The title of this post is a musical pun — I ran was a hit from Flock of Seagulls back in the early 80s (I’m listening to it as I type), and “Like a Rock” was a Bob Seger classic from that same era. Those songs still come into my head when I think about Iran and Iraq.
But the question now seems to be whether the US is nearing war with Iran. If so, will Iran be like Iraq? Or should we “run so far away” from even thinking about another military engagement?
Many signs indicate that something is brewing, as Sean at Reflections of a Rational Republican points out. He notes how Defense Secretary Leon Panetta claims there is a “good chance” that Israel will strike Iran between April and June, and speculates that this could be the start of an Obama administration sales pitch of war with Iran.
Foreign policy “realists” argue that as long as states are “status quo” states — ones that don’t want to alter borders or change the essential nature of the system, diplomacy can be effective and war should be avoided. If revolutionary states arise to threaten systemic stability, war may be necessary.
They key is to figure out what a state is. German Fuehrer Adolf Hitler insisted that once the Versailles treaty had been brushed aside Germany would be a status quo state, firmly protecting Europe from Bolshevism. Britain’s conservatives and their Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gambled that Hitler was telling the truth with their appeasement policy — appease legitimate German interests in order to get them to support the system. Chamberlain himself thought war likely, but saw that policy as at least buying the British military time to prepare for war.
In any event, Hitler’s Germany was a revolutionary power, bent on changing the system. However, in the Cold War many Americans thought the Soviet Union a revolutionary power focused on spreading Communism. Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon bet that it was actually a status quo power wanting to maintain its systemic role, and the policy of detente brought some stability to the system and helped end the Vietnam war. In this case, Kissinger and Nixon were right, the Soviets were not focused on spreading communism.
Many say Iran is more like Hitler’s Germany, citing anti-Israeli comments and painting Iran’s leaders with the same brush as Islamic extremists. Others point out that Iran has been rational in its foreign policy since the revolution, and is simply trying to expand its regional influence than bring war to the Mideast.
The reality is probably inbetween, more like Bismarck’s Germany in the 1860s. Iran believes that although it is situated to be a major player in the region — larger than any other state, situated on the Persian Gulf between China and the Russia — US and Israel have prevented it from playing the regional role its power should allow. Support for Hezbollah is designed not out of psychopathic antipathy for Israel but to try to blunt Israeli power and send a message to the Arab Sunni states. Indeed, the Saudis are as scared of Iranian power as are the Israelis.
As with Bismarck’s Germany, nobody wants to see Iran move into a role of being a stronger regional power. The Saudis and Israelis want regional stability, and the US worries about Iran’s capacity to disrupt Persian gulf oil. Another US concern is that if Israel were to attack Iran the entire region would be destabilized, with oil prices likely doubling (or worse, depending on how events unfold). China and Russia are more friendly with Iran, perhaps seeing a partnership with Iran as a counter to what has been western dominance of the region. Accordingly, China and Russia have been vocal in warning against an attack on Iran, even hinting that they’d be on Iran’s side.
So what’s going on? First, I think the US wants to avoid a military strike on Iran at all costs. The rhetoric from Panetta is not the kind of thing we’d say if a strike were planned (you’re going to be attacked, and here’s when the attack is likely). It is designed to increase pressure on Iran, and perhaps even generate opposition within Israel against an attack. The Israeli military is not unified in thinking attacking Iran would be a good idea, even if Iran had nuclear weapons.
War in the region would be extremely dangerous and could yield global economic meltdown. The benefit of stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is not worth that risk. Moreover, it’s not clear that a war would be successful.
US policy instead has been to use covert means to slow Iran’s nuclear progress while increasing pressure on Iran by expanding sanctions and boycotts. The EU has gone alone even more than they would otherwise wish out of a belief that’s the best way to avoid war. If the sanctions fail, the next step would be to contain Iran by expanding US presence in the region and connection with allies.
Another reason war would be disruptive is the Arab spring. The last thing the US wants when change is sweeping through the region is another war against an Islamic state. This would play into the hands of extremists. Iran can be contained, however, and internal change is likely to come sooner rather than later. One reason Iran’s leaders might be courting a crisis is to “wag the dog” – create a foreign policy event that brings the public together through nationalism, thereby undercutting the growing and increasingly powerful Iranian opposition.
I think the US government believes that patience, economic pressure, and if necessary containment will ultimately assist internal efforts for change within Iran.
In Iraq the US learned a very important lesson. One may think a war will be easy, have it planned out, and even achieve military success, only to have the political costs overwhelm any benefit of the victory. Moreover, the American public is much less tolerant of war now than it was in 2003, shortly after the emotion of the 9-11 attacks. It would be foolhardy for the US to pick a fight with a larger and much more powerful state than Iraq. The costs of war could be immense, the benefits uncertain, and the costs of not going to war even if Iran does not back down would be tolerable.
So war with Iran in 2012? I doubt it. I think we’re seeing a policy designed to minimize the likelihood of war rather than to prepare for one.