The Obama administration is being faced with one of its most difficult foreign policy dilemmas yet: how should the US react to an IAEA report that Iran may be close to producing a nuclear weapon? Iran, of course, continues to insist their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. To be sure, it is rational for them to pursue nuclear power. Due to refining limits Iran often suffers energy and gas shortages, despite being one of the major producers of crude oil. Russia, Iran and other states have claimed the report to have been ‘politically motivated.’ But what if it’s accurate?
Pressure is growing on President Obama to do something. Sanctions haven’t worked, Israel is threatening to act on its own unilaterally (Prime Minister Netanyahu has accused former high level officials of leaking Israeli plans to attack Iran to the press in order to force him to scuttle attack plans), and Republicans on the Presidential campaign trail are sounding a hawkish tone. Sunni states in the region such as Saudi Arabia quietly urge action, and plans no doubt exist for precision strikes on suspected Iranian nuclear sites. However, President Obama would be wise to avoid such pressure; bombing Iran is not in our national interest for four main reasons.
1. The US would be acting virtually alone. China and Russia are almost certain to oppose any action against Iran. They’ve publicly warned against such action and reinforced that with criticism of the IAEA report. This means an attack would not be authorized by the UN Security council. European allies also oppose military action. If something goes wrong and the operation is anything but a clear success the US will be responsible for the consequences. If the UN Security Council were to approve action and there was a broad multi-national coalition that would would be a different situation, but that’s not going to happen.
2. The Risks are immense. Let’s face it, US power is not what it used to be. While America can project military powerthere is strong domestic opposition to anything that isn’t a clear and decisive cheap victory, and with domestic wrangling over debt the danger that Iran could lead to a budget busting barrage of spending is very real. US clout on the world stage comes from economic strength more than military power. Iran could push the US further into the economic abyss, while China might see it as a rationale to shift even more towards Euros from dollars.
Moreover, Iran could respond to the attack by unleashing a wave of terrorism in the region, perhaps evem in the US. They could try to block the straits of Hormuz in order to cause a major oil crisis at the very point the economy is pulling itself out of the depths of the worst recession since WWII. Any military action is sure to see a spike in oil prices, even if it were successful.
Iran could also increase weapons flow to Hezbollah in Lebanon, potentially creating another crisis between Israel and Lebanon. All of this could unravel into one of the worst geopolitical disasters of history. Now the odds for a worst case scenario may be low, but President Obama should recall how the optimistic assumptions made about Iraq by the Bush Administration turned out to be very wrong. In war you control only the first shot — after the bombs hit, anything can happen.
3. The risk of doing nothing is mild. Even if Iran produced a bomb, it couldn’t produce many and the weapons would have limited value. Both the US and Israel have enough nuclear weapons to deter Iran. Iran knows an attack on Israel would lead to destruction of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s decision makers have been rational (if also ruthless) in pursuit of their goal of having regional power, they are not suicidal. Deterrence works. Moreover, Iran operates in a regional framework that includes China and Russia, who have a goal of assuring Iran does not upset the balance. They already calculate that they can live more easily with a nuclear Iran than with a major war in the region.
Iran as a stronger regional power would be a nuisance to the US, but not a major threat to our national interests. We could contain Iran and work to maintain a regional balance at far less cost then trying to make the problem go away with bombs. The US will have to accept that losing prestige and influence in the region, but that’s already happened — US power and influence isn’t what it used to be. The remedy for that is more cooperative ventures with the EU, Russia and China to help maintain stability and the flow of oil. The US could even consider a diplomatic ‘charm offense’ with a post-Ahmadinejad Iran, remembering how the “evil communists” became more malleable after Nixon and Kissinger started to work with them.
4. Iran is changing anyway. Iran has had a growing movement against its authoritarian rulers for some time, and it remains nominally a democracy with contested elections. Due to the power of the Guardian Council it’s only semi-Democratic, but with half the population under 24 and change already sweeping the region there is reason for optimism. Even if Iran’s conservative regime doesn’t fall there is immense pressure to liberalize and be more responsive to the people. A war with the US threatens that process. It would allow Iranian leaders to demonize the US and create anger throughout the region. The Saudi Royal family might welcome it, but they’re increasingly out of touch and vulnerable anyway. It will play into the hands of the already weakening anti-American Islamic extremist movements and risk exponentially expanding threats to the US and the West.
The bottom line: an military strike would have high risks, the potential benefits are low, the risks of not acting are low, and the unintended consequences could include undercutting domestic change already underway in Iran. Indeed, the conservatives in Iran may be hoping for a US attack in order to deflect attention away from their growing domestic problems. A staggering virtually leaderless and weakened al qaeda could use US aggression to regain attention stolen by the “Arab Spring” movement!
With the economy the main issue at home, adventurism abroad is dangerous. The public would not rally to support such action, and Obama’s core supporters would feel once more betrayed by a leader who would be acting more like what they would expect from President Bush than the candidate who promised a new path. Electoral concerns can’t shape foreign policy, but domestic support is essential for any successful foreign policy venture.
So while speculation about a war with Iran may grow, the arguments against it are so strong that I find it extremely unlikely that President Obama would support unilateral US military action. Beyond any moral or political concerns, it simply is not in the national interest.