“Do not even think about bombing Iran,” wrote Michael O’Hanlon and Bruce Reidel in yesterday’s Financial Times. Pointing out that the US has two unpopular and unfinished wars in the region already, and that the damage from any military strikes on the Islamic Republic would be unlikely to do enough damage to its nuclear program to justify the military and political cost, and also that Iran would have many opportunities to retaliate against US interests in the region, they urge President Obama to take this option off the table completely. Living with a nuclear Iran won’t be fun, but it’s better than the alternatives, so let’s start making plans for the inevitable.
I actually agree with O’Hanlon and Reid that military strikes against the Iranian nuclear program aren’t likely to get us anywhere good, but that doesn’t mean we can stop thinking about them. Sixty-one percent of Americans asked called Iran’s strength a ‘critical threat’ in a Gallup poll last month; an additional 29 percent said the Iranian threat was ‘important.’ With 90 percent of the public feeling threatened by Iran — at a moment when nothing special was happening — it’s not clear to me that domestic politics will allow the Obama administration to steer clear of hostilities with Iran even if it wants to.
Maybe it’s a consequence of the Bush administration; we seem to be assuming that America can opt out of war if the White House can just keep its cool.
I wish that were true, but history suggests that it isn’t. President McKinley wanted to stay out of Spain’s war in Cuba; he didn’t succeed. President Madison didn’t want a war with Great Britain but the War of 1812 came all the same. Woodrow Wilson hoped to stay out of World War One; the last thing President Truman wanted was a war in Korea, and Lyndon Johnson felt trapped by the war in Vietnam. President Obama clearly doesn’t want a war with Iran (and, for what it’s worth, neither do I) but if history teaches anything, it’s that you can’t always get what you want.
It’s unfortunately rather easy to think of circumstances that could force the Obama administration into a war it would rather avoid. Here’s a scenario: without asking American permission the Israelis launch attacks on Iran that bloody the regime’s nose and, while they don’t destroy the nuclear program, they do expose the regime’s inability to defend its airspace against the hated Zionist foe. Not believing US denials or really caring whether they are true, to distract public attention at home and abroad from its military failures against the hated Zionists, and to capitalize on a perceived opportunity to pose as the leader of Islamic resistance to the “Crusader and Zionist alliance,” Iran retaliates against US targets — firing on our ships in the Gulf, for example, or openly attacking American forces in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.
Could President Obama turn the other cheek, or would he have to respond — and where would a cycle of tit-for-tat retaliations end up?
There are other scenarios that end up with the US and Iran with daggers drawn. There are signs that the mullahs overestimate their clout and underestimate America’s ability to confront them. In the past, Iranian radical factions have turned up the temperature in the US-Iranian relationship in order to improve their political standing at home. Calling on Iranians to unite against the foreign menace has worked before, isolating moderates and consolidating the radicals’ grip on power; it’s easy to see them trying this same tactic again. Radicals used the 1979 seizure of American diplomatic hostages, for example, to discredit moderates during the Iranian Revolution. At other times radicals have sent boats out into the Gulf to harass American shipping, and supported Iraqi groups fighting American troops. It would be easy for radical clerics and activists to miscalculate and, intending only to stage a crisis, to overreach and set off a war.
Paradoxically, the only way to avoid scenarios like these with Iran may be to make the regime and its radical allies fear us more than they now do.
The United States genuinely does not want a war with Iran, but if Iran attacks American forces or American interests, that will change. An attack from Iran would set off the kind of Jacksonian rage that followed Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor or indeed that transformed American foreign policy after 9/11.
Somehow the mullahs need to understand that this kind of war with the United States will involve more than a few air raids and cruise missile strikes. A real shooting war between the two countries almost certainly means regime change in Tehran and could well bring an end to the modern Iranian state. Instead of Iran, a large multi-ethnic and multi-faith state, the post-war period might well see the ethnic and religious minorities of Iran going off on their own — either as independent republics or as autonomous regions within a much looser and much weaker state. The Arabs might break free to set up a new Gulf oil state on their own; the Sunni Balochs might come under Pakistani influence. The Kurds might become as autonomous as those in Iraq; the Azeris might choose to merge with Azerbaijan or set up an authority on their own. It’s not at all clear what would happen, but America’s priority in this kind of conflict would be to win the war decisively, not to preserve the Iranian status quo and any peace settlement would give the United States effective guarantees against any future Iranian threat.
To ensure the peace of the region, Iran needs to understand that starting a conflict with the United States is not an option. Iran would emerge weak, divided, isolated and poor from any such conflict and, should Iranians initiate the war by an attack on American forces in the Gulf or in the region, the consequences for Iran would be unthinkable.
The Obama administration quite rightly does not want a war with Iran and it does not want to contribute unnecessarily to a crisis atmosphere. I don’t think Washington should rattle its saber and issue hotheaded threats; that hasn’t worked in the past and there’s no reason to think it will now. But there are cool and quiet ways of communicating a truth that for their own sakes as well as ours the Iranian leaders must never forget: that an attack on the forces of the United States would be an act of suicidal folly.
But we should not be so polite and so low key that they miss the main point. Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hirohito and Hitler all made the same mistake: they underestimated how relentless and how powerful an enemy the United States would be. We must not let Iran repeat their mistake.