Threat of U.S. Strike is Vital to Deterring Iran
Discouraging an Israeli strike on Iran undermines U.S. efforts
March 5, 2012
The credible threat of military force is essential to achieving the U.S. objective of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons capability. This threat is vital to affecting the Iranian regime's calculus. Absent such a threat, the regime may believe that persevering against sanctions will result in American acquiescence to an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. Conversely, having staked so much on resisting external pressure, Iran's leaders likely view succumbing to sanctions as highly unpalatable.
With a credible threat of force in place, however, this calculation changes—dismissing sanctions leads not to Western acquiescence, but to a military strike. Yielding to pressure and taking up the international offer of negotiations, however undesirable to the regime, becomes the route to avert a confrontation which could threaten the regime's survival.
For this reason, publicly downplaying or discouraging a strike—whether by the United States or Israel—undermines U.S. efforts. This strategic reality was recognized by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey in a Jan. 8, 2012, interview. When asked by Bob Schieffer of CBS to discuss the difficulty of a military strike on Iran, Dempsey demurred, saying, "I'd rather not discuss the degree of difficulty and in any way encourage them to read anything into that." Pressed by Schieffer as to whether the United States had the capability to destroy Iran's nuclear weapons capability, Dempsey responded, "I absolutely want them to believe that that's the case."
Making Iran believe it, however, requires disciplined, consistent, words and actions which convey American seriousness. Instead, U.S. officials have been sending mixed messages, and in public have appeared almost as worried about Israel as they are about Iran. The message Iran is likely to take from this is not that "all options are on the table," as the president asserted in his most recent State of the Union address, but that the United States is deeply conflicted about the military option and determined to rein in Israel. These perceptions are more likely to encourage Iranian nuclear ambitions than deter them.
Public messages aside, U.S. officials may privately believe that if military action against Iran is ultimately necessary it is better that the United States—with our superior capabilities and broader international support—conduct the strike. Here too, U.S. credibility is critical—it is not just Iran that must believe we are serious in our willingness to use military force, but Israel as well.