By Riad Kahwaji
The failed U.S. policy in dealing with Iran in general, and its nuclear policy in particular, has eroded Washington’s deterrence posture to a level that not only Tehran does not seem to care about threats by American officials, it is now daring the world’s main super power to a fight. The policy of setting “red lines” to Tehran has been a huge failure. Ever since the political showdown started between the two sides in 2004 over Iran’s nuclear program, the United States has set several “red lines” that were all crossed by Iran, and Washington’s response has been limited to pushing four United Nations Security Council Resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran. The international sanctions have thus far failed to curb Iran’s nuclear program.
“We have crossed all the red lines and the U.S. did not do anything, and we do not think they can do anything at this stage,” said one Iranian official at a recent closed door conference in a European city. “They (U.S. and West) said enrichment of uranium was a red line and we crossed it, and they said enriching to 20 percent was a red line and we crossed,” he added. Now U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned that Iran’s closure of the Strait of Hormuz was “another red line for us and that we will respond to them.” He also added: “Our red line to Iran is do not develop a nuclear weapon.” The question here is how serious does Tehran take U.S. threats after it successfully crossed several red lines without any retribution from Washington? If one adds to this the heightened Iranian rhetoric and bolstering of military capabilities, it can only be concluded that the U.S. deterrence posture vis-à-vis Iran has been seriously eroded.
Iranian officials and analysts view in their writings and speeches the U.S. pullout of Iraq as a defeat and the inability to control the situation in Afghanistan as a failure. Iranians and their Hizbullah allies in Lebanon believe the summer 2006 Israeli war was a big defeat to Israel. Subsequently, Hizbullah officials strongly believe that Israel, like its American patron and ally, has lost its deterrence posture. Hizbullah leaders openly talk about their military buildup and readiness to take on Israel anytime. They believe their growing capabilities have deterred Israel from attacking them or Lebanese territories. Actions by Washington over the past couple of years have reinforced the belief within many Hizbullah and Iranian leaders that the U.S. Administration is weak and unwilling to enter any military confrontations, and could be on the retreat. Such actions and signals by the U.S. are:
- Hizbullah succeeded to break up Israeli spy cells and to uncover CIA agents in Lebanon, which presumably forced the agency to close down its Lebanon operations. Hizbullah boasted about this as yet another sign of fading American power.
- The U.S. loss of the high-tech Sentinel unmanned drone, and the alleged decision by the White House to veto a military operation to retrieve it was perceived by Iranian and Hizbullah officials as a proof for the growing capabilities of Tehran and American weakness.
- Iran’s success in pursuing its nuclear program unabated by diplomatic and economic measures by the West is seen by many Iranians as a testimony for the success of their policies and America’s failure.
- Despite the fact U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan uncovered and reported Iranian-supplied arms with insurgents nevertheless Washington did not take any action. This, according to many observers, eventually emboldened the Iranian government.
- American and Western sailors and naval officers operating in the Arabian Gulf talk in private about several provocations by Iranian gunboats that are ignored and not reported by the U.S. Administration. This reached a level that prompted some American officials to indirectly suggest through the media establishing a hot-line with the Iranian Navy to avoid any major incidents escalating into a war. This idea did not pick up any traction, but surely was seen by many observers as another sign of U.S. stepping away from a confrontation with Iran – yet another sign of weakness.
It would not take any analyst who attends a conference with Iranians and even Arab experts and officials to realize that the current U.S. administration is seen as weak and indecisive. Naturally, such an administration cannot be expected to be taken seriously by Iran when it makes concealed threats of resorting to military option to stop Iranian nuclear program. The global financial problem is seen by Iranians as an additional factor that makes U.S. talk of war as useless and futile. For many Arab Gulf officials, who are America’s allies in the region, today’s America is much different than it was less than 20 years ago, when Iran never dared to threaten the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, and stood on the side without any action watching the U.S. invade Afghanistan (on its eastern borders) and later Iraq (on its western borders). Washington’s quick and complete switch in its foreign policy from an offensive mode to a passive mode seems to have severely undermined U.S. deterrence posture. It is hard for third world countries to see or understand how a global super power could be pushed around and be helpless against a third world regional power.
The more important matter is to understand the rational and behavior of Iranians. How do they see and interpret U.S. inaction and back-tracking on issues and “red lines”? Independent objective observers do see the large difference in balance of power in U.S. favor, but do influential Iranian leaders see it the same? Many Hizbullah and Iranian official speak about the effectiveness of asymmetrical war against Israel or the United States. But do they believe they can win a war against either one (or both) through exploitation of asymmetrical capabilities? Bluffs and empty threats do not seem to work well with Iranians and have only degraded U.S. deterrence posture. Knowing the adversary’s intentions is always the toughest job of intelligence analysts and decision makers. While the ambiguous nature of the Iranian regime has made it hard for Westerners to figure out its intentions, the transparent nature of Western democracies has made it easy for Iranians to figure out the intentions of Washington and its allies. This factor has enhanced Iranian deterrence posture and weakened America’s. This situation has raised concern amongst many of America’s regional allies who count on it for protection against foreign (Iranian) aggression. One Arab Gulf official said in private: “If Iran is behaving in such a bold manner and it is not yet a nuclear power, just imagine how it will behave when it actually possesses nuclear weapons.”
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA