Don’t let Iran become the next Iraq

By Ryan McCarl

America is stumbling toward another disastrous war in the Middle East. With every small escalation in the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, the likelihood that the two nations will end up at war increases.

It is tempting to dismiss the idea of starting yet another war as madness. The ground forces that make up the heart of the American military are stretched to the breaking point, and that fact alone would seem to give pause to any thought the Bush Administration might have of opening another “front” in its “Global War on Terror.” And there is always the inconvenient fact that America is currently fighting two largely unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, barring the unlikely event of an about-turn in Iranian or American foreign policy, there is a significant chance that America will violate Iranian sovereignty and trigger a war with Iran sometime in the next year—either by using an Iranian provocation in Iraq as an excuse to launch cross-border raids into Iran or by carrying out massive air strikes against sites in Iran suspected of nuclear activity.

I have watched with dismay over the past year as a consensus developed around the idea that if diplomacy fails, as it inevitably will, to convince the rulers of Iran to abandon a project in which they have invested so much money and political capital, then America should carry out a preventive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. War with Iran “as a last resort” has become, in the American political dialogue, the centrist position—even as our current slate of asymmetrical wars continues to sour.

I have yet to hear a major presidential candidate diverge from the official line that war with Iran is preferable to an Iranian nuclear weapon; in fact, some Republican candidates are hotly agitating for war. The Democrats are quieter about it, but they are—particularly in the case of Hillary Clinton—concerned about the Republicans’ “historical advantage” on matters of national security and wish to avoid appearing weak and unmanly by shying away from bellicose chatter about Iran.

It may well not matter who wins the presidency in 2008. While I would expect an Obama or Edwards administration to proceed far more cautiously on Iran than a Giuliani or Romney administration, wars are not always the product of the decisions of a particular government or leader; there is some determinism at work as well.

Patterns of aggression and tit-for-tat retaliation can create crises that spiral out of control; careless dialogue and grandstanding of the sort engaged in by Bush and Ahmadinejad exacerbates the conflict and sets the stage for such crises to occur. With every notch the U.S.–Iran conflict escalates, it will become more difficult for “cooler heads” on both sides to steer the nations away from war.

The case against war is overwhelming. The financial and human cost of such a war is beyond conception. Air strikes alone would do nothing but set back Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons for a few years while uniting Iran’s restive, young population (and the entire Arab world) against the U.S. Meanwhile, America’s experience in Iraq should serve to remove the idea of a ground invasion from the set of political possibilities.

An American attack would drive Iran to retaliate against U.S. interests across the Middle East. Step one would likely be an all-out effort to further destabilize Iraq and roll back the limited progress America has made there. Oil prices would skyrocket, disrupting the global economy and possibly sparking a recession in the U.S. Global outrage at a unilateral U.S. action against Iran would further weaken America’s ability to provide global leadership on transnational issues such as trade and terrorism.

Iran will probably develop a nuclear weapon in the next few years. In the current American political conversation about Iran, everyone seems to be presuming that Ahmadinejad and the mullahs will, with such a weapon in their arsenal, either recklessly lob a nuclear weapon at Israel, go on an expansionist rampage in the Middle East, or hand nuclear materials over to a transnational terrorist group (which, of course, would be outside of Iran’s control and would have a different set of preferences than the Iranian government).

Scary stuff, indeed. But I don’t buy it. The rulers of Iran are more interested in personal and regime survival rather than in nuclear aggression. There is no evidence that suggests that Iranian possession of a nuclear bomb would force America or Israel to compromise on matters of vital national interest, so Iranian possession of a bomb would do little more than reduce the possibility of an American or Israeli attack on Iran. It would not significantly increase Iran’s ability to get its way on the international stage.

The U.S. should continue to tighten the noose of economic sanctions in order to increase the costs to Iran of the confrontational status quo. At the same time, the U.S. should open a direct dialogue with Iran that recognizes legitimate Iranian interests and uses carrots and sticks to clear the way for a grand bargain and a normalization of relations between the two countries. And, finally, it is time for the American people to make clear that they will not tolerate a third war in the Middle East.