Iranian Arms and Influence

Posted on November 22, 2013

As Iran and world powers struggle on nuclear deal in Geneva, I conducted a thought experiment to consider revisiting Schelling’s calculus of deterrence in his seminal treatise Arms and Influence. Does this calculus remain relevant or is it obsolete in the face of a nuclear armed Iran?  It is, I concluded, variables in the strategic environment that have changed his deterrent formula.

Schelling’s deterrence calculation requires setting the state, establishing a trip-wire, an obligation to respond, and then waiting for action on the part of another (p. 71). Unfortunately, while these deterrent conditions evolved alongside the nuclear arsenals and the strategic systems that controlled how they were implemented, the US has in recent years disrupted deterrent conditions with respect to Iran. In 1991, the US came to the defense of a Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia in expelling Iraq from Kuwait. In 2001, the US toppled the Taliban regime of its neighbor Afghanistan and continues its occupation of now thirteen years. In 2003, its other immediate neighbor Iraq was also toppled and occupied for seven years. The US has set a state of regime change and occupation on Iran’s very doorstep risking territorial calculations Iran has to make. The initial trip-wire of proliferation, under the threat of its territory in jeopardy, is overt but gives Iran little space to maneuver.

Further complicating Schelling’s deterrence calculus is the US’s ambiguous obligation to respond, particularly in light of recent events in Syria. Schelling describes an unambiguous and articulate US response to North Vietnamese attacks on US naval vessels as an effective means of communicating reprisal for their actions without escalating the war. Conversely, as a cumulative articulation of US obligations for action, any military strikes on Syria for the alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians have long passed any value in preserving our reputation for commitment to action. If later confirmed that the chemical attack was indeed orchestrated by the Assad regime, the US reputation for ‘commitment to action’ after the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction has certainly deteriorated in the eyes of Iran.

Compounding the obligation for action is the condition of the US to fight abroad. According to Schelling, to fight abroad requires the intention, the capability, and the communication of intentions to persuade other countries’ behavior. The US has entered a period of international relations where our intention to fight abroad, to extend our nuclear umbrella is being questioned by allies and rivals alike. Despite a strategic messaging campaign that the US will stand by its allies, our actions in Syria and elsewhere are communicating a message of inaction.

Perhaps even more detrimental than our failed communication campaign, is the void of communication channels with Iran. In the event of a nuclear Iran, we lack the communication means with their government like those established with the Soviets and maintained with the Russians. Schelling submits to Max Lerner’s condition that deterrence “depends upon on almost flawless rationality on both sides (p. 229).” The lack of means of communication increases the chance of conflict where fallible yet rational decision makers are placed under the stress of crisis.

The object of the deterrence calculation is that Iran has a choice. Schelling hopes that potentially new nuclear states, like Iran, will chose that the most effective use of nuclear weapons is that of influence. Unfortunately the US has reset the calculation of choice with regard to Iran. Applying his deterrent formula to a potentially nuclear Iran, there are several variables that the US ought to reevaluate if we are to keep the use of nuclear arms confined to the history section.

Schelling, T. C., (2008). Arms and Influence. 2nd Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press.