Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Walking that fine line of deterrence

Today posted a story concerning comments made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in which he stated “Iran’s army will ‘cut off the hand’ of any attacker and is at the ready to fulfill its defensive duties”. Ahmadinejad is not shy about these comments and has made many in the past; however, why make this comment now? What is there to gain from repeating statements made in the past?

Reviewing both deterrence and hegemonic power theories should paint a clear picture of the effect of this statement on both Iran and the international system. Deterrence relies on the defending state to build a perception that by attacking it, the attacker will suffer such costs that the battle isn’t worth fighting. Iran is specifically trying to implement a type of perception – by a type, I am referring to Fearon’s (1997) classification of deterrence that involves rising or sinking costs that are suffered either ex post or ex ante by the defending state – where Ahmadinejad continues to raise audience costs within his state that will be suffered if Iran is attacked and does not retaliate. This has been shown through countless statements much like the one above, as well as aggressive actions – the seizing of the British troops.

It is clear that Ahmadinejad is trying to create the perception that no matter who chooses to go to war with Iran, he is prepared to fight with all he has. While Iran may not be moving troops to the border, Ahmadinejad is effectively “tying his hands” by creating these audience costs within his country. If he ever backed out of these threats, his country would clearly suffer these costs ex post. This perception of retaliation and a willingness to fight gives Iran a credible deterrence threat against possible advancing nations. With these continuing actions and statements, is Iran pushing past simple deterrence to a more taunting aggressive action against America’s hegemonic power.

Hegemonic powers theory rests on the idea that the hegemonic state in a unipolar system exists because it can enforce its will upon the rest of the system. More specifically, Kindleberger (1981), defines this term as when a “country, firm, or person dominated another when the other had to take account of what the first entity did, but the first could equally ignore the second”. For a hegemonic system to remain stable the hegemonic state must be able to act in a manner where they do not concern themselves with the actions of others, as long as those actions are not direct threats to the hegemonic power itself.

In this, we see Iran acting in a deterrence fashion, but at the same time taking it to a point that could theoretically threaten the United States’ position in the international system. By continually issuing threats and showing no fear to the hegemonic power, Iran is almost forcing the United States into a conflict simply to save its reputation as the primary power within the system. In the international system, perception is what truly matters, both the perception of deterrence and the perception of unmatched power by the hegemonic state.

Ahmadinejad has clearly operated in a deterrence fashion and done so successfully in the past. The best example of this is the handling of the British soldiers by the Iranians. First, they took the soldiers showing that they were not to be crossed, and they were willing to do whatever was necessary to defend their sovereignty. Second, they allowed no representatives from Britain to meet with the hostages, showing their resolve and fearlessness concerning a British response. Lastly, Ahmadinejad returned the hostages unharmed to their host country, thus completing an almost perfect showing of deterrence. Now, however, Ahmadinejad is pushing past deterrence to a clear threat to the hegemonic supremacy of the United States, and if it continues, the United States will be forced to respond or lose its own perception as a hegemonic superpower.


Lorenzo Valla said...

Mr. Prince (so, is “The” your first name?):

Your analysis skips a step—what if Ahmandinajiad isn’t actually in charge? Americans and other western critics are so quick to dissect the inner workings of the Islamic Republic that they are willing to slap their own concept of executive authority on the former mayor of Tehran merely because he has the same title as Mr. Bush.

This is folly. Whether “he is prepared to fight with all he has” or “has clearly operated in a deterrence fashion” is irrelevant if either the Guardian Council or Supreme Leader [I hope someday Americans will appreciate that this is not merely an honorific—the buck stops with Khameini (but is, nevertheless, delicately balanced and highly decentralized)] countermand the elected executive.

Very few Iranian institutions mirror their American counterparts, just one of the ancillary benefits of comparing an authoritarian theocracy to a liberal democracy. There are no shortcuts to understanding Iran and, the more I learn, the less I know.

The Prince said...


While your wit concerning my name did make me laugh this morning, it is actually you who are mistaken. You see when dealing with deterrence, it doesn't matter who is in charge of a state, it is who appears to be in charge that matters. Whether the Guardian Council or the Supreme Leader are in charge is ultimately irrelevant because the international system has the perception that Ahmadinejad is in power, and thus it is his actions that shape the perceptions of all other actors within the system.

Now, if all actors within the international system knew that he was simply a figure head with no true political power then it would be a different story, and I would readily concede your point. But sadly, this isn't the case. Ahmadinejad is recognized as the head of the Iranian state and thus his statements mirror that of his country. So while I appreciate your comment Laurentius, I believe my argument still holds true.

Lorenzo Valla said...

"it doesn't matter who is in charge of a state, it is who appears to be in charge that matters"
--It makes all the difference because "the international system" (whatever that might be) is incorrect when it says Ahm. is in charge, not Kham. This means they are trying to deter an individual and his agenda rather than deterring an ideological foundation and a whole system of government, which is considerably harder. If there is no clear leader to deter, you are forced to attempt deterring a multitude of competing actors and their requisite priorities-- this is much harder.

"if all actors within the international system knew that he was simply a figure head with no true political power then it would be a different story"
--If you're asking me to document that each and every country in the world, their leaders, and various and sundry media outlets view Ahm. as a puppet, obviously I can't do that. What I can and have done is prove that anyone claiming he's the most potent leader in Iran is wrong. Have a look at the Iranian constitution, read up on what happens when Ahm. and Kham. disagree, and then try and argue that Ahm. is in charge, or is perceived as being in charge. I implore you to remember that a fatwa handed down from a wabi-sabi cushion on the floor makes for much less interesting television than a man with no tie who insists the Holocaust never happened.

"Ahmadinejad is recognized as the head of the Iranian state..."
--In fact, Ahm. is recognized as the head of government while Kham. is the head of state. This is, ipso facto, the proof you're looking for when you ask whether or not he is a simply a "figure head." Again, you've insisted on applying western labels rather than making a concerted effort at understanding a truly alien system of government.