December 10, 2007

Iran and COIN

Ever true to form, Stephen Peter Rosen writes on the new Middle East Strategy at Harvard blog that Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program as a response to the US invasion of Iraq.

In my view, the Iran program halted in 2003 because of the massive and initially successful American use of military power in Iraq. The United States offered no “carrots” to Iran, but only wielded an enormous stick. This increased the Iranians’ desire to minimize the risks to themselves, and so they halted programs that could unambiguously be identified as a nuclear weapons program. They were guarding themselves against the exposure of a weapons program by US or Israeli clandestine intelligence collection, and were not trying to signal the United States that they were looking to negotiate. They did not publicly announce this halt because if they did so, they would be perceived as weak within Iran, and within the region. By continuing the enrichment program, they kept the weapon option open.

Such a response is not surprising, nor is it necessarily all that fanciful. Charlie is not so willfully blind as to deny that a massive invasion of your next-door neighbor might be cause for some nuclear soul searching. But it does beg the following question: if that's what the Iranian leadership learned from the invasion, what have they learned from the occupation?

Charlie is nowhere near enough of a Tehran-watcher to know the answer to this question. But it's not much of a stretch to think that their initial shock and/or awe might be somewhat tempered now.

More broadly, this is one of the many reasons why COIN is not a "lesser-included" task. Our difficulty with SASO/MOOTW/COIN in Beirut, Mogadishu, and now Baghdad has led to a number of unanticipated strategic effects. Iran may well have been cowed by our initial invasion. But there's no reason to believe they haven't been emboldened by its aftermath.

Getting COIN right at the 4 or 5 year mark isn't good enough: enemies near and far exploit that time not just to impose casualties but to learn our tactics, muck up our strategies, and paint us as fools. Advisors, COIN, IW it's gotta be the main effort now. How about getting with the program? Why doesn't everyone jump on the team and come on in for the big win?