An Iranian navy boat sprays water to extinguish a fire on an oil tanker in the sea of Oman, Thursday, June 13, 2019.

An Iranian navy boat sprays water to extinguish a fire on an oil tanker in the sea of Oman, Thursday, June 13, 2019. AP Photo/Tasnim News Agency

Deterrence Is Failing — Partly Because Iran Has No Idea What the US Really Wants

Successful deterrence requires clear delineation of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. That needs to start, pronto.

Iran is accelerating its enrichment of uranium, the IAEA says. Iran attacked four tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, the Trump administration says. If all this is true — Tehran has hinted at the first, though it strenuously denies the second, and there are doubters in world capitals and at home — then U.S. policymakers need to conduct an honest assessment of where and why U.S. policies have failed to deter Iranian actions.

As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius summarizes the mounting tensions, “Trump’s maximum pressure campaign has collided head on with [Iranian Supreme Leader] Khamenei’s maximum resistance.” 

Leaders in Washington and Tehran alike have miscalculated. The Trump administration applied devastating economic pressure on Iran without providing leaders in Tehran with a clear roadmap for how to escape punishment. This put Iran in the penalty box without evident prospect for rehabilitation. As Europe, Russia, and China failed to deliver any meaningful economic relief to Iran, and as the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA, solidified the position of hardliners in Tehran, it was virtually inevitable that Iran would strike back in order to demonstrate its ability to inflict pain on opponents. 

Related: US Blames Tanker Attacks On Iran; CENTCOM Releases Surveillance Video

Related: Trump’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ Won’t Make Iran Yield

Related: Former Defense Secretary Ash Carter Talks Iran, China, and Trump’s Late-Night Tweets

Yet Iranian leaders have badly miscalculated as well, by threatening to stop complying with at least some provisions of the JCPOA. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have recently verified that Iran is increasing its production of nuclear fuel and Iranian President Rouhani has pledged that the next step will be to increase the level of enrichment above allowable levels. These steps are only likely to increase Iran’s diplomatic isolation and will push even reluctant U.S. allies to back whatever retaliatory action might be taken by the United States. Meanwhile repeated threats by Iranian leaders to close the Strait of Hormuz to international traffic only bolster the public case for Iran’s culpability in the recent attacks on tankers. 

In the immediate term, the central question that should occupy U.S. policymakers in Washington is how to restore deterrence in the wake of these Iranian attacks. As options are considered, U.S. decision-makers would be well advised to review some of the enduring insights from the vast academic literature on the topic. 

At base, deterrence policy is developed to change the decision-making calculus of an opponent. As such it is a game of perception management and clear communication. Successful deterrence requires clear delineation of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. It requires that the opponent understand that unacceptable behavior will be met with a credible punishment whose costs will outweigh any potential benefit to be gained. Finally, prospects for successful deterrence are improved when threats of punishment are combined with positive incentives to alter the opponent’s unacceptable behavior.

Recent events offer clear evidence that U.S. deterrence has failed to sufficiently alter Tehran’s calculus as it weighs its options in responding to the devastating economic impact of U.S. sanctions. Restoring deterrence will require changes to U.S. policies.

The first, most obvious, and most emotionally satisfying step will be to impose punishment on those responsible for the tanker attacks. U.S. military spokesmen say a video released on Thursday identifies the IRGC as responsible. President Trump’s designation of the IRGC as a terrorist entity in May provides a ready-made mechanism for imposing additional financial and economic penalties on this force. 

However, Iran’s unprovoked attack on international shipping in the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz will require a more robust response if deterrence is to be restored. An effective response is almost certain to include U.S. military strikes of one extent or another. The challenge for U.S. policymakers will be to design military strikes that are sufficiently strong to deter future Iranian attacks without provoking escalatory Iranian retaliation that spins out of control and triggers a broader regional war. Such a balancing act will require detailed intelligence, precise military planning, and sophisticated public and private diplomacy. 

U.S. intelligence will need to identify those particular IRGC units, individuals, and leaders directly responsible for the attacks on the tankers. U.S. military strikes should explicitly target those facilities with the aim of both signaling resolve and diminishing the IRGC’s ability to conduct future attacks. U.S. diplomats should both privately and publicly signal that the U.S. will not tolerate future actions of this sort. American officials will simultaneously need to convince leaders in Tehran that the U.S. is not seeking a broader confrontation with Iran. A forceful, targeted, and proportional U.S. military response could reassure U.S. regional allies of American defense commitments while giving leaders in Tehran every incentive to avoid further escalation.

Quietly through private diplomatic channels such as Swiss intermediaries, U.S. leaders will also need to provide decision-makers in Tehran an off-ramp to avoid further escalation and present a concrete step-by-step plan for getting back to the negotiating table as President Trump and other senior officials have said is their ultimate goal. 

The first step in doing so will be to clarify U.S. redlines for objectionable Iranian behavior. Unfortunately, the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the meticulously negotiated and internationally sanctioned JCPOA has primarily served to muddy the waters around Iranian nuclear enrichment. U.S. policymakers should clearly explain what specific Iranian actions could hasten the development of a nuclear weapon and so draw U.S. military strikes. 

The next step should be prioritizing and clarifying the 12 demands that U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo laid on Iran in his May 2018 “New Iran Strategy” speech. These demands amount to a requirement that Iran cease enrichment of uranium, provide anytime-anywhere access to Iranian civilian and military facilities, halt development of ballistic missiles, end support to its vast array of Shi’a militia groups deployed in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, and stop all further unspecified “threatening behavior.” Such a broad and all-encompassing list of requirements cannot possibly help leaders in Tehran  accurately weigh the costs and benefits of compliance. In fact, the expansive nature of these demands virtually guarantees that Iran will remain in violation regardless of any self-imposed restraints on its behavior short of capitulation. It seems highly unlikely that Pompeo or his deputies might walk back these overreaching U.S. demands in public, a private exchange that establishes clear priorities for changes in Iran’s behavior is critical to adjusting calculations in Tehran.

Finally, U.S. policymakers will have to provide a more concrete roadmap for getting back to negotiations. President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA despite Iranian compliance has severely damaged the credibility of any public expressions of a desire for a return to negotiations. In the immediate wake of Iran’s attacks and a likely forthcoming U.S. military response, the immediate challenge will be to avoid uncontrolled escalation toward intensified and expanded conflict. However, identifying small steps that could be taken by Iran that would be quickly rewarded with a comparably small “reward” by the United States holds the potential to create positive momentum toward reduced tensions. If successful, a series of these small confidence-building steps could provide a sufficient foundation and incentives for both sides to return to the negotiating table and avoid a broader conflict that both sides say they want to avoid.