Memo to the Secretary
What follows is a thought experiment. We have no reason to believe it bears any connection to existing analysis or advice. –Eds.
Office of Defense Strategic Analysis, OSD-P
August 20, 2012
MEMORANDUM FOR THE SECRETARY OF DEFENSE
FROM: NEA Scenarios Team
SUBJECT: Iran Strategy: Toward the Edge of the Waterfall
The default setting of our policy remains an ultimatum regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and a claimed willingness to escalate. If we keep moving up the sanctions ladder, eventually we will confront the “what next” question. Yet for a number of reasons, we may well get to that brink to find that it is not a brink at all—merely a bridge to hesitation.
Our concern is that within weeks or months the President will receive a memorandum or briefing that says some version of the following.
- Iran is now X weeks from possession of sufficient weapons-grade fissile material to assemble at least one operational weapon.
- Israel is highly likely to take military action to forestall this threshold.
- Any military strike would set back the Iranian program but not end it. Hence we will face this same question, this same moment, in another two years, or three.
- The Iranian regime has reasons to welcome a confrontation or even war, from playing to their anti-American ideology to rallying their people to justifying the nuclear program.
- Any attack could unleash a hornet’s nest of potential escalation—chaos in oil markets, attacks on U.S. and allied naval assets, retaliation against Gulf states, proxy attacks on Israel.
- Striking without international legitimacy—i.e., taking it to the U.N.—would violate this administration’s commitment to international norms. Once there, China, Russia, and a number of European states would almost certainly line up against a strike. International legitimacy and decisive military action may be mutually exclusive.
- Domestically, we’re not prepared for this step. Most Americans don’t understand the issue or the threat and after a decade of foreign wars want no part of a new one.
- Frankly, we have no idea about the “day after.” The strikes happen, escalation begins—and then what? We’d have no real idea. We’d be figuring it out as we went along.
Such a briefing would pose the President with a painful dilemma: Military strikes that promise calamity and political disaster, at home and abroad; or a strategically damaging retreat, humiliated and beaten.
There is an alternative: Containment, on the Cold War model. As laid our by Kennan and others, its core thesis dealt not with military capabilities but the relative strengths of societies, ideologies, and systems: Ours would last, theirs would not. The long game worked to our advantage and their ruin. Impatience was the cardinal strategic mistake. The foundational themes identified the nature of the regime, not nuclear weapons, as the core problem; the challenge was to manage the situation without calamity, not push it toward a premature, and dangerous, resolution. In its specifics, an updated version of this strategy could include:
- Admit that Iran will get some nuclear weapons capacity, but put it in a box, striking a deal short of weaponization and making powerful threats to prevent the intolerable Iranian activities—transferring nuclear material to third parties, for example, or outright nuclear use.
- Take accompanying steps—added arms sales, renewals of promises to friends, stepped-up covert actions—to shore up the credibility of regional deterrence.
- Yet because we need our global responsibilities to ease, not proliferate, in coming years, we can’t “Americanize” the response; so push regional states to think about their own multilateral responses to the added Iranian confidence and assertiveness likely to arrive with even partial nuclear capacity. Help catalyze and coordinate this response.
- Taken together, our actions and those of regional players would represent the modern version of Kennan’s proposal, as he wrote in the “X” article, for a strategy of “unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon he interests of a peaceful and stable world.”
- Avoid any mention of a “regime change” policy, but continue and expand efforts to generate cracks in the Iranian regime, to bring rays of openness and change to Iranian society. These would be enabled by eased sanctions attendant to the deal on nuclear possession status; more investment, travel, and contacts would serve our interests in furthering change.
- Try to convince Israel that this approach works for them, too. If they can’t see it that way and take precipitous action, that’s their decision. Our strategy must be our own.
In the wake of the Arab Spring and the tentative protests inside Iran, this tightly wound, largely unpopular regime’s life expectancy would seem to be on the wane. Iran isn’t an empire in the same way as was the USSR, but it is as domestically creaky and fragile, and it has some of the same international ambitions, clients, and expenses. It is also increasingly forced to justify itself in a far more interconnected world than Moscow ever saw.
The proposal also relies on a core element of Iran’s strategic culture: Its pragmatism and restraint. Tehran tends to work quietly, indirectly, through covert and proxy means, by diplomatic coercion rather than direct military aggression. Unless the possession of nuclear weapons utterly overturned its modus operandi—and this is a risk, but a smaller one than war—banking on living with a nuclear Iran is no greater danger than living with a nuclear Soviet Union circa 1950. And again, the choice is only to live with this regime for a time, not forever.
The strategy is not without its risks. Some worry that the idea of living with a nuclear Iran is naïve: It could be more aggressive; regional states might cower in its burgeoning shadow; once it has crossed one red line, there’s no reason to believe it will respect new ones. No option is without hazards and we believe a strong argument can be made that the containment option offers better opportunities to mitigate the range of risks facing US policy.
But the main flaw in critiques of containment is this: They presume an overly predictable model of decision making. By the time we reach the moment of choice, the variables outlined above (and others) will have made the outcome impossible to predict. The President may well decide he agrees with the skeptics of containment—only to refuse a strike for reasons of international legitimacy and domestic politics. We have only one reasonably option left to us that is decisive, sustains US credibility, and by making a clear break from the current course, sidesteps that choice moment. That is a robust strategy of containment.
This strategy could be quickly assembled in an NSC planning document and its underlying themes and arguments rolled out in a linked series of official speeches in coming weeks. This would quickly get us out from under the risk of a “dilemma choice moment” as sketched out above and build the foundation for a lasting, flexible strategy that could serve U.S. interests.