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The dominoes of war with Iran

07 March 2012

 Seldom has it been as justified to be pessimistic about developments between the United States, Israel, and Iran. This dysfunctional state of affairs is getting so out of hand that the danger of war is no longer just a remote possibility but instead looms large on the horizon. David Ignatius reported on Feb. 2 in Washington Post that "[Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May, or June," though he does not believe that the final decision has been taken yet. 

 In a couple of days Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive in Washington to reiterate the Israeli position that keeping up the pressure on Iran requires a credible threat of war. In effect he will argue that President Barack Obama must toe the Israeli party line both for the sake of keeping a united front against Iran but also, ironically, because he does not want his own decision-making process on a possible war on Iran influenced by Washington. 

 That there are those who clamor for war on Iran and that their perseverance remains unabated should not come as a surprise, especially with the legacy of the Iraq war and the still quite recent debate which led up that. But the greatest problem is not that the usual suspects think (another) war is going to solve a particular set of problems in the Middle East (which was of course exacerbated by, and still related to, the previous war). The real problem now is how the current debate and the policy being pursued in Western capitals in general -- and in Washington in particular -- is steadily blanketing out all the alternative paths that could, and still can, be taken, giving the impression that war is a reasonable and almost inevitable policy outcome. This process runs the risk therefore of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and those especially in the U.S. who oppose a military solution may in some cases be unwittingly aiding this outcome. 

 Unlearning the Cold War 

 The cultural component in this game is inescapable. Iranian propaganda portrays the U.S. as devilishly cunning, thereby imputing a great measure of rationality on the part of Washington that would lead it to never risk an attack on Iran. In the U.S, on the other hand, there is a return to an intellectually sloppy and familiar Cold War archetype -- an irrational and nefarious enemy -- when describing Iran. But the actual experience and lessons from the Cold War seem to have been totally forgotten. Iran is often portrayed as an existential threat, mainly to Israel but transitively to the U.S.. Yet this very idea is belied by the fact that Iran is also threatened with war on a regular basis -- keeping all the options on the table is to say that war is an option. 

 One particularly forceful elucidation of this simplistic understanding of the consequences of war is Matthew Kroenig's recent piece in Foreign Affairs. The article articulates a bizarre notion that a war with Iran would be limited to a set of strikes to which Iran may not retaliate. Nonetheless, it is interesting how Orwellian rhetoric has evolved: that somehow the use of military power against another sovereign state can be portrayed as not war, but as "just" a strike. While it may be news to some pundits and hawkish politicians, there is no such thing as "a bit of war" in international law. A similar doublespeak is present in the U.S. Congress where there is talk of an oil embargo, i.e. to physically prevent vessels from reaching or leaving Iranian harbors carrying oil products. Under international law, that constitutes an act of war.  

 On the one hand, some deem Iran to be an existential threat, implying a serious military risk; and on the other hand, that threat seems to be rather negligible, since threatening Iran with war is not expected to have any serious retaliatory consequences. The fixation on Iran's nuclear program and the many projections of the Islamic Republic's ever-imminent breakout as a nuclear weapon state would be hyperbole were it not for the serial amnesia afflicting public and political discourse. New predictions are made as soon as the old ones expire. 

 An Iranian nuclear bomb will not pose a existential threat to the United States, but it will bring home a reality that most politicians in Washington have learned to ignore over the years: Iran is a major regional actor that wants a seat at the table. In this regard many may scoff at the notion of nuclear weapons as a status symbol yet it is quite evident that possessing them can very well play a role in enhancing to stature of a country.  

 The real fear behind especially the Israeli hyperbole on Iran is not an imminent existential threat either, but rather the prospect of losing its regional monopoly on nuclear weapons, forcing the country to finally deal with a geopolitical reality that requires reciprocal relationships. One of the reasons the Israeli leadership can afford (so far) to evade the political reality and consequences of their own actions and the make up of the region is their sway (real and imagined) in U.S. policymaking with regard to the Middle East.  

 With regard to the threat assessment it should be pointed out that in the case of the Soviet Union the threat was of course existential in the sense that there was an actual, rather than imagined, parity between the parties and that was exactly the reason why neither party threw threats of war around lightly (the doctrine of mutually assured destruction kept everyone alert and sufficiently cautious).   

 Iran's military capabilities pale in comparison to that of the U.S. (and Israel). Furthermore, the Iranian regime is not half as mad as it is often portrayed. The primary objective of the leadership in Tehran is regime survival; its secondary aim is to achieve and maintain regional prominence. Neither of these two goals are irrational (though they may be unpalatable for many), nor is the behavior of elite coalitions indicative of some reckless urge to fulfill a death wish. 

 Dominoes of war 

 The flaws of the different sets of policies employed by the different parties are like an avalanche of chickens coming home to roost. In the U.S. there seems to be a belief that the formula "pressure on Iran equals concessions at the negotiation table" is open ended, i.e the more the better with no end in sight. The Israelis in turn try and top this by constantly reminding everyone that if Iran does not give in (totally if one is to believe the Israeli red line of zero enrichment) war is always a viable option. The Iranians in turn think their way to a strong negotiation position is to tell everyone how dangerous they are and thus in no mood or need for making concessions. 

 In a sense the inherent logic of these policies is pushing us toward the abyss, but because everyone is busy tinkering with their own faulty Lego set, they don't seem to notice how it all comes together into a perfect storm. In this regard the situation is very reminiscent of 1914, when a set of primarily defensive alliances made in order to deter military adventurism worked against their original purpose