Game of Strategic Chicken
by Sam Gardiner
What’s behind the surge on Iran? We are repeatedly told the Administration has no plans for a strike on Iran. The forces, the message and the justification are being put in place. These moves point to an attack, but it is more like a game of strategic chicken.
The USS Stennis carrier group arrived in the region on February 15tth. By my count, this is the fifth time the United States has sent multiple carriers the past fifteen years. All the earlier surges ended up with strikes on Iraq.
On January 20th another new ship arrived in the Gulf, U.S. a mine counter measures ship. The UK has sent two mine counter measures ships. These ships find and destroy naval mines. The actions are clearly aimed at Iran.
The President announced in the State of the Union that the U.S. will double the size of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Like sending naval mine ships to the Gulf, it sounds like a preparation for taking on Iran.
The military force keeps building. An additional Marine amphibious unit is in the region. A Patriot missile defense unit is being deployed to Kuwait, obviously to be ready against the Iranian missile threat.
On the day that the commander in Baghdad said at a videoconference the current command and control could handle the surge there, the Pentagon announced the accelerated deployment of the Headquarters of the 3rd Infantry Division. The additional 1,000 troops provide the structure that would be needed to handle two or three brigades blocking at the Iranian border if there were a strike.
The messaging is being done. The White House has established a media working group whose mission is to create international outrage against Iran. Both in quantity and theme, we are seeing the kind of messaging campaign we say prior to the attack on Iraq.
The U.S. messaging strategy against Iran is obvious in a volume analysis. It began in a major way last summer when the Administration implemented what the Secretary of State called the “Frog Strategy.” Gradually turning up the heat on Iran. There have been two lulls since then. A six weeks lull came before the U.S. congressional elections that resulted in lower oil prices. There was then a lull when the President was considering the Iraq surge. The pressure is back.
Short ads have appeared on television stations in the Washington area. These ads say things like, “Iran sent thousands of children marching to their deaths to clear minefields, armed with only plastic keys to unlock the gates of heaven.” As in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, some group is supporting the White House effort to generate outrage.
A few weekends ago the often-questioned press conference in Baghdad took place to show the slides of Iranian materials found in Iraq. Obviously, this was meant to add to the outrage quotient. It could have been more. If the Administration is on the path to conduct operations against Iran, that press conference produced justification to cross two barriers.
If Iran is attacking U.S. force in Iraq as the briefer alleged, then under Article 51 of the UN Charter, the United States has the right to respond. “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member…” If Iran is killing U.S. troops, as the briefer alleged, then the self-defense argument means the President does not have to go to the Congress to get authority to strike Iran.
Despite all the part of the picture, I don’t’ believe the Administrations has decided to attack. I think we are seeing a deliberate effort to make it look like an attack. I think we are seeing strategic chicken.
The U.S. strategy a year ago was to isolate the Iranians. The Secretary of State said many times that if the Iranians continue to behave as they were they will find themselves isolated from the international community? Isolation did not work. The Iranians continued to enrich, and Iranian influence in the region continued to grow.
After Christmas, we saw a new strategy unfold. Using the military as well as sanction pressures, this new strategy appears to have the objective of giving the Iranian leadership a sense of vulnerability. The argument seems to be if they feel vulnerable, they will change their behavior.
I remember talking to an Iranian ambassador in Berlin about that imaginary table where policy options seem to be placed and taken off. He said the United States should take the regime change option off that table. That was a profound comment.
The Iranian leadership believes the worst of the United States intentions. Because of that, the current strategy is absolutely wrong. The military pressuring confirms their fears. They have no choice but to push back. The tensions will grow. The chances of a greater Middle East war by miscalculation will grow, and the Iranians are not likely to give up enrichment.
If they don’t abandon enrichment, the phony war pushes us closer to a real war. The President has stated the intolerable condition. This condition is not Iran having nuclear weapons. He said on numerous occasions that the United States could not tolerate Iran having the knowledge to produce nuclear weapons.
Having the knowledge to produce nuclear weapons is often interpreted here and in Israel as the 3,000-centrifuge level, often called the industrial level. In a recent public announcement the Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency said that could occur in the next six months. Other has said it could come sooner. Iran presses on in that direction. The phony war presses them in that direction.
With the release of the Top Secret briefing materials of the Iraq invasion, we know an element of that plan was triggers. A trigger was an event that could occur that would cause an acceleration of the invasion. One of those triggers was an Iraqi terrorist attack.
A logical assumption is the plan of phony war identifies triggers. A most likely trigger would be a major U.S. casualty event in Iraq caused by Iran. The phony war raises the stakes. Bad intelligence on an event could be the path to a greater Middle East war.
The strategy to isolate Iran failed. It does not take much analysis to see the strategy to make the leadership feel vulnerable is gong to fail. Strategic chicken will fail. That failure would be disastrous. We need a new strategy now.