Patricia Sullivan, associate professor of public policy in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s College of Arts and Sciences, is available to discuss threats of military force as a tactic to influence Iran.
If you’d like to speak with Sullivan,
call 919-445-8555 or email email@example.com.
Sullivan’s research focuses on the utility and limitations of military force as a policy instrument. She also has published research on factors that lower the odds that an international conflict will escalate to violence.
Question: Why do leaders use the tactic of threatening military force?
Answer: Leaders like the U.S., China and Russia find it tempting to use the threat of force when tools like diplomacy, economic sanctions and negotiations aren’t working. It can be hard for leaders of those very strong states to accept that even though they’re powerful they can’t get weak actors to change their behavior.
So, the threat of military force is the ultimate stick. This is true particularly for militarily strong states because the damage that a militarily powerful state could do to a less powerful state is so disproportionate.
Q: Are threats of force effective?
A: Sometimes. Explicit military threats don’t tend to be particularly effective. The reason is that everyone knows how militarily powerful the U.S., Russia and China are, so there’s no doubt about the kind of military damage they can impose. So, the vast majority of states refrain from directly threatening the core interests of those states 99.99% of the time.
Only when an adversary is highly motivated to act in a way that goes against more powerful interests, or the adversary believes that the stronger state doesn’t have resolve on the issue, will they choose to engage in a behavior that would illicit a threat of force. And once you get to that stage, you have a state or leadership so motivated on an issue that they are not likely to back down.
There are sometimes miscalculations where a state might not realize something will be important to a more powerful country. The Invasion of Kuwait is a good example.
Q: Has the rise of social media and digital media changed the use of threats of force?
A: Threats issued over Twitter are more likely to be perceived as cheap talk, or as relatively meaningless because there’s no economic or political cost to making a threat on Twitter. The current U.S. president feels there aren’t repercussions for making threats and then backing down. Even if a threat that was issued creates no change it will be spun to look like the threat achieved something.
Q: Is there anything different about current tensions between Iran and the U.S. compared to the past?
A: Most people who study international security would agree that we’re in a particularly dangerous moment. The conflicts between the U.S. and Iran are the same as they have been for decades, but what has changed is a U.S. administration that sends inconsistent messages, engages in particularly belligerent rhetoric, and is highly unpredictable.
What is constant is that the American people and the majority of American military and political leaders don’t want a confrontation with Iran. Iran doesn’t want a war with the U.S. either, but Iranian leadership could easily be uncertain about what American intentions are and what the willingness to use force actually is. This raises the risk that Iran may believe there’s an attack imminent, and that the best thing to do is get in a first strike.
Backing Iranian leadership into a corner can also trigger concerns about Iran needing to save face in front of its domestic audience, because backing down could damage its reputation or damage its leverage in other conflicts. If the leadership backs down on some demand from the U.S., why would the Iranian regime believe that the U.S. wouldn’t just turn around and make greater demands and impose more sanctions? I don’t think the Iranian regime has any reason to believe that if it negotiates and makes some concessions, then the threats and pressure will ease or stop.
Q: The U.S. previously has had a geographic interest in keeping peace with Iran, considering its location between Iraq and Afghanistan. Is that no longer the case?
A: Things have shifted in the Middle East since the Islamic State has been driven from the territory it held. The U.S. no longer believes it has common interest with Iran in stabilizing Afghanistan or countering Sunni militant groups and Iran is supporting armed groups and militias that are increasingly attacking American interests in the region.
Patricia Sullivan Associate Professor of public policy, UNC College of Arts and Sciences
Sullivan’s research focuses on the utility and limitations of military force as a policy instrument and the impact of military assistance.