by Patrick Vibert
There has been a lot of talk recently in certain circles about America going to war with Iran.
The train of thought is this: the US doesn’t want to go to war with Iran, but Israel is so afraid of Iran having nuclear weapons that they will draw the US into the conflict by bombing Iran. The US will then be dragged in because Iran will certainly try to close the Strait of Hormuz (through which 40% of all traded oil passes) and the US simply cannot let this happen because of the effect that the ensuing skyrocketing oil prices will have on the world’s fragile economic state.
Israel bombs Iran to prevent them from getting nukes, Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation, the United States is forced to get involved to prevent a global economic calamity. That whole scenario sounds plausible on the surface. After all, given all that has happened involving the United States and the Middle East in the last ten years, I suppose anything is possible. However, we should take a closer look at that course of action for the parties involved and walk through the likely outcomes.
But first, let’s examine the implications of Iran successfully acquiring the ability to make some nuclear weapons…because, of course, the second that they acquire a nuclear weapon, they will no doubt immediately launch it at Israel.
IRAN NUKES ISRAEL
Let’s say Iran secretly makes half a dozen nuclear weapons, attaches them to long range missiles (which they already possess), and launches them all at Israel. Then they somehow manage to strike targets in such a manner that they completely disable Israel’s ability to respond in kind.
Iran would have just incinerated hundreds of thousands of people – a large portion of which would have been Muslims – and completely contaminated the entire Holy Land in the process. Israel is not very big, and it wouldn’t take much to completely poison the entire country. And let’s not forget that Islam’s third holiest site is located in Jerusalem, which would also be rendered uninhabitable.
So Iran has successfully vanquished their Zionist enemies, then what? The Palestinian diaspora is supposed to flood back to their ancestral lands waving the Iranian flag and praising the Ayatollah for his great victory because they now get to return to a toxic wasteland? Unlikely. And as a consequence, Iran has now greatly harmed countless Sunnis Arabs, which historically have been at odds with the Persian Shia.
So Iran has destroyed Israel with it’s brand new nuclear weapons, then what? They reap a bunch of imaginary Muslim “street cred” and then go back to business as usual?
First, the United States would be very upset at Iran for destroying one it’s closest allies. If the US didn’t immediately launch a full scale invasion of Iran on it’s own, they would certainly have the backing of the entire United Nations Security Council to do so, as well as to implement whatever sanctions it wanted.
If the United States were able to halt the supply of gasoline into Iran, many experts think that this alone would be enough to plunge the country into chaos. (Iran, while sitting on a sea of oil, has precious few refineries that can turn that oil into gasoline, which forces them to rely heavily on imports.) The United States, if finally able to implement a full array of sanctions, might not have to drop a single bomb in their effort to see regime change there. And it would all occur with the backing of the free world.
All this for what? So the Iranian regime can cement itself on the throne of Muslim warriors forever? It is unthinkable that the Ayatollah and his people would risk their survival for this reason. For one thing, they are already at the forefront of Israeli agitation, and they can stay there without challenge just by making fiery anti-Zionist speeches and continuing to not-so-covertly aid Hamas and Hizballah.
So why all the fuss? Many in Israel are generally frightened over the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons which, given Jewish history, is to be expected. But for Israel’s policy makers, perhaps all this talk of the Iranian threat is useful to shape the debate and how the US deals with Iran, which Israel views as its greatest threat.
Indeed it seems extremely unlikely that Iran would launch a nuclear strike against Israel if given the opportunity.
ISRAEL BOMBS IRAN
Now let’s examine the situation from the Israeli point of view. If Israel launches a strike against Iran, there is a strong chance for events to escalate quickly to a level that Israel would not be comfortable with.
There is always the possibility that Israel could send bombers to Iran to take out their nuclear installations and face no retaliation. Though highly unlikely, there is some precedent for this. In 2007, Israeli jets quietly flew into Syria and destroyed that country’s nascent nuclear energy program (which Syria was legally entitled to). There was no overt retaliation and Syrian officials barely mentioned the matter publicly, but its almost unfathomable that Iran would exercise that same restraint.
Iran’s main area of power and negotiation on the world stage is its nuclear energy program, and destroying that would not sit well with Tehran at all. In the case of Syria, their nuclear energy program was not as important to them publicly as Iran’s is, and anyway there was very little that Syria could do to Israel in response.
But Iran is not Syria. Iran has a substantial military, as well as countless proxies that the Revolutionary Guard has been training for the last thirty years. Hizballah and Hamas are only two. Tehran has many ways to strike back against Israel.
There is also the sentiment that, while the United States is the biggest player, Israel is the one with their finger on the trigger in this situation, and they are the ones who will decide the outcome. If Israel moves, the United States will be forced to move to.
So Israel bombs Iran, Iran tries to close the Strait of Hormuz, and the US is forced to intervene. Israel has just started a fight with one of the largest armies in the Middle East.
Iran was instrumental in forming Hizballah and has been contributing hundreds of millions of dollars to the group since the early 1980’s. If Iran finds itself under attack, there is little doubt that they will call in a big favor from Hizballah, meaning an assault from Israel’s northern border.
