Strategy Doesn’t End with a Limited Strike

Thomas A. Drohan, Ph.D.

The Trump administration’s apparently contradictory actions this week toward Iran are not contradictory if we look at cooperation and confrontation as a strategy of combined effects. That is, we need to consider the full range of effects created by our activities, not just those bought or wrought by a simplistic “on-off” switch of cooperation or confrontation. So what’s happening?

This week the White House: (a) extended waivers for foreign companies to assist Iran in developing civilian nuclear power; and (b) announced sanctioning Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (presumably because he refused calls for dialogue). What happens when we regard this dual approach as more than a “maximum pressure” of coercion?

First, we can look at two tactics of strategy — cooperative waivers and confrontational sanctions — as measures that intend to persuade and coerce Iran into negotiating an end to noxious behavior such as missile intimidation, proxy terrorism, and threats to use nuclear weapons. Either tactic by itself is probably doomed to fail. That is, cooperative assistance without sanctions is unlikely to move ideology-driven clerics who orchestrate Iran’s foreign policy. Confrontational sanctions are unlikely to leverage relative reformists in the government trying to eke out room for a somewhat rational strategy.

Now let’s consider two more Trump administration tactics that help form a convincing strategy—deterrence and defense. First, we assume that credible forces deployed to the Arabian Gulf intend to deter Iranian misjudgments. Second, we assume that these forces also provide an enhanced capability to defend partners and allies at the same time.

Therefore any kinetic strike on Iran, including cyber, could be judged in the context of this quadruple effect: persuasion; coercion; deterrence; and defense.

The combined effect described above is a dynamic mix of cooperation and confrontation. Economic assistance for civilian nuclear power, targeted economic sanctions, and a military defensive capability with offensive power to deter, all have the potential to work together. Whatever activities are being contemplated, the synergy of these four tactics needs to be well considered.

In this respect, there is no such thing as a limited strike.

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