This Deal or War?
Misadventures in Deterring Iran
By Michael Singh
War on the Rocks
September 15, 2015
Obama's defense of the Iran nuclear deal rests on a simple premise: It's either
this deal or war. According to the administration, not only is there no better
deal to be had, but the inevitable consequence of rejecting the deal will be an
eventual military conflict with Iran.
government's acceptance of the deal is now a foregone conclusion, but it is
still worth noting that "this deal or war" is a false choice three
times over. Regardless of whether one felt the deal on offer was the best
choice, there were plainly alternatives to it other than war. Nor was the notion
that President Obama might engage in military conflict with Iran a credible one.
Despite the possibility that the deal would not materialize prior to its
announcement on July 14 or that it might later face legislative defeat, no
preparation for the possibility of conflict was apparent. The administration was
quick to dismiss the effectiveness of the "military option" even as it
insisted that it remained on the table.
even had U.S. military threat been credible, the "this deal or war"
formulation would still have been false; indeed, it would have disproved itself.
The United States did not and does not desire a conflict with Iran, but retains
the capacity to prosecute one if necessary. By contrast, the Iranian regime
cannot afford a military clash with the United States. If Iranian leaders felt
that the United States would respond militarily to certain nuclear advances (or
other actions), they most likely would be deterred from taking those actions.
the final phase of the nuclear talks, the United States sacrificed its leverage
by forsaking deterrence. In any negotiation, each party must compare the deal on
offer with the likely alternatives. By denigrating or dismissing the
alternatives to a negotiated accord -- whether strengthened sanctions or
military action -- Western negotiators allowed Iran to hold out for a better
deal. Despite U.S. assertions that officials were ready to walk away from the
negotiating table, in reality American rhetoric suggested that we had nowhere to
might all now be primarily a matter of historical interest were it not for the
fact that deterrence will continue to play a vital role in enforcing or
improving the nuclear accord in the coming years. States adhere to treaties not
because they harbor a sense of fairness or deference to legal authority, but
because they keenly appreciate their national interests. These commitments are
kept out of concern for the consequences of other courses of action rather than
mere fealty to the text. In this sense, treaties tend not to shape reality but
codify it -- states often would take the actions pledged in a treaty even in its
absence. In such cases, what treaties usefully provide is enhanced exchange of
information. Rather than each side simply guessing about whether the other is
taking a particular action, treaties provide a mechanism for dialogue and
verification to provide greater assurance, thereby preventing misunderstandings.
Iran must continue to believe it remains in its interest to keep its commitments
as the nuclear deal is implemented. For this to be the case, the consequences of
violating the deal must be serious and credible. These should include renewed
sanctions, which are certainly preferable to military action if they can be made
effective. But sanctions work only with the cooperation of other states,
including some (like Russia or China) that are unlikely to be sympathetic to
U.S. concerns regarding Iranian behavior. Even with broad international support,
the pressure of sanctions may be insufficient or take effect too slowly to deter
Iran in a scenario where it is determined to gain nuclear weapons.
this reason, the United States must retain and project a credible military
option in the event of Iranian violations. This will not only deter Iran, but
will also provide a powerful incentive to other states to urge Iran to keep its
commitments. In the event of an Iranian failure to comply with the deal, a
credible U.S. military option will also help convince other states to join the
United States in re-imposing sanctions, even if only to avert an American
military action against Iran that would be damaging to their interests.
In the wake of the nuclear
accord, exercising our military option will become more difficult for reasons
outlined by Michael Eisenstadt (
the military option cannot be merely rhetorical, buttressed only by the rote
utterances of U.S. officials. Instead, our military planning will need to be
more flexible and responsive to Iranian countermeasures, and we will need to
have options ready short of full-scale war to respond to Iranian violations of
its nuclear commitments or other provocations. For example, better options are
needed to disrupt and counter Iranian support for proxy groups, to respond to
Iranian threats against shipping in the Strait of Hormuz witnessed in recent
months, and to counter the threat posed by Iranian missiles. Allies should be
integrated into such efforts, not to absolve the United States of
responsibility, but to revive our regional partnerships, bolster allies'
security, and add to our own capacity.
developing these options would provide the president with flexible tools to
deter and counter Iran. More importantly, preparing these tools would serve to
signal the seriousness of our intent and shape the calculations of both Iran and
other states to avert the very exigencies they are designed to counter.