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.


Small Wars

This Week at War: Border Wars

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

The crack along the U.S.-Mexican border widens

On June 7, during a scuffle with some rock-throwing Mexican teenagers in a concrete drainage canal near El Paso, Texas, a U.S. Border Patrol officer shot Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, 15, in the head, killing him. Mexican security forces brandishing their weapons, assisted by Mexican bystanders throwing rocks and firecrackers, later chased off FBI agents investigating the shooting. Mexican authorities say Hernandez was shot on the Mexican side of the border and claim to have recovered a .40-caliber shell casing as proof. A U.S. official asserted the action occurred on the U.S. side -- and displayed a Border Patrol videotape that allegedly showed four Mexican officers crossing to the U.S. side and possibly repositioning the shell casing to the Mexican side.

We can hope that time and a proper investigation will resolve the dispute over this tragedy. Meanwhile, border tensions seem unlikely to abate. According to the New York Times, rock-throwing incidents against Border Patrol officers along the Mexican border average about two per day. For its part, the Mexican government claims that U.S. immigration officers have killed 17 Mexican migrants so far this year.

Although government authorities on both sides have incentives to cooperate on border problems, popular passions on both sides might increasingly make such cooperation more difficult to sustain. The daily rock-throwing incidents are most likely the acts of bored teenagers, but also probably reflect underlying Mexican hostility. On the U.S. side, the recent Arizona immigration statute is the result of grassroots anxiety. Whatever the merits of this law, Mexican President Felipe Calderón's repeated condemnations of it have not aided the cause of cross-border cooperation. The law remains popular with a large slice of the U.S. population and Calderon's criticism only intensifies this group's suspicions and anxiety.

The White House staff apparently understands the acrimonious public mood regarding the border. According to the New York Times, Obama administration officials have suppressed the release of a report on methamphetamine production in Mexico, earlier versions of which were routinely released to the public. In addition, the article alleges that the White House staff wishes to classify as secret future editions of the U.S. government's national drug threat assessment. This year's version contained alarming conclusions about Mexico's drug cartels and resulted in complaints from the Mexican government. Suppressing the future public release of these reports would seem to be an effort by the administration to remove catalysts for public anger against Mexico.

Fixing the border doesn't seem likely without cross-border police cooperation. But rising public suspicion and hostility on both sides could overwhelm any plans for greater law enforcement collaboration. Diplomats on both sides should return to first principles and figure out the common public interests on both sides of the line. Without an agreement on common objectives, sustained cooperation seems unlikely. In the meantime, the fissure seems to be widening.

Gates and China practice finger-pointing

For the fourth year in a row, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke at the International Institute for Strategic Studies annual Asia Security Summit in Singapore on June 5, an event that consistently gathers the region's top defense and political officials. The big story from Gates's speech to the forum was his criticism of the Chinese government for its shutdown of contacts between U.S. and Chinese military officials over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Gates expressed concern that the lack of military-to-military contact could lead to "miscommunication, misunderstanding, and miscalculation," but vowed that "interruptions in our military relationship with China will not change United States policy toward Taiwan."

Gates reasoned that because U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are "nothing new," China's leadership should simply drop its obsession with this issue. That may be true, but the perception that Asia's balance of power is shifting is new. Gates's reasoning on Taiwan clashes with the widely held view that China's influence is ascending while the financial panic and subsequent economic slump has permanently scarred the Western politico-economic model and called into question the Pentagon's ability to sustain its security commitments in East Asia.

Gates labored to dispel any such impression. Hitting the notes U.S. allies in the audience wanted to hear, Gates emphasized his department's plans for missile defense, nuclear-weapons modernization, the continued forward basing of U.S. forces in the region, and the deepening of U.S. defense relationships with regional allies. In a shot across China's bow, Gates specifically noted the U.S. military's commitment to defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

In a recent Washington Post article, one angry Chinese admiral revealed the mainstream view inside the Chinese Communist Party when he accused the United States of being a "hegemon," encircling China with hostile alliances and keeping China divided with its continued military support of Taiwan. The conclusion Chinese officials seem to have drawn is that the United States views China as an enemy that must be confronted and contained. Viewed from Beijing, China's rapid military expansion is merely self-defense. In both his speech and the following question-and-answer session, Gates strenuously denied that the U.S. government views China as an enemy.

Neither the arrival of the Obama administration, nor increased diplomatic contact, nor the passage of time seems easing the sense of suspicion between the two governments. If anything, distrust seems to be increasing. In a June 9 speech to the Asia Society in Washington, Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, said, "a gap as wide as what seems to be forming between China's stated intent and its military programs leaves me more than curious about the end result ... Indeed, I have moved from being curious to being genuinely concerned."

One likely result of this mutual mistrust will be a continued buildup of military power in the region. In his recent speech to the Navy League, Gates warned the Navy not to expect any budget increases for the foreseeable future. But if the U.S. government doesn't achieve some diplomatic breakthrough with China over the suspicions both sides embrace, the Pentagon will be forced to provide more naval and air forces to the region to back up its commitments. How will Gates (or his successor) do that with the defense budget under pressure, with Gates's vow to maintain ground-force head counts, and with his promise to "reset" ground-force readiness? The fiscal math for that formula doesn't add up. We will soon see how highly the Obama administration values the U.S. strategic position in Asia.

Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images