Four years ago, Vice President Cheney foretold what would happen if Saddam Hussein achieved unconventional-weapons capability: The Iraqi dictator "could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten America's friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail."
Cheney was prophetic, but about the wrong country. Iran is well on its way to succeeding where Saddam failed. Already, even without nuclear weapons, it has emerged as the major regional power in the Middle East. Yes, nukes matter, and preventing Iran from getting them is important. But stymieing Iran's nuclear program would not stymie Iran. Tehran has already discovered a dangerous gap in America's defenses and is exploiting and widening it by the day.
To understand that gap, recall the strategic position of the United States in the 1950s. The U.S. relied on its nuclear superiority and the threat of "massive retaliation," as the catchphrase went, to keep the Soviet Union in line. The Soviets, however, found ample room to maneuver aggressively below the nuclear threshold by supporting insurgencies and igniting brushfire wars. By the late 1950s, U.S. strategists were calling for a new approach. The Kennedy administration supplied one, in the form of its "flexible response" doctrine.
In his 1962 State of the Union address, President Kennedy declared, "We have rejected any all-or-nothing posture which would leave no choice but inglorious retreat or unlimited retaliation." The administration set out to develop a battery of middle-range responses to middle-range provocations. The arsenal included counterinsurgency capacity, a buildup of conventional forces and intermediate nuclear forces, and new foreign-aid and public-relations programs (the Peace Corps, for instance).
Today, the United States enjoys overwhelming conventional superiority over Iran, a fact that Iran knows well and respects. But American strategists need to assume that even a limited conventional strike on Iran would bring an Iranian response, leading to escalation that might destabilize the region, break apart the Western alliance, and strengthen the mullahs' prestige and power. Iran knows that, too.
Like Saddam, Iran wants regional pre-eminence. "Its goal is to become the leading power in the Persian Gulf, certainly, but it also has larger aspirations in the Middle East," says Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of a forthcoming book, Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic. With Iraq weak and the United States tied down there, Takeyh says, Iran "sees itself as having an opportunity to gain the mantle of regional leadership."
Saddam was foolish enough to contest U.S. conventional power. Iran is shrewder. Pursuing a classic asymmetrical strategy, it has organized a regional network of allies that can strike at will against American interests and threaten to destabilize the region—but always at a deniable distance from Tehran. In a genuine strategic innovation, the mullahs are seeking regional domination by projecting unconventional power alone.
When the West tried to tighten a noose around Iran's nuclear program, Hezbollah attacked Israel. Iran's exact role remains unclear, but the resulting turmoil, reports The Washington Post, made many United Nations Security Council members "wary of ratcheting up pressure on Iran ... if it will mean further confrontation in the region." Translation: Message received. Hezbollah, a Shiite Islamist militia, is not quite an Iranian cat's-paw, but it is the next best thing. Iran originally organized it and today finances and arms it. Writing recently in the New York Daily News, David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, notes that Iran has given Hezbollah "at least $100 million annually, plus an estimated 11,000 missiles."
In Iraq, Iran's allies are positioned to strike American interests directly. Iran is a longtime patron of an important Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and has trained SCIRI's militia, the Badr Brigade. It has also drawn closer to the "Mahdi Army," another Shiite militia. The Mahdi Army leader, Moktada al-Sadr, sent thousands of followers into the streets of Baghdad to support Hezbollah, and (according to Time magazine) warned "that his forces would retaliate if Iran came under attack from the U.S. or Israel." The United States believes that Iran has armed Iraq's Shiites and that it recently urged them to intensify their attacks on U.S.-led forces in order to support Hezbollah's campaign against Israel.
Also increasingly under Iran's influence (although still quite independent) is Hamas, the radical Sunni Islamist organization that dominates the Palestinian government. Iran announced $50 million in aid to Hamas in April, not long after Hamas's senior political leader paid a visit to Tehran. Israel says that Hezbollah is training Hamas members.
Nuclear weapons would take the threat of a direct U.S. attack off the table, which is why Tehran wants them. Even without nuclear weapons, however, Iran's unconventional capabilities are already projecting unbalanced Iranian power throughout the Middle East, thus deterring the United States and intimidating the region. "We don't have very good unconventional capabilities against them," says Ken Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America. "Our great threat is the threat of escalating to conventional military operations. They understand there's a threshold, but it means that as long as they stay below that threshold, we haven't got much of a response."
That was essentially the dilemma of the late 1950s, and the solution is much the same today. Against Iran, developing flexible-response capability implies recognizing three facts. First, Iran has positioned itself as a regional power and must be dealt with as such. That will mean talking to Iran instead of at it, negotiating rather than demanding. Second, U.S. conventional superiority does not and will not sufficiently deter Iran, whether or not Iran is nuclear.
Third, the United States urgently needs instruments that can hurt Tehran short of launching a major war. Those include propaganda and aid campaigns, support for the mullahs' domestic political opponents, and economic pressure. All are easier said than done, but the cumulative effect even of flawed efforts can be significant, as the Soviets learned.
In particular, Iran's fragile and unbalanced economy depends on oil exports. Today's tight oil markets allow Iran to use oil as a weapon, but the leverage, argues Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings senior fellow, could be reversed if some slack were introduced in the market. To be in a position to threaten Tehran with an oil embargo—which would hurt Iran even if not all countries participated—"all we would need is about 5 million barrels a day of spare pumping capacity, which is about 5 to 6 percent of the world total." That would take some time but is do-able with help from, for example, biofuels, O'Hanlon says.
Most controversial, but possibly most important, would be a concerted effort to develop unconventional military capabilities, including covert operations, counterinsurgent efforts, and—yes—dirty tricks. Published accounts by Pollack and others tell of a 1997 intelligence operation (details remain classified) with which the United States hit back after Iran sponsored a terrorist attack on American forces in Saudi Arabia. Stung, Iran backed off. "I think we ought to make a much bigger effort to do this," says Pollack, adding, however, that we also "ought to be realistic about what we can accomplish."
The Bush administration is already creeping in some of those directions. It has announced its willingness to negotiate the nuclear issue directly with Iran, albeit under conditions that Iran has not met. In February, the administration announced an $85 million effort to support Iranian dissidents and democracy advocates. It has announced a modest initiative to reduce oil dependence. The administration is unlikely to talk about covert and proxy operations against Iran, but one would be "surprised and disappointed," as Ashton Carter, a former assistant secretary of Defense, told The Atlantic Monthly, if there weren't any.
Those measures are down payments on what will need to become, under Bush or (more likely) his successor, a change not just in tactics but in strategy. What JFK said 44 years ago is equally pertinent to the Iranian challenge today: A choice between inglorious retreat or unlimited retaliation is no real choice at all.