Following the end of the Cold War, a study was commissioned by the US government to understand the new context of nuclear deterrence after the demise of the Soviet Union and in anticipation of possible future confrontations against regional powers with nuclear arsenal. the main point of the study, which is partially available, was that one needed “a value-based deterrence, holding at risk those assets that mean most to an opponent.”
Reading that document today brings to mind Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West. Yesterday, Ali Shirazi, the Supreme Leader’s representative to the Revolutionary Guards, stated that “The first U.S. shot on Iran would set the United States’ vital interests in the world on fire.” Shirazi does not reveal what exactly Iran would do if attacked, but he tries to evoke in our mind a scenario of terrible consequences. According to the “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence,”
We must communicate. specifically, what we want to deter without saying what is permitted.’ And ‘We must be ambiguous about details of our response (or preemption) if what we value is threatened, but it must be clear that our actions would have terrible consequences for them.
Clearly, Iran has read the document.
But the most remarkable part of the recommendations is precisely in the section that addresses the central tenet of the new doctrine, namely that “We must communicate our capability to hold at risk what they value and, if possible, to protect what we value.” In expanding this concept, the author of the “Essentials” goes on, in a prescient fashion, to evoke Soviet deterrence in a particular instance when Soviet citizens where kidnapped in Lebanon:
The story of the tactic applied by the Soviets during the earliest days of the Lebanon chaos is a case in point. When three of its citizens and their driver were kidnapped and killed, two days later the Soviets had delivered to the leader of the revolutionary activity a package containing a single testicle–that of his eldest son–with a message that said, in no uncertain terms, “never bother our people again.” It was successful throughout the period of the conflicts there. Such an insightful tailoring of what is valued within a culture, and its weaving into a deterrence message, along with a projection of the capability that can be mustered, is the type of creative thinking that must go into deciding what to hold at risk in framing deterrent targeting for multilateral situations in the future. At the same time this story illustrates just how much more difficult it is for a society such as ours to frame its deterrent messages-that our society would never condone the taking of such actions makes it more difficult for us to deter acts of terrorism.
Have we learned the lessons of the “Essentials” in dealing with Iran? Hardly, if one considers the opening paragraph of the latest offer the West has recently delivered. I in no way think that that the Five Permanent Members of the Security Council should have sent Iran the testicle of, say, the eldest son of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. But it is clear, from reading the language of international diplomacy to Iran against the background of the “Essentials,” that our strategy does not aim to establish deterrence vis-à-vis Iran. If anything, it is doing all it can to undermine it.