Use brinkmanship to contain Iran

ROBERT D. KAPLAN is a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and the author of "Imperial Grunts."

FOR IRANIAN President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to snare an invitation to speak before the Council on Foreign Relations last week, after threatening several times to destroy Israel, is what’s known in military parlance as a successful “information op.” In a mass-media age, symbolism defeats substance. Thus, the harsh reception Ahmadinejad received at the council is less significant than the fact of the reception itself. The council’s august status attaches added symbolic value to its deeds.

The council reception, along with interviews that Ahmadinejad gave journalists and his speech at the United Nations, helped make him more of a fixture on the world scene, thus ratcheting up his perceived legitimacy. All in all, it was a small Iranian victory in a new form of conflict that strategists call “combination warfare,” something that Tehran may be better at than Washington.

Combination warfare, a term coined by Air Force colonels James Callard and Peter Faber, acknowledges that in an age of intensive military, media, financial and other activities, battle must be joined in a coordinated fashion on several fronts to create sustained and shifting pressure on the adversary.


Iran’s power structure, armed with an admirable Persian gift for subtlety and manipulation, has restricted its own domestic organs of dissent so that it is well positioned to lay siege to media and political elites elsewhere. Its president both shocks and fascinates Western journalists; sophisticated mullahs at Davos, Switzerland, have made deals with international businessmen; Iranian intelligence agents encourage Islamic power demonstrations that undermine Europe’s resolve; and Iran’s diplomats follow a strategy of delay and partial concessions that evaporate.

The goal is to buy time while Iran’s scientists work 24/7 to develop a nuclear capability to alter the balance of power in the Middle East.

Only to Western elites is power strictly either economic or military. In reality, power is the combination of both these elements, depleted or magnified by the extent of political will required to deploy them -- which historically has been the function of a deep-seated faith of one kind or another. Put simply, the Iranian regime has more nerve than we do. Nerve translates into power.

Iran’s adversary is the Bush administration, compromised by its failure so far in Iraq. The fact that the Council on Foreign Relations did not take the hint from the administration and uninvite Ahmadinejad is an indication of how little repute the White House has. Though they may not admit it, the political elites beyond loyal administration circles, and particularly in Europe, simply do not trust Bush’s ability to wage another war. Here is where the real problem lies; by delegitimizing his ability to wage war, they delegitimize his right to wage war.

Bush will be in the White House until January 2009. After that, a new administration will require months to get a sufficient grip on power to militarily confront Iran. By then it could be too late. Thus, if you delegitimize the current administration’s right to wage war, you delegitimize force as a later option against Iran.

It was the delegitimization of force that provided the bedrock for appeasement in Europe in the 1930s. Europe was still recovering from a continent-wide war that had cost too many lives and caused untold destruction for no demonstrable result, and that was the product of decisions made by a closed political elite. Sound familiar? The idea that European governments could wage another conflict was seen as preposterous. There was no choice but to reach a diplomatic arrangement with the Nazis.


Appeasement was not only the product of cowards but also of eminently reasonable men. Adolf Hitler had not threatened to annihilate the Jews, and Germany’s reasons for reoccupying the Sudetenland were based on principles of self-determination related to President Wilson’s 14 Points -- his vision for a just and lasting peace for Europe after World War I.

Ahmadinejad is not Hitler, but for diplomacy to matter against a governing clique with the willpower of Iran’s, it must be backed up by the credible will to use force, which requires military planning. But that is just what the administration’s critics fear. By delegitimizing even the possibility of a military strike, they render diplomacy impotent as an alternative.

As someone who supported the invasion of Iraq, I know that the problem with grand assumptions is that they’re nice when they succeed; otherwise you require a Plan B. The idea that there is no alternative to diplomacy in dealing with Iran, even after it achieves nuclear status, is another grand assumption, but without a Plan B.

Combination warfare means just that: the ability to operate on several fronts, including the military one. In the years ahead, a good deal of brinksmanship may be required to make sure Ahmadinejad is not the last word in Iran’s political development.