June 6, 2006
Why We Can't Deter Iran (because we aren't)By LTC Joseph C. Myers
The Iranian nuclear program crisis is currently presenting the greatest challenge to the national security strategy of the Bush Administration. Strategists, diplomats and policy makers are all hard at work trying to craft a course of action and an international coalition that will dissuade and/or prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Once Iran has the warheads, though, they will be able to range most of Europe and in short order the United States. This development will likely be a tipping point for others like Brazil to pursue its own nuclear deterrent capability. Their cryptic language and secretiveness with their own nuclear technology has already raised attention.
The President has been very clear with dissuasive language. In an O'Reilly Factor interview the exchange went like this:
The National Security Strategy (NSS) of the United States is likewise very clear. Twice it states that 'the gravest danger to the Nation [and freedom] lies at the crossroads of radicalism and [nuclear] technology.' Certainly Iran is a state sponsor of terror, a country that is directly liked to acts of terror and war against the United States and clearly meets that 'gravest' threat formulation.
Diplomacy is our first option. Hopefully the UN will not once again demonstrate its irresoluteness, as it did with its Iraq resolutions to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program. Military options, as President Bush stated above, remain on the table, and the US has greatly improved its Global Strike capabilities via US Strategic Command. Others have suggested a strong united international coalition against Iran might work to energize domestic Iranian opposition to forestall this eventuality, but that strong unity is not yet materializing.
Of course one key reason the unity is not materializing is China, part of the 'coalition,' a country that not only is not an honest broker but is the largest unacknowledged center of gravity for nuclear proliferation in the world. Whether facilitating North Korea and Pakistan's nuclear cooperation, selling nuclear capable missiles to Saudi Arabia or actively supporting Iran's nuclear programs—China has its own geostrategic motivations. That is to contain the US through global proxies.
Russia on the other hand must be recklessly corrupt: challenged by its own Islamist threats while dallying with exporting nuclear technology to pan—Islamist Iran for profit is rational only in the shortest term. Consequently, as of now, the diplomatic process has moved away from the Security Council with many countries painlessly acknowledging Iran's 'right to peaceful nuclear power' which of course is not the issue. Russian and China have been firm that force is not an option to resolve the crisis under any scenario. Ultimately, when all is said and done, do not expect them to be of help here.
So absent military action and the West's acquiescence to a nuclear armed Iran, can Iran be deterred from proliferating nuclear weapons and associated technology? Can we be assured they won't pass one to a proxy?
The answer is no, at least as current US strategies are crafted. While the Department of Defense has produced a coherent and robust set of documents based on the capstone document of the 2002 NSS there is one thread, one concept, one policy statement in the national strategy that is missing that much of these documents should provide clarity to.
What is missing is a clear statement from the United States of its counter—proliferation deterrence policy.
To date, all of the Bush strategy statements really fail to warn others, whether they are friend or foe, from proliferating WMD technologies to second or third parties that may result in a catastrophic event on U.S. soil. A nuclear detonation in a major U.S. city would have incalculable, far—ranging global consequences beyond the mere physical destruction here at home; we got a taste of it with Hurricane Katrina. The Bush Administration acknowledges we are vulnerable to WMD threats by stating
True—and we will be even less successful without an articulated counter—proliferation deterrence policy.
While a preemptive policy is good under circumstances of a recognized threat, it cannot help after an event. What is needed is a new and updated statement of U.S nuclear deterrence that is consonant with a world of increasing WMD proliferation and rising transnational actors. This policy must first warn, and then address what the U.S. response might entail in the event that a catastrophic WMD attack occurs on U.S. soil as a result of an asymmetric, terrorist strike.
Effective deterrence and an effective statement of deterrence require not only clearly implying consequences if deterrence fails, but who the policy is attempting to deter. Proliferating countries, networks and the terrorist organizations must be put on notice and at clear risk.
Proliferation of WMD is not happening in a vacuum, magically or in isolation to proliferating states. It is happening because states like China, Pakistan and North Korea facilitate it, and because of rogue scientific networks, citizens and entities — corporate or otherwise —like AQ Khan have facilitated it.
All of the recent strategic documents, whether the National Defense Strategy, National Military Strategy or the National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism articulate DoD approaches, joint concepts and preparations across these 'three pillars': non—proliferation, counter—proliferation and consequence management. Yet these documents principally focus on what the Armed Forces must do as part of an interagency team to be prepared to act within those three —areas. But that cannot be the only answer.
A counter—proliferation deterrence policy puts focus as well on what other countries must do and what terrorist organizations might fear.
Classical U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy holds that use of WMD against the United States will invite an unacceptable and punishing response through the full range of our capabilities, up to and including our own use of nuclear weapons. Nothing in the Bush strategy fundamentally changes U.S. classical deterrence strategy regarding an attack with WMD from another country. Use WMD against America and you risk overwhelming and unacceptable levels of responsive damage.
Few would argue that U.S. cannot deter states from directly attacking the United States. What we don't know and what remains unanswered is the question of whether the U.S. can deter states from proliferating WMD weapons or technologies to third party groups or entities like al—Qaida or Hezbollah—terrorists who theoretically cannot be deterred or contained and which could employ these weapons clandestinely on behalf of unattributed states.
A counter—proliferation deterrence policy statement roughly formulated should say in effect:
To be sure,
The term 'strategically culpable' is designed to be 'strategically ambiguous.'
It is not an emphatic statement of how the U.S. will respond under a set of circumstances against a set of suspected countries, networks or individuals. It might mean, however, that rogue scientific networks or individual proliferators, military, civilian, or diplomatic around the world with representatives in their corporate offices could receive a cruise missile strike or single bullet as fast as any military industrial, WMD research or key economic target is destroyed.
The price of acquiescence to a nuclear armed Iran and North Korea is to place hostile states, partners, allies or putative allies on notice to aggressively monitor the activities of their governmental or private firms, citizens and agents. The chain of proliferators must police their own, because the benefits, costs and risks of their WMD programs will have just changed.
The US will likely never fully know how proliferators and threats collaborate—but they do. They know their relationships and actions. So this is not an intelligence driven policy—but one that turns the table. It is a policy that leverages the unknown about America's response against their clandestine activities.
In any event, a tough counterproliferation strategy requires a Presidential decision to actively target individual rogue proliferators as vital threats to the security of the United States to be eliminated. A nuclear armed Iran also must mean Hezbollah is defeated, disrupted, deported, and in major cases dead.
Our response will not be Congressional commissions, far flung FBI forensic investigations, or mournful speeches. A mushroom cloud in the US will be a 'triggering event.' As long as everyone understands that at the table, let Iran and North Korea have their nuclear weapons.
LTC Joseph C. Myers is the Senior Army Advisor to the Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB. A graduate of the US Military Academy he holds an MA from Tulane University. LTC Myers was a 2003 Senior Army Fellow at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.