Deterrence and Iran

It is a truism the military strength of a nation should serve rather than dictate its foreign policy. It is another truism that military strategy should exploit advances in military technology and not be dictated by them. Both axioms however express aspiration rather than reality; they are ideals not standard operational procedures. The rule of fact is that the military strength of which a state can dispose broadly determines the nature and scope of its foreign policy, indeed, whether it has any foreign policy, properly speaking, or not.

It is only among states possessing the strength to threaten or coerce their neighbors that foreign policy becomes important. The primary source of military power, since the dawn of history, has most probably been a spiritual or psychological quality which is shared in some degree by all warrior peoples. It is a drive, a social compulsion, to promote or at least hope to defend their social values against all human opponents.

We may hope that the progress of mankind has put such primitive drives aside, but the evidence is against us. Iranian intentions are beyond dispute as an aberration based upon ideology and religion. We know, too, that they do so by seizing every opportunity afforded them by military technology. Hell has no fury should Iran attain nuclear capability coupled with its intentions.

The very word “strategy” implies war, and of course the function of military strategy in wartime is widely understood and accepted. Peacetime military strategy is, however, quite another kind of thing suggesting as it does a decision regarding the employment of military forces or perhaps many decisions consistent with a general plan. It seems to imply an aggressive or at least an offensive purpose for the military forces we maintain in peacetime.

The difficulty appears to have been that while the E3/EU3+3 (P5+1) agreement with Iran could be readily comprehended as a straightforward, almost automatic, reactive response to an unambiguous Iranian assault upon the region and the peace of the world, the formula suggested by Israel is a plan of calculated positive action. This means that responsibility for the decision to act rests upon the shoulders of the E3/EU3+3 (P5+1) rather than upon the offender’s – Iran.

Consequently the policy of deterrence against Iran comes to be thought of in the same terms that win popular approval of the same philosophy. It is taken as the expression of a simple determination to act automatically and re-actively to a self-evident act of aggression. It is, in short, not thought of as a strategy, suggesting that the employment of forces in peacetime would not be governed by the outcome of a deliberate calculation of the pros and cons, and by a decision, but as a convenient tag for an inevitable response to an act of evil men – The Ayatollahs.

The fact of the matter is that the pros and cons of alternative military actions do have to be examined and calculated every time there is an actual or imminent threat of military action by the other side that we regard as hostile. Nor is this the whole of it, because not infrequently the question of military action we might or perhaps ought to take arises either in the absence of military moves by our adversaries or at least when the military character of the threat is anything but clear.

Oddly enough, evidence for this common understanding of the role of our forces can be drawn from essentially contradictory though widespread attitudes towards official expressions regarding the role of our forces in recent years. On “the one hand, the avowed purpose” of the Israel Defence Forces so frequently- and so forcefully proclaimed by its able and forthright commanders, is to keep the peace by threatening offenders against the peace with utter destruction has met with general acceptance and approval. On the other hand the formula of “massive retaliation” to the Iranian nuclear threat has been met with immediate and widespread unfavourable reaction.

Military rivalry between states, in the absence of inherent forces of balance in the relationship, leads to an endless search for the military advantage. The nature of this advantage may be variously conceived. It may, as is emphasized, be either qualitative or quantitative. It may be measured in forces or arms of superior quality, or in forces that are superior only in numbers. But the advantage may also rest upon factors more basic than the quality and numbers of the ready forces, though the end product will of course be a superior military capability or greater military security to the side which enjoys the advantage. Failure to deter Iranian nuclear intentions not just disarm its capability will lead to such rivalry and an endless quest by Iran for advantage and superiority that cannot be dissuaded.

Dr. Glen Segell, FRGS, is Research Fellow at The Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv, Senior Researcher for the Ariel Research Center for Defense and Communication, Editor of the London Security Policy Study and Research Director of Securitatem Vigalate.

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.
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