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October 26, 2012

The Language of Force

Hint to Tehran that it has nothing to fear from us? Not a good idea. By Thomas H. Henriksen.


Negotiations over Iran’s production of high-grade uranium have dragged on. In a series of talks this year in Moscow, Baghdad, and Istanbul, U.S. representatives met with Iranian officials and counterparts from five other world powers to address Tehran’s growing stockpile. Missing was any sense that Washington would meaningfully deploy the instrument of military power implied in its oft-cited “all options on the table” rhetoric.

Iran has long threatened international peace with its nuclear aspirations. Tehran claims its uranium processing is only for energy and medical research, but the world has grave and justifiable concerns about a secret nuclear-weapons program and suspects that Iran is running out the clock until its arms project comes online.

Over the years, Washington and the United Nations have slapped an array of ever-tighter sanctions on Iran, to no avail. Endless talks and summits also have failed to arrest Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Judging by history, only a credible show of military action will get Tehran’s attention for a resolution.

We’ve been here before. Washington used resolute action to stare down a rogue state when North Korea ramped up its nuclear weapons in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Unrestrained by the Kremlin, Pyongyang stepped up its nuclear operations. U.S. satellites detected nuclear activity contravening the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty, signed by Pyongyang in 1985. In reaction, President George H. W. Bush scaled back his engagement policy toward the North and delayed the planned withdrawal of six thousand U.S. troops from South Korea. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, uttered an uncharacteristic threat: “If [the North Koreans] missed Desert Storm, this is a chance to catch a rerun.” America’s military power, technological superiority, and unapologetic resoluteness were obvious after its stunning victory in the Persian Gulf War.

Pyongyang was awed, and it relented because of Bush’s insistence. It accepted international weapons inspections in May 1992. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s probe uncovered the North’s duplicitous accounting for ninety grams of separated plutonium. That revelation was the loose thread that unraveled multiple prevarications about plutonium reprocessing; the country’s fizzled nuclear test in 2006, of course, removed any remaining doubts about its true designs.

Even the bellicose Saddam Hussein suddenly became amenable to readmitting U.N. arms inspectors after President George W. Bush went to the General Assembly in September 2002. There, Bush pledged that U.N. resolutions against Iraq for suspected illicit nuclear and chemical arms “will be enforced—or action will be unavoidable.” Bush’s warning and the massive military buildup under way in Kuwait and Qatar persuaded Saddam to drop his restrictions and open the door to the U.N. Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission. Previously, he had frustrated U.N. searches until the commission’s predecessor pulled out of Iraq in 1998.

In the wake of the U.S. and allied intervention to topple Saddam, other rogues grew wary. Believing a similar fate awaited him, Libyan tyrant Muammar Gadhafi felt intimations of mortality. Soon after the “shock and awe” phase of the Iraq invasion, he was quoted in Le Figaro as saying that “when Bush has finished with Iraq, he’ll turn on us.”

Libya’s tyrant flinched and abandoned his nuclear-arms goal, which A. Q. Kahn, the Pakistani scientist and nuclear-weapons peddler, had aided and abetted in the Libyan deserts. Gadhafi ratted out Khan to the world, opened his nuclear and chemical facilities to international inspectors, and brought his country in from the cold almost a decade before he was ousted by his rebellious countrymen. Bush unsubtly greeted the Libyan U-turn when he said, “In words and actions, we have clarified the choices left to potential adversaries.”

The U.S. incursion into Iraq also may have yielded a temporary pause in Iran’s nuclear-arms program. Tehran certainly was apprehensive that American forces might roll eastward onto Iranian soil. The National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 declared in a still-controversial report that Iran had halted secret work on nuclear arms in 2003. But the moment of panic passed as the spreading Iraqi insurgency preoccupied Washington. Then the Iraqi Study Group, a panel convened by Congress to find a way out of Iraq, suggested among its seventy-nine recommendations that Washington reach out to Iran to salvage the failing U.S. effort.

Thus a beseeching Washington signaled to Tehran that America was not to be feared. President Bush retrieved the foundering counterinsurgency with additional troops and a new strategy, but Iran still understood that it had dodged a bullet. Soon after, the incoming Obama administration looked for rapprochement with Iran before tightening sanctions.

It is historically clear that sanctions have played no role in persuading rogue regimes to stand down their nuclear programs. Tough language combined with the credible threat of military force offers a surer course for diplomacy than sanctions alone. The comments recently uttered by Dan Shapiro, U.S. ambassador to Israel, to an Israeli audience are a step in the right direction and should be endorsed by the Oval Office. The envoy stated not only that the United States was willing to use military action to stop Iran from building nuclear arms but that the “necessary planning has been done to ensure that it’s ready.” A steel-edged declaration from President Obama, backed by an unmistakable display of armed might, would go further than the overused, hollow claim that “all options are on the table.”


Thomas H. Henriksen is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His current research focuses on American foreign policy, international political affairs, and insurgencies. He specializes in the study of US diplomatic and military courses of action toward terrorist havens in the non-Western world and toward the so-called rogue states, including North Korea and Iran. Henriksen's most recent volume, America and the Rogue States, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012. Its predecessor, American Power after the Berlin Wall, narrated US military and diplomatic interventions around the globe after the Cold War. His most recent monograph is WHAM: Winning Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan and Elsewhere.


Reprinted by permission of the Washington Times. © 2012 The Washington Times LLC. All rights reserved.