And Israel’s publicly stated policy with Hizballah is that if they harm a single Israeli, then they will take it as an act of aggression from the entire country of Lebanon, and Israel will respond as such. Israel nearly destroyed Lebanon in 2006, where Israel said that it acted with restraint because of a memo they received from President Bush at the time. Israeli officials have stated that in the event of a future attack, they would exercise no such “restraint”.
So Israel bombs Iran, Iran responds, and the US is forced to intervene. If we follow the scenario through, Hizballah would likely attack Israel. (Here, Hizballah would miss the genius arch-terrorist General Imad Mugniyeh, but there is probably some other man or men that could pick up where he left off. ) Then Israel would attack and destroy Lebanon. Now, not only is Israel at war on multiple fronts (Israel’s historic nightmare), but now it has lost the only thing it gained from the 2006 War: a stable northern border. And with all the ensuing chaos unfolding, its not hard to imagine Bashar Assad in Syria taking a swipe at the Golan Heights during Israel’s moment of weakness.
As previously stated, Iran is not Syria and a quick one time strike there without repercussions is highly unlikely. Israel would be drawn into a potentially lengthy conflict. Maybe they could avoid this by the United States stepping in, but betting on that is both risky and foolish.
Israel, a nation of 7 million people, would most likely find itself at war with a nation of 66 million people, a third of which are fighting-aged men. A force that large could travel down through Syria (Iran’s close ally) and easily overwhelm the tiny nation.
Not to mention that a prolonged war with Iran would be incredibly destabilizing for Israel. Israel is a nation of the “citizen soldier on leave for 11 months a year”. They have a standing army, but in the face larger threat, the whole country mobilizes into wartime mode. People have to leave their jobs and productivity plummets. Their absence from the workplace saps the Israeli economy. While it may not be as bad as in past years, a prolonged engagement with Iran could likely destroy the Israeli economy for decades to come.
Another thing to consider is that Israel’s population is 25% Arab. This part of the country’s loyalty to the Israeli government is questionable, and it is unclear how they would respond in the event of their country going to war with a Muslim nation. How would the Arab Israelis react? At the very least, it would be unwise for the government to count on their full support.
Israel would also have the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to worry about while fighting Iran. If they rose up in a third intifada while Israel was at war with Iran, it would complicate matters significantly. If the situation spins out of control for Israel, we could see jihadists coming from all over the Muslim world to battle the “Zionist occupiers”, like we saw during with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Of course, none of these scenarios are guaranteed, but they must be considered by Israel’s policy makers.
THE UNITED STATES INTERVENES
So the United States attacks Iran to keep the Strait of Hormuz open in order to insure the continued flow of Gulf oil and to avert the world from an economic catastrophe.
At this time, it’s not even clear that Iran is capable of “closing” the Strait, but it could certainly significantly disrupt it. Is it worth it then for the United States to get involved in order to prevent this disruption?
The US is already fighting two very costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those countries don’t even have armies, and it’s still very tough going for American forces there. Iran, on the other hand, has a sizable and formidable military. Even if the US and Israel manage to destroy Iran’s air force with a surprise attack, Iran can still make an extraordinary amount of trouble for the two countries.
For example, the United States could kiss goodbye all the progress it has made in Iraq over the last couple years. Contrary to popular belief, the calming down that occurred in Iraq in 2008 was not so much due to Bush’s troop surge as it was due to help from Iran.
For five years after the initial invasion, Iraq was plagued by sectarian violence and Iran was behind much of this. Washington’s aggressive posturing towards Iran directly resulted in the rising violence in Iraq. And soon after the Bush administration toned down its rhetoric, Iran acquiesced in Iraq.
Some of the most fearsome fighters in Iraq were Muqtada Sadr and his Sadr Militia. Sadr gave the US a tremendous amount of trouble in the slums of Sadr city and he could not be vanquished. But one call from Tehran and he was back in Qom studying the Koran and out of America’s hair.
Then, also with Iran pulling the strings, Iraq’s sizable Shia population was suddenly willing and eager to participate in the new government that was being formed. Iran had removed one half of the sectarian violence equation and it wasn’t long before Washington was talking about a withdrawal. None of this would have been possible without Iranian cooperation and it could all be unraveled with one word from Tehran. All of that would have to be weighed against a possible strike on Iran.
Also, the United States couldn’t just launch a few dozen Cruise missiles at Iran and be done with it. They would have to see it all the way through to regime change because there would be no going back. The Iranian regime would likely unleash everything it has in its nasty arsenal if faced with an existential threat like that. We could see the return of 1970’s level international terrorism.
The US would be at war on a 2000 mile front with three countries. This might have seemed possible under George W. Bush, but with Obama it’s muchless likely. The military is already greatly overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economy is in a very fragile state. Going to war with Iran in order to ensure the flow of oil and to keep the world economy stable doesn’t really make much sense when you consider the implications of such actions. If Israel attacks Iran with the hope of American intervention, I hope they are sorely disappointed.
SO IRAN GETS NUKES
Israel bombs Iran, and the United States intervenes. And all of this is supposed to be due to the possibility of Iran trying to make nuclear weapons. Even the most conservative estimates put Iran a year away from refining enough uranium for making a weapon. Iran has recently agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in to see their newly unveiled nuclear operation outside of Qom. This is their obligation under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty that they have signed.
Now, everyone already assumes that Israel has nuclear weapons. So if Iran develops their own, why would they use them on Israel when their destruction is mutually assured? One may accuse the regime in Tehran of religious fanaticism, but they are not suicidal. When faced with an existential threat, they will chose regime survival over their religious commitments, and in this way they are logical actors.
It’s not logical for Iran to attack Israel, and it’s not logical for Israel to attack Iran. Some in Israel may be frightened of Iran, with the disturbing rhetoric regarding “driving the Jews into the sea”, but this is not what is on the minds of the Israel’s policy makers. Right now, Israel is the only nation in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons, and Iran acquiring them would greatly complicate the geopolitical landscape of the region forever.
Incidentally, this is why the United States is so concerned with the issue of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It’s not because Washington thinks Iran would actually use them, but because of the way it complicates things for the US in the future. Iran would have to be dealt with differently if they possessed nuclear weapons. This is scary to Washington.
Another thing to consider is the idea that if Iran develops a nuclear weapons program, then Saudi Arabia will want to as well, and the whole thing leads to more proliferation in a historically unstable region. One could argue however that Iran having nuclear weapons makes the region more stable not less, as the region’s most disruptive actor, Israel, would be severely curtailed in its hostilities. Israel would have to think twice before taking on Hizballah and destroying Lebanon like they did in 2006.
OPERATION AJAX, PART II
The United States has a relatively long history with Iran. In 1953, the newly formed CIA overthrew a democratically elected government to install a king who was more sympathetic to American business interests. (Before we go any further, think of the irony of the United States overthrowing a democracy to install a king. It’s amazing.)
For the next quarter century, Iran was ruled by the brutal and oppressive king. In 1979, the people had had enough and they overthrew him. But in stepped the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was extremely hostile to the United States. He was seething with hatred after witnessing of what Iran had went through at the hands of America’s puppet monarch. What we have now in Iran is a nation where half the people are for the Ayatollah and angry at the United States for messing in its affairs, and the other half is against the Ayatollah and angry at the United States for overthrowing the only democratically elected government Iran ever had.
In his fascinating book on the subject of the 1953 coup, Stephen Kinzer writes about the folly of attacking Iran in the current day:
“A variety of prominent Americans have described President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as the worst strategic blunder in their country’s history. Attacking Iran right now might prove even more disastrous. It would turn that county’s oppressive leaders, who are now highly unpopular at home, into heroes of the Islamic resistance; give them a strong incentive to launch a violent counter-campaign against American interests around the world; greatly strengthen Iranian nationalism, Shiite irredentism, and Muslim extremism, thereby attracting countless new recruits to the cause of terror; undermine the democratic movement in Iran and destroy the prospect for political change for at least another generation; turn the people of Iran, who are now among the most pro-American in the Middle East, into enemies of the United States; require the United States to remain deeply involved in the Persian Gulf indefinitely, forcing it to take sides in all manner of regional conflicts and thereby making a host of new enemies; enrage the Shiite-dominated government in neighboring Iraq, on which the United States is relying to calm the violence there; and quite possibly disrupt the flow of Middle East petroleum in ways that could wreak havoc on Western economies.”
Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons right now, and it is unlikely that they would use nuclear weapons against Israel even if they did have them. The consequence of such an action would vastly outweigh the symbolic value of wiping Israel off the map for good.
Also, it would be unwise for Israel to launch an attack of it’s own under the assumption of either American intervention or of Iranian non-response. That scenario is similar to a child taking a swipe at the class bully when he knows the teacher is present. The child is relying too heavily on either the bully not reacting or the teacher’s swift intervention, and that is not smart the because the teacher will not always be around to intervene, and the bully will not forget. And neither would Iran.
For America, attacking Iran either on Israel’s behalf or to keep the flow of Gulf oil going doesn’t make much sense either. America is stretched to the brink both militarily and economically, and American intervention in a dispute between Israel and Iran would surely lead to more chaos in the region, not less. In addition, the United States would not want to jeopardize all the progress that has been made in Iraq.
Today, eight countries are known to possess nuclear weapons: USA, UK, France, China, Russia, India, Israel and Pakistan. That does not include all the weapons that went missing after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The United States is the only country to ever use a nuclear weapon in the act of war. At this point, the United States should be more concerned with Pakistan’s arsenal, as that country is far more unstable than Iran and is besieged by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, two groups that would actually use them if given the opportunity. On top of that are all the USSR nukes that are missing. Those are the two areas of nuclear security that seem to demand more attention than Iran.
Finally, in each case, the consequences of an attack outweigh the benefits. For Iran attacking Israel, for Israel attacking Iran, and for the United States attacking Iran, in each case the world would be made drastically more dangerous by action than by inaction. Washington needs to make it clear to Israel that the United States will not be drawn into a conflict with Iran, and make it clear to Iran that the United States will respond dramatically to the harming of one of its allies.
Right now, events seem to be progressing at a rapid speed in the wrong direction for all three parties. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail.