Fears of a bomb in Tehran’s hands are overhyped, and a war to prevent it would be a disaster.
Surely, Iran would strike back, in ways and places of its own choosing. That should not be surprising; it is what Americans would do if their own homeland were attacked. Proponents of an attack and some Israeli officials offer a more sanguine prediction of the Iranian response, and this is where their image of Iran becomes most inconsistent. According to this optimistic view, the same regime that cannot be trusted with a nuclear weapon because it is recklessly aggressive and prone to cause regional havoc would suddenly become, once attacked, a model of calm and caution, easily deterred by the threat of further attacks. History and human behavior strongly suggest, however, that any change in Iranian conduct would be exactly the opposite—that as with the Iran-Iraq War, an attack on the Iranian homeland would be the one scenario that would motivate Iran to respond zealously. Iran’s specific responses would probably include terrorism through its own agents as well as proxy groups, other violent reprisals against U.S. forces in the region, and disruption of the exports of other oil producers.
An armed attack on Iran would be an immediate political gift to Iranian hard-liners, who are nourished by confrontation with the West, and with the United States in particular. Armed attack by a foreign power traditionally produces a rally-round-the-flag effect that benefits whatever regime is in power. Last year a spokesperson for the opposition Green Movement in Iran said the current regime “would really like for someone” to bomb the nuclear facilities because “this would then increase nationalism and the regime would gather everyone and all the political parties around itself.” Over the longer term, an attack would poison relations between the United States and generations of Iranians. It would become an even more prominent and lasting grievance than the U.S.-engineered overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 or the accidental shooting down of an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf in 1988. American war proponents who optimistically hope that an attack would somehow stir the Iranian political pot in a way that would undermine the current clerical regime are likely to be disappointed. Even if political change in Iran occurred, any new regime would be responsive to a populace that has more reason than ever to be hostile to the United States.
Regional political consequences would include deepened anger at the United States for what would be seen as unprovoked killing of Muslims—with everything such anger entails in terms of stimulating more extremist violence against Americans. The emotional gap between Persians and Arabs would lessen, as would the isolation of Iran from other states in the region. Contrary to a common misconception, the Persian Gulf Arabs do not want a U.S. war with Iran, notwithstanding their own concerns about their neighbor to the north. The misconception stems mainly from misinterpretation of a Saudi comment in a leaked cable about “cutting off the head of the snake.” Saudi and other Gulf Arab officials have repeatedly indicated that while they look to U.S. leadership in containing Iranian influence, they do not favor an armed attack. The former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki Al Faisal, recently stated, “It is very clear that a military strike against Iran will be catastrophic in its consequences, not just on us but the world in general.”
Then there are the economic consequences that would stem from a U.S.-Iranian war, which are incalculable but likely to be immense. Given how oil markets and shipping insurance work, the impact on oil prices of any armed conflict in the vicinity of the Persian Gulf would be out of proportion to the amount of oil shipments directly interdicted, even if the U.S. Navy largely succeeded in keeping the Strait of Hormuz open. And given the current fragility of Western economies, the full economic cost of a war would likewise be out of proportion to the direct effect on energy prices, a sudden rise in which might push the U.S. economy back into recession.
In return for all of these harmful effects, an attack on Iran would not even achieve the objective of ensuring a nuclear- weapons-free Iran. Only a ground invasion and occupation could hope to accomplish that, and not even the most fervent anti-Iranian hawks are talking about that kind of enormous undertaking. Panetta’s estimate that an aerial assault would set back the Iranian nuclear program by only one or two years is in line with many other assessments. Meanwhile, an attack would provide the strongest possible incentive for Iran to move forward rapidly in developing a nuclear weapon, in the hope of achieving a deterrent to future attacks sooner rather than later. That is how Iraq reacted when Israel bombed its nuclear reactor in 1981. Any prospect of keeping the bomb out of Iranian hands would require still more attacks a couple of years hence. This would mean implementing the Israeli concept of periodically “mowing the lawn”—a prescription for unending U.S. involvement in warfare in the Middle East.
“There’s only one thing worse than military action against Iran,” Senator John McCain has said, “and that is a nuclear-armed Iran.” But any careful look at the balance sheet on this issue yields the opposite conclusion. Military action against Iran would have consequences far worse than a nuclear-armed Iran.
War or a world with an Iranian bomb are not the only alternatives. The judgment of the U.S. intelligence community, as voiced publicly by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, is that Iran is retaining the option to build nuclear weapons but has not yet decided to do so. Much diplomatic ground has yet to be explored in searching for a formula that would permit Iran to have a peaceful nuclear program with enough inspections and other safeguards to assuage Western concerns about diversion of nuclear material to military use. As Trita Parsi reports in a recent book, the Obama administration’s brief fling at diplomacy in 2009 was, in the words of a senior State Department official, “a gamble on a single roll of the dice.” Now the administration, having seen how stridency toward Iran has threatened to get out of hand, seems willing to try diplomacy again in talks with Iran that will also include Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.