Nat’l Journal: ‘Will Sabre Rattling And Sanctions Work Against Iran?’

National Journal‘s Senior Editor Richard H.P. Sia recently asked “Will Sabre Rattling and Sanctions Work Against Iran?” on the publication’s National Security Expert Blog:

His take was that results were mixed, but it’s the responses to his query — addressing the pressure to attack, what is the threat of Iran and what the U.S. should do next — that are of note.

“No, of course not,” Steven Metz answered. “Does this mean that the United States should launch military strikes when sanctions and political pressure fail? Absolutely not. It is hard to imagine a greater strategic folly. There is no reason to believe that a nuclear armed Iran cannot be deterred in the same way the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China were.”

In a later response, Metz writes, “One should either kill a dangerous animal or leave it alone–wounding it is normally the worst available option” — though he notes that the “kill” option here (full-scale invasion and regime change) is unlikely.

Col. Pat Lang, who keeps the excellent Sic Semper Tyrannis blog, wonders if, once Iran gets the bomb (in the cards), whether it can be deterred. “This remains an open question,” writes Lang,

but the argument that Iran’s revolution has entered a phase in which the country now answers to state interests and the particular interests of the nomenklatura has great appeal. If that hopeful view has merit, then the eventual Iranian nuclear force will be unusable and will merely serve to make Iran a major player in international geopolitics.

And that, friends and neighbors is what the Israelis really fear.

In a follow-up entry, Lang riffs on Metz’s animal analogy:

Before we decide to slay the dragon, we should understand what the dragon is. Is the dragon merely the Iranian state nuclear program or is the dragon really a herd of dragons, unknown in number, and located across all the parts of the world in which Muslims live?

He goes on to rip neocons for pushing a simplistic view of Gulf Arab support for an attack on Iran. He warns of another potential dire consequence: Pakistan, already upset over U.S. strikes on its soil, may join Iran in retaliation.

“They Don’t Believe Our Threats,” replies Loren Thompson, the head of the Lexington Institute. Thompson takes a much more hawkish path. He observes that even after watching Saddam Hussein’s defiance and eventual downfall, Iranian leaders seem unbowed. “The fact they aren’t tells you America is not feared in Teheran, and we either need to walk away or do something more concrete — something more military — to get their attention,” he recommends.

But the most succinct answer to the question comes from Joseph Collins, a professor at the National War College:

Neither sabre rattling nor sabre cuts will work on Iran. The Iranian nuclear program is not stoppable by sanction or military action. Sanctions are too weak and military efforts are likely to be technically ineffective and politically dysfunctional.


In the end, we can’t stop Iran from going nuclear, but we can deter its use of a nuclear weapon. Iran is unlikely to give a nuclear device to a terrorist movement, esp. a sunni group like Al Qaeda. Like most nuclear powers, Iran will learn that a nuclear weapon might add to your deterrent, but that it can’t create legitimacy or cure massive unemployment.

Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.