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“Real” Deterrence? Identifying the Trump Administration’s Iran Strategy

Joshua Rovner
Sunday, January 26, 2020, 10:00 AM

When the secretary of state says "deterrence," it seems like he means something else.

Photo Credit: State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/Public Domain

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Editor’s Note: In the aftermath of the Soleimani killing, what the United States seeks to accomplish regarding Iran is puzzling, with the Trump administration seeking to leave the region but also to deter Iran from a range of dangerous behavior. Joshua Rovner of American University argues that the Trump administration is fundamentally, and dangerously, misunderstanding key deterrence concepts and that its policies may backfire.

Daniel Byman


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained the strategic logic behind the administration’s strike on Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani in a recent speech at Stanford University. Killing Soleimani was part of a bigger campaign to “re-establish deterrence,” Pompeo said on Jan. 13, because it restored credibility to U.S. threats. Previous administrations had been unwilling to impose meaningful costs on Iran as a way of signaling American seriousness. On the contrary, their weak-kneed diplomacy encouraged Iranian aggression and increased the threat to the United States.

The Obama administration deserves an extra helping of blame, according to Pompeo. Its diplomacy with Iran was dangerously naive. Pompeo argued that the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which promised to relax sanctions in return for Iranian concessions on its nuclear program, was backfiring spectacularly when President Trump took office. The JCPOA had not closed Iran’s path to the bomb. Worse, it “enabled that regime to create wealth, it opened up revenue streams for the ayatollahs to build up the Shiite militia networks, the very networks—the very networks—that killed an American and imposed enormous risk at our—to our embassy in Baghdad.”

The secretary wants to distinguish these misguided efforts from what he called “real deterrence.” According to Pompeo, real deterrence requires the conspicuous use of force. Threats ring hollow in the absence of violence. Military capabilities, however impressive on paper, are meaningless if adversaries do not believe you will use them. Moreover, periodic violence is a necessary reminder of U.S. resolve. Adversaries will lash out if they sense timidity. Pompeo referred to his own experiences to make the case. “I was a young soldier back during the Cold War,” he reminisced. “You can have the greatest army in the world, but it doesn’t matter if you are not prepared to use it to achieve your strategic objectives.”

Threats Without Promises

There are at least three problems with this heavy-handed vision. The first is that Pompeo believes that deterrent threats can work without complementary reassurances. But, as Thomas Schelling famously noted, target states will have no reason to comply if they believe they will be punished anyway. Threats may give adversaries a moment of pause, but reassurances are essential to make deterrence stick. Providing credible assurances is not always easy, however, because relatively weaker states know that stronger ones can always change their mind. This is one reason why coercion is difficult, even for states with large military and economic advantages. Such efforts are nonetheless required, because deterrence is much more likely to succeed if states are confident they will not be punished for accepting the status quo.

Pompeo thinks this is wrong. According to his new theory of deterrence, assurances are both irrelevant and counterproductive. They are irrelevant because Iran has no choice but to submit to U.S. pressure. The administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, as the secretary put it in his speech, is a mix of “diplomatic isolation, economic pressure, and military deterrence.” Iran can choose to accept U.S. demands, or implode. It will have to trust that the United States will honor whatever new status quo emerges. There is no alternative. The United States will make demands on Iran—a deal it can’t refuse.

From the Trump administration’s perspective, assurances are also counterproductive. Rather than creating an incentive for Iran to make concessions, they embolden Iran by suggesting U.S. fecklessness. Forget everything you read in graduate school, international relations theorists. Real deterrence means abandoning assurances.

Unfortunately, threats without reassurances also inspire creativity and ruthlessness. Adversaries in desperate circumstances are much more likely to engage in asymmetric violence, especially if they have no reason to believe that better behavior will be rewarded. Instead, adversaries will look for new and novel ways to escape the bind. Expanding relationships with nonstate armed groups is one possible answer, and Iran has a long history of using proxies to overcome its conventional weakness. The irony is that this is precisely the sort of action the Trump administration claims it can stop with “real deterrence.”

Compellence, Not Deterrence

The second problem is that Pompeo’s “real deterrence” is not really about deterrence. It is about compellence. Deterrence is about protecting the status quo; compellence is about changing it. And the Trump administration hates the status quo. It wants Iran to end its support for proxy groups and permanently abandon its nuclear program. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the administration wants Iran to reverse course on its entire regional strategy, given that it blames Iran for the ongoing horrors in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Secretary Pompeo made this abundantly clear in his speech: “The Iranian regime and its proxies under the direct supervision of Qasem Soleimani have nurtured all of that misery.”

Scholars typically assume that compellence is harder than deterrence. It is not hard to understand why. Deterrence is easier because adversaries may not be committed to acting in the first place. Compellence requires forcing an adversary to back down from some action already underway, and individuals fight harder to avoid losses than to achieve gains. More importantly, an adversary doesn’t need to do anything to comply with a deterrent threat. Compelling an adversary, by contrast, requires it to visibly back down. Leaders put in this position may fear for their reputation or their political standing at home. No one wants to look like a pushover.

Compelling Iran will be especially difficult, not least because the Trump administration is making extreme demands. Pompeo’s Stanford speech, which included warnings about harming regime protesters, adds to the list of 12 “basic requirements” he issued in 2018. Complying with those demands would risk provoking a backlash among hard-liners in Tehran, especially now that Ayatollah Khamenei has publicly attacked U.S. officials as liars and “clowns” seeking to undermine the Islamic Republic.

Regime Change

Compellence is a long shot for these reasons, and the administration may know it. Making impossible demands of a regime conceived in animosity toward the United States is a recipe for disappointment. This suggests a final problem with “real deterrence”: Failure is the point. Even as the administration publicly pressures Iran to comply, officials might privately hope it does not. Instead, they might hope for blustery denunciations of the administration and renewed support for militant groups. Intransigence from Tehran may lead to more pressure from Washington and its allies, increasing the economic distress in a country that is already suffering badly. The Trump administration may hope that distress will lead to escalating protests, culminating in a second revolution. If this is the case, then “real deterrence” is a pretext for regime change.

The notion of regime change that does not require an invasion may appeal to Iran hawks, but it is a dangerous path for U.S. grand strategy. Regime change has a poor track record, whether it is achieved through military intervention or other means. It rarely leads to economic gains, diplomatic stability or democracy. And the cases of successful regime change, like postwar Germany and Japan, required large military occupations lasting decades. The idea that the United States can have it both ways in Iran—regime change without a military price—is dubious.

The administration should take seriously the unforeseen risks of “real deterrence.” It should be especially wary of using the logic of deterrence as a pathway to destabilize the Iranian regime. If we have learned anything from the last twenty years of Middle Eastern politics, it is that undermining standing governments is a pathway to civil war. Demolishing another state's political hierarchy creates an opportunity for militant groups to seize power, and those groups will fight ferociously to stake their claim. This bloody contest will in turn create pressure on U.S. policymakers to send additional forces to quell the violence. If the administration is still serious about getting out of endless wars and refocusing on great power competition, getting sucked into this process is something it cannot afford.

Joshua Rovner is associate professor in the School of International Service at American University. In 2018 and 2019 he served as scholar-in-residence at the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command. The views here are the author’s alone.

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