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The Threat of Preemption Against Iran Finally Worked: The United States Has Bowed to It

Sam Gardiner

The strongly held preference for the strategic offense that permeated U.S. thinking six years ago has faded.  This line of thought began as an approach for dealing with the terrorist threat the United States saw after 9/11 attack, and it was broadened to include Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran.  Although some parts of the preemptive line of thought still lingers, we no longer hear officials talking about preemption as an element of U.S. security strategy.

Iran has long been a preemption focus.  The threat of preemption has not changed Iran’s behavior, but in a twist, the threat of preemption has changed United States’ behavior.

Not long after the 2004 re-election of George Bush, Condoleezza Rice held a meeting in the Old Executive Office next to the White House with Jewish leaders.  She told them that the United States was going to begin to put pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear program.  Preemption was a U.S. policy by 2004 and the concept was to play an important part in the campaign to pressure Iran.

The trigger for preemption for the United States and Israel has been a flexible concept.  Early in the campaign to pressure Iran, President George Bush shared in the Israeli notion that it would be necessary to strike if Iran were to gain the knowledge to produce a nuclear weapon.  The implied threat was that if Iran crossed the line, the United States would execute a preemptive strike.  It was the same red line some in Israel had been touting for almost a year.  The United States and Israel were on the same page.  If Iran acquired the knowledge to produce a nuclear weapon, the United States would attack.

It is difficult to understand how the President would know when Iran acquired the knowledge to create a nuclear weapon.  That is why one must conclude that the theory was not a promise of action but a threat to pressure Iran.  Despite the same message from the United States and Israel, Iran did not change its behavior.

At one point, the United States even moved additional combat forces to the region in what was meant to appear as a buildup to a strike.  Iran did not change its behavior.

In the evolution of the conditions for a preemptive strike, the next major theme was that if Iran did not halt its enrichment program and allow inspectors into all of its facilities, the United States would launch a preemptive strike.  Despite gathering international support against the Iranian nuclear program and the United States’ threat of a first strike, Iran did not change its behavior.

Although Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s experiences with preemption have quieted supporters of the concept, Israel has not moved from its long held view that preemption is the best way to ensure the country’s security.  Over a year ago, Israel introduced a new logic.  Iran was hardening its nuclear program and more components of the program were being put underground.  Israel argued that if this continued, a preemptive attack could not be effective.  Israel and the United States were no longer on the same page.  The logic reached a strange point.  Israel argued that it would be necessary to preempt a nuclear attack if it could no longer effectively preempt.  Iran did not change its behavior.

The most recent chapter of the saga of preemption.  In April 2012, President Obama announced in a series of public appearances that the United States would conduct a preemptive strike against Iran if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon.  Finally, we have seen a result of the Israeli threat of preemption against Iran.  President Obama changed his position.   President Obama formulated a position in reaction to the Israeli threat of preemption.  In the President’s words, the United States now has Israel’s back.  But, Iran has still not changed its behavior.

Israel is right in its observation about the increasing underground development of Iran’s enrichment program.  This hardening of the program has produced an interesting dilemma.  United States officials are now saying publicly that a strike on Iran would most likely push back the Iranian enrichment program only one year.  In other words, the threat of preemption has taken away the value of preemption.

We now know that President Obama approved extensive preemptive cyber attacks on Iran just after taking office, with the primary focus being on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.  Despite these attacks Iran’s enrichment program has expanded.  Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium has increased.  

The United States has over ten years of experience with the consequences of preemption in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We now have experienced the consequences of the threat of preemption against Iran.  We have seen the consequence of preemption with cyber attacks against Iran.   As I wrote six years ago in Et Maintenant En Avant: Preemption and the Planning for Iran, 57 Syracuse L. Rev. 443 (2007), preemption is a very limited policy tool for the United States.