, combined with Iran’s denials and its carefully limited cooperation with the IAEA, will leave Iran’s accusers unable to assemble an ironclad case. The murky outcome will please countries like Russia and China, who wish to expand their commercial interests in Iran, and those in the developing world, like Brazil, who may have their own reasons to resist a more intrusive IAEA.
As its nuclear and ballistic missile programs advance, Iran’s nuclear status will march further into foggy ambiguity. It will not declare itself to be a nuclear weapons state. But over time Iran’s neighbors will have to assume the worst. Eventually, Iran will achieve the intimidating effect of a nuclear arsenal while simultaneously avoiding the consequences for doing so.
This course should already be clear to policy makers in the region. Left alone, the likely response would be a nuclear and missile arms race between Iran and the Persian Gulf’s Arab states. During the Cold War, U.S. security guarantees, backed up by U.S. military forces and theater nuclear weapons, allowed U.S. allies in Western Europe and East Asia to avoid having to develop their own nuclear weapon programs. Now, once more, Cold War-style deterrence over the Persian Gulf, bolstered by a United States security guarantee and military deployments, may seem an appealing option. But a security guarantee has its costs and risks, for which U.S. policy makers and the American public must prepare.
A Persian Gulf security guarantee won’t be easy
U.S. officials have already made pledges to defend America’s allies around the Persian Gulf. What matters is whether these broad but vague promises are convincing enough to dissuade these countries from beginning their own nuclear programs. In order to dissuade these countries from their own programs, the U.S. government may have to make such guarantees much more clear and specific. For example, formal security treaties and forward positioning of U.S. nuclear deterrent forces in the region would increase the credibility of a security guarantee. But such actions would be tricky to implement. It may be difficult to get Congress and the American public to accept NATO-like treaty commitments with the Persian Gulf countries. Forward positioning of U.S. deterrent forces would be politically corrosive in the region, would run counter to the Obama administration’s pledge to work for a nuclear-free Middle East, and would provide propaganda ammunition to Iran.
With an undeclared but assumed nuclear weapons capability to bolster its security, Iran will feel emboldened to step up its irregular warfare activities in the region.
A second challenge for a U.S. security guarantee would be to define what Iranian behavior they hope to deter. Deterring a hypothetical Iranian missile attack is merely a starting point. During the Cold War, the nuclear balance between the United States and the Soviet Union cleared the field for internal subversion, insurgencies, proxy wars, and terrorism. Iran possesses a competitive advantage with irregular warfare techniques and has already established proxy allies in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere. With an undeclared but assumed nuclear weapons capability to bolster its security, Iran will feel emboldened to step up its irregular warfare activities in the region. A U.S. security guarantee could commit the United States to a deep and open-ended engagement defending against Iran’s irregular warfare campaigns. In the wake of the painful irregular warfare campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and knowing Iran’s competitive advantages in irregular warfare, U.S. policy makers might wonder whether they want to sign up to such a commitment.
Finally, a nuclear standoff in the Middle East will be even more fragile and dangerous than the Cold War. Missile flight times will be extremely short and command-and-control systems will be fragile. This will leave retaliatory forces in the region (conventional and nuclear) vulnerable to a disarming first strike. The result will be a highly unstable hair-trigger situation. One goal of a U.S. security guarantee would be to reduce these risks. But reducing those risks to the region would require increasing the risks to U.S. military forces and prestige.
The costs of a credible security guarantee
A security guarantee policy has its risks and costs. If, after contemplating these, U.S. policy makers decide to proceed, there are several actions they should take to increase the probability of success.
Collectively, the Gulf Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman have enough conventional military power to deter Iran.8 These states and the others in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) should be the main bulwark deterring Iran. However, they come up short due to inadequate defense cooperation, a lack of trust with each other, and lingering doubts about U.S. commitment. The U.S. government will need to improve its efforts regarding Gulf defense cooperation and security assistance to take advantage of the potential for local deterrence in the region.
The United States can assist, armed with the lessons it has learned from its irregular warfare campaigns over the past decade. But the most effective response to irregular Iranian pressure will come from the governments in the region.
U.S. Central Command’s deployments to the region will be a critical element of success. U.S. policy makers will have to find a balance between deploying sufficient forces to provide credibility and reassurance, while avoiding deployments that are politically corrosive or provide a disincentive for GCC members to fulfill their responsibilities. Improvements in U.S. long-range strike capabilities—forces that would provide deterrence but would not be physically present in the region—could be part of the solution.
As mentioned above, we should expect a nuclear-armed Iran to become more aggressive in the irregular warfare dimension. Stepped-up Iranian irregular warfare activity could appear in the form of increased Shiite militia activity in Iraq, greater unrest among Shiite populations in the Arab Persian Gulf states, a more aggressive Hezbollah organization in Lebanon, and more terrorist intimidation in the region and beyond.
The frontline defense against Iranian irregular warfare must come from the states in the region, with the U.S. government supporting from the background. The frontline states will have to respond to Iranian irregular warfare efforts with improved internal security measures, but also with improved social, political, economic, and information warfare efforts. The United States can assist, armed with the lessons it has learned from its irregular warfare campaigns over the past decade. But the most effective response to irregular Iranian pressure will come from the governments in the region.
Finally, the United States and its allies need to develop leverage against Iran. The absence of leverage is the principal reason the engagement and sanctions strategies have failed. But should the United States and its allies shift to a containment and deterrence approach, it will be no less important to develop means to hold at risk those things the Iranian regime values most. Last September, during an interview with Al Jazeera, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates discussed his hopes in this regard:
And so the more that our Arab friends and allies can strengthen their security capabilities, the more they can strengthen their cooperation both with each other and with us, I think, sends the signal to the Iranians that this path that they're on is not going to advance Iranian security but in fact could weaken it.9
And so that's one of the reasons why I think our relationship with these countries and our security cooperation with them is so important.
Part of what Gates implied is an Arab and U.S. offensive capability against Iran that would hold at risk Iranian assets. Offensive action should not be limited to just conventional military actions. It should also include public diplomacy, cyber warfare, unconventional warfare, and covert actions aimed at undermining the authority of the regime. The goal would be to create credible capabilities in these areas in order to persuade the Iranian leadership to adopt different policies.
Prepare for a long struggle
More broadly, if U.S. policy makers opt for a security guarantee, they need to prepare the American public for what to expect. Just as with the Cold War, a security guarantee will commit the U.S. to a long struggle against an intelligent and experienced adversary who possesses important competitive advantages. A security guarantee will risk U.S. prestige and military forces. It will also create second- and third-order risks, such as increased friction with China, which will increasingly become Iran’s patron.
The purpose of a security guarantee is to avoid Iranian regional hegemony, an unstable nuclear and missile arms race, or a near-term preventive war against Iran, the long-term costs of which would very likely exceed the short-lived benefits. This essay has attempted to demonstrate that a security guarantee is no panacea, and will have its own significant costs and risks.
U.S. policy makers must explain to the American public these costs and risks. Public understanding and acceptance of these costs is necessary if a U.S. security guarantee is to be credible and sustained over the long challenge ahead.
Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal. He writes the “This Week at War” column at Foreign Policy.com.
FURTHER READING: Haddick recently explained “What Afghanistan Can Learn from Colombia,” and deliberated “Is Foggy Bottom Ready for Irregular Warfare?” AEI’s Michael Rubin says “Containment Won’t Work” with Iran, and John Bolton writes that “Iran and North Korea March On.”
1. Resolution 1929 (2010), United Nations Security Council, 9 June 2010, accessed 18 June 2010.
Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.