When the specter of war is on the rise between two or multiple nations, there are two general ways to deescalate and reduce tensions: use of diplomatic channels and employing a policy of deterrence. The channels of diplomacy are currently closed between the United States and Iran. Even if some diplomatic channels were available, the necessity of deterrence in the calculus of strategy cannot be overstated.
The necessity of employing a policy of deterrence is directly correlated with the hostile and aggressive behavior of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region. Antagonism against the U.S. and its allies have not only been the central ideological pillar of the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution, but, at every opportunity, the Islamic Republic has also demonstrated — directly or through proxies — that it is actively at war with the US.
Additionally, within the past year, the trajectory of Iran’s bellicose behavior has shown no signs of abatement. The destabilizing behavior has broadened in scope and affected the interests of more countries such as attacks on Norwegian, Japanese, and Emirati vessels, a U.S. drone, as well as the targeting of Aramco oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. Within the past year, we have witnessed that the Iranian government has increased both the frequency and severity of its destabilizing attacks in the region without fear of international reprisal or military consequence.
Considering the increase in Iran’s direct and by-proxy attacks in the region, the critical question is whether there is a solution that would ultimately prevent a large-scale war while containing Iran. Would the policy of watchful waiting and not responding or the policy of limited and punitive military operations be more effective in preventing a full-scale war?
If we concede that the policy of disregarding the crescendo of Iran’s attacks would only embolden the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in pursuit of advancing its regional goals and protecting the so called “Axis of Resistance” and lead to an interminable conflict, we are inevitably left with exercising the policy of deterrence to prevent a large-scale war.
The policy of deterrence is effective only when the primary offender has genuine fear of its opponent’s ability to strike back. Therefore, by international convention, it is understood that the strike back needs to be more severe and costly to the primary offender in hopes of having it reconsider continued strikes or consider cessation of hostility. Accordingly, when the conditions of conflict are such that one player continually increases its bellicose behavior, no real practical solution is available except for a limited and punitive show of force with the goal of containment and deterrence from a more significant war. In other words, contrary to intuition, sometimes a limited military engagement is necessary for prevention of war.
In response to Iran’s threats and strikes, the U.S. has historically shown significant self-restraint. However, the severity and frequency of Iran’s behavior has increased. Now it appears that the elimination of Qassem Soleimani was the implementation of the policy of deterrence within the framework of limited yet punitive action. The strike on Soleimani had all the three characteristics of deterrence: limited, punitive, and severe. The severity of the strike can be defined within the framework of his position in the IRGC, the image of power and invincibility he wielded in the region, and the subsequent demoralization of the Islamic Republic in the aftermath of his elimination.
There is already evidence that Soleimani’s elimination has led to a change in Iran’s bellicose behavior. Despite Iran’s sham show of force with the ineffective missile strikes on the two American bases, it has made its intentions clear that the Islamic Republic is not interested in escalating tensions further. Iran’s “severe retaliation” was very calculated and indicative of the Islamic Republic’s retreat and tacit admission of defeat. Donald Trump’s statement following the Soleimani strike also indicated the same sentiment.
Given the recent escalation of hostility by Iran and the U.S. strike against Soleimani as an act of deterrence, with the rapid de-escalation that ensued, we can give credibility to Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo’s claims that their goal in the recent standoff was prevention of war and not an invitation of it.