Why Deterrence Against Iran Is a Bad Idea

by Eldar Mamedov

In the November-December 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs, prominent American scholar Michael Mandelbaum argues that in order to deter Iran from going nuclear, the agreement reached by P5+1 should be supplemented by an explicit threat of US military action.  Mandelbaum proposes that the Obama administration or any future US government “publicly articulate and resolutely communicate” such a threat to Tehran. In addition, to make such a threat credible, the administration should increase the deployment of US forces in the Persian Gulf region and step up the scope and intensity of military exercises there with its allies.

Following such an advice would do a great disservice to the US foreign policy. It would risk destroying the nuclear agreement with Iran— the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—and undermine American interests in a number of other ways.

The argument about the need of deterrence rests on the assumption that Iran will be cheating on its commitments. But Iran´s recent track record suggests otherwise. Iran has complied with the provisions of the Geneva interim agreement, a stepping stone for the JCPOA. The recent IAEA report found no evidence of any weapons-related nuclear activity in Iran. In fact, some of the opponents of the deal are now alarmed that Iran may indeed be fulfilling its obligations, because this will lead to a lifting of sanctions and an end to Iran´s pariah status.

Mandelbaum fails to analyze, however, why Iran would cheat on an agreement that it fought so hard to attain and which promises it substantial economic benefits over the long run. This failure reflects an ideological view of Iran´s rulers as inherently irrational and devious. But improving the living conditions of the Iranian people, which involves the lifting of sanctions, is a top concern for most political factions in the country. In this context, a “credible threat” by the US will achieve exactly the opposite of what Mandelbaum purports to want to achieve.

First, it will convince the Iranians that no matter how hard they try to respect their commitments, Washington´s hostility is implacable. A threat of military strike might push Iranians to stop implementing parts of the JCPOA. They could, for example, put an end to the intrusive inspections of the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This would make verifying the nature of Iranian nuclear activities much more difficult.

Second, Mandelbaum seems to forget that the JCPOA is a multilateral pact, not a bilateral American-Iranian agreement. So, any threat meant to “complement” the JCPOA would have to be made on behalf of the whole P5+1. But America´s closest allies—the EU trio of UK, France, and Germany—is not in the mood to re-initiate hostilities with Iran. The EU is busy fostering a new strategy of engagement with Iran. The Iran task force established in the European External Action Service (EEAS) is looking into expanding cooperation with Iran in a variety of areas. European business delegations are queuing up to explore opportunities in Iran. In such an environment, unilaterally threatening Iran with a military strike is more likely to isolate Washington than Tehran.

Third, it is foolish to expect that Iran will just passively watch a large-scale US military build-up in the Persian Gulf together with some of Iran´s regional antagonists, such as Saudi Arabia. Iran would counter such moves by mobilizing its proxies throughout the region. As Mandelbaum himself recalls, Tehran-sponsored Shiite militias in Iraq “helped kill hundreds of US troops,” which happened when the US placed Iran into the “axis of evil” and made regime change in Tehran a priority. These days, Iran has considerable assets in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon to harm the US and allied interests in the region, should it choose to do so. It might also try to exploit disaffected Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

Finally, an American threat would undermine Iranian pragmatists who are trying to open up the country to the EU and possibly, in the future, to the US as well. It will vindicate those who’d rather cling to the old notions of “resistance” to the West. Iran faces in February 2016 some of the most consequential elections in the history of the Islamic Republic: those of the parliament and Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with the selection of the Supreme Leader. Undermining the moderates would strengthen precisely the kind of people Mandelbaum wants to deter.

In essence, under the guise of deterrence Mandelbaum re-brands the old neoconservative idea of regime change in Iran. He concedes that much when he says that the US might change its policy “should the Islamic Republic fall or evolve.” As the case with Saddam Hussein´s Iraq shows, the policy of deterrence can easily evolve into a regime-change agenda. The JCPOA had to decisively put such notions to rest. But the fact that such a piece was published in Foreign Affairs, an establishment magazine par excellence, shows the resistance of some foreign policy elites in Washington to accepting the new, post-deal reality. Even more worrying is the fact that serious presidential hopefuls like Hillary Clinton and the new neoconservative champion Marco Rubio share, to varying degrees, such views. This only makes the task of full implementation of the JCPOA all the more urgent in order to raise the costs for any future American administration that might consider violating it.

Photo: Michael Mandelbaum

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.



  1. “The argument about the need of deterrence rests on the assumption that Iran will be cheating on its commitments. But Iran´s recent track record suggests otherwise.”

    Indeed, in light of “IAEA Intelligence Acquisition Practices” (Peter Jenkins, this site), Iran comes off as by far the most patient and virtuous player in this game – and those who embrace the assumption that Iran will cheat have got more nerve than a bad tooth.

  2. To describe Michael Mandelbaum’s recommendation as pathetic would be much too kind. Idiotic seems to appl.

  3. The Iranian regime’s word is not worth the paper it is written on, as proven again and again by the regime’s record of serial violations of international law and instances of cheating. Yet the Obama administration presses on, believing that somehow things will be different this time. It is demonstrating the truth of a quote widely attributed to Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

  4. This whole nuclear wrangling with Iran isn’t really about Iran having a bomb or two. This is all about bringing the country into submission. Heck Pakistan has Nukes and Terrorists to boot. They are Taliban/Al-Qaida headquarters. Why is no one really worried?

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