Small Wars

This Week at War: What Iran Learned from Saddam

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.


Iran applies the Saddam method at the U.N.

On June 9 the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 1929 which imposes further sanctions on Iran for its lack of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). U.S. officials hope that the resolution, combined with follow-on sanctions imposed by the European Union and others, will encourage Iran to fully cooperate with the inspections or return to negotiations. Failing that, the White House hopes that the new sanctions — which target Iran’s nuclear program, its ballistic missile effort, and its conventional military forces — will disrupt and delay the country’s nuclear and conventional military potential.

In remarks he made the same day, President Barack Obama agreed with the vast majority of analysts who hold out little hope that Iran’s leadership will reverse course any time soon. That leaves the hope that sanctions will materially degrade Iran’s nuclear and military programs. They might, but how will the international community know how much? From 1991 to 2003, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq tormented U.S. policymakers with inspection-dodging and intelligence uncertainty. It looks like a new generation of U.S. officials is about to experience similar taunting from Iran.

Iranian leaders have no doubt closely studied how Iraq resisted the Security Council’s attempts to rein in its military potential after the 1991 war. In the early years of the Clinton administration, Iraq was in technical compliance with the post-war inspection requirements, but this cooperation was grudging, increasingly belligerent, and was eventually terminated. Iran’s cooperation with the IAEA is already incomplete and in the wake of Resolution 1929, Tehran has threatened to reduce it further. Through a combination of humanitarian appeals, back-channel deal-making, and bribery, Iraq was able to wear down and divide the international consensus that existed after the 1991 war. Iran has similarly found friends in Turkey and Brazil and is likely to find more in the developing world (some of whom might have their own nuclear ambitions) in the period ahead.

The goal of a sanctions strategy is to avoid either a regional arms race or the necessity of a military response. We will know that sanctions have worked if the Iranian government returns to negotiations, settles the nuclear issue, and opens itself fully to IAEA inspections, but very few observers expect such an outcome. What will remain are the sanctions, which in turn will lead to Iranian resistance, inspections-dodging, an intelligence black hole, and ominous strategic uncertainty. In the case of Iraq, these factors led to war in 2003. Needless to say, this is not an experience U.S. policymakers will be anxious to repeat. Iran’s leaders are aware of this understandable hesitancy and thus have little reason to fear suffering Saddam’s fate.

What is ironic in retrospect is how effective sanctions against Iraq (combined with the four-day Desert Fox air campaign in December 1998) turned out to be at weakening the country’s once-formidable military power. But no Western intelligence agency knew the full extent of this effectiveness until after 2003. When pondering the mystery of Iran’s future nuclear capabilities, other countries in the region are unlikely to get much comfort from this precedent. From their perspective, prudence in the face of uncertainty will require additional defensive and retaliatory capabilities. Thus, sanctions are not likely to prevent an arms race in the region, an outcome the Obama administration hopes to avoid.

Now that Resolution 1929 is in place, what subsequent moves do Obama administration officials contemplate? Hopefully they’ve been studying Iraq’s experience as well.

How to avoid a space war

A recent report from the Rand Corp. examined what steps the U.S. government should take to deter attacks on militarily critical space assets. U.S. military forces are highly dependent on space-based platforms for communications, navigation, weather forecasts, and reconnaissance imagery. This dependence could create a tempting target for adversaries.

According to the report, adversaries will carefully weigh the costs of attacking certain U.S. space systems against the benefits of doing so. For example, there would be a relatively low cost to an adversary who attempted to merely jam signals from communication or navigation satellites as compared to physically attacking those same systems. There are also relatively low political costs and high military payoffs to attacks on U.S. reconnaissance and ocean surveillance satellite systems that lack redundancy and have purely military applications. By contrast, attacks on navigation, communication, and weather systems — used by non-combatants around the world — would be politically costly. And the benefits of attacks on these systems would be limited due to their redundancy.

The Rand report recommends that U.S. policymakers take steps to increase the political costs and reduce the military benefits of extending war into space. The report recommends that the United States consider declaring a "no first attack" policy regarding space assets. Such a policy would not be risk-free since it would force U.S. commanders to accept satellite observation of their own deployed forces and an adversary’s use of satellite navigation and communication systems. Although it would be tempting for a commander to shut down these enemy capabilities, the United States could emerge the loser after space warfare escalates. A "no first attack" policy would place the political cost of escalation into space onto U.S. adversaries.

The report also recommends that the United States consider sharing ownership of some of its military satellite programs with other allied countries. In a conflict, an adversary may be dissuaded from attacking such satellites out of fear of creating enemies from partner non-combatants. Finally, Rand recommends that the United States explore ways of creating passive and active defenses for its satellites, making its most vulnerable systems more redundant, and using terrestrially-based systems such as unmanned aerial vehicles to diversify away from reliance on space systems.

Mentioned, but left undeveloped in the report, is the role of retaliation in enforcing space deterrence. If a shooting war in space begins, what targets should the United States plan on hitting in response? Should retaliation be limited to just space or are terrestrial targets fair game also? Should the United States retaliate with cyber attacks, other electronic attacks, or physical destruction? And what risks do these strategies open up? The Rand report punts this analysis to another study.

How much the U.S. government has thought through the issue of space warfare deterrence remains shrouded in secrecy. But a main principle of deterrence is being very open and clear with potential adversaries about your retaliatory intentions. For its own good, the U.S. government should develop and declare its space warfare strategy.

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