U.S. STRATEGY AND ADDED SANCTIONS ON IRAN: THE ROLE OF THE ADMINISTRATION AND CONGRESS IN ‘GOOD COP, BAD COP.’
By Anthony H. Cordesman
16 Jan 14. The proper handling of new legislation to impose added sanctions on Iran can be a useful tool in serving U.S. strategic interests. The differences between the United States and Iran are not the result of failures in communication, mutual misunderstanding, or the legacy of historical mistakes. They are the result of major strategic differences and Iranian actions that directly challenge U.S. and allied strategic interests.
Iran’s Strategic Challenges to the U.S. and its Partners and Allies
The nuclear challenge is only one of many challenges; and they go far beyond the risk of crossing the nuclear threshold and the near- to mid-term threat any Iranian actions can pose to mature nuclear powers, such as Israel. While Iranian leaders may well be divided about the risks and costs of ‘going nuclear,’ Iran has good reasons to pursue nuclear forces as a means of deterring U.S. air and seapower, of compensating for its aging and low-grade conventional forces and weapons, and of intimidating its Arab Gulf neighbors.
If Iran seeks power and influence, it will not seek nuclear weapons for prestige or because of Israel. In fact, at least some of Iran’s hostility towards Israel is clearly a smokescreen to justify its efforts to offset U.S. conventional military power in the Gulf and gain a strategic edge over its Arab neighbors without openly challenging either.
Iran cannot do this with one or two bombs in the basement – or the threat of untested nuclear weapons. It needs nuclear armed aircraft and missiles with enough nuclear weapons and enough survivability to act as both credible threat and deterrent – although it can compensate in part by keeping its capabilities as ambiguous as possible and relying on strategies like launch on warning or launch under attack.
There is no way to determine Iran’s full intentions or determine how different Iranian factions view nuclear weapons with any certainty.
Iran’s strategic options are, however, much easier to assess. If Iran can actually deploy meaningful nuclear forces, they can play a critical role in strengthening four other critical strategic challenges that Iran can then leverage against the United States and its regional partners and allies: * The first such strategic challenge is the power vacuum the U.S. invasion of Iraq created in 2003 by largely destroying Iraq’s conventional forces and ability to deter and defend against Iran, coupled to the fact that the Maliki government in Iraq has become progressively more a Shi’ite sectarian government and one under substantial Iranian influence. There are serious limits to this Iranian conventional threat and leverage. So long as the United States maintains major air and naval capabilities in the Gulf and Iran’s conventional forces remain weak, the United States can both aid Iraq and attack targets in Iran.
Any form of Iranian nuclear threat is dangerous, but as North Korean, Indian, and Pakistani tests have shown, it takes actual testing of a fissile device to create a credible weapon. Even then, a token mix of possible, unproved bombs in the basement is no deterrent to the kind of nuclear forces Israel possesses. Nor can it deter the mix of stealth and other precision strike conventional systems U.S. and key Arab Gulf air forces possess, or U.S. capabilities to provide regional allies with the kind of extended nuclear deterrence it once provided to its NATO allies and Secretary Clinton offered our allies in the region.
In contrast, if Iran can actually and credibly arm a significant number of its forces with nuclear weapons, any talk of preventive strikes becomes totally hollow, and while the risk of Iran actually using a nuclear weapon will still be limited, it is far from clear that any nation will take that risk if they can possibly avoid it.
* The second is the steady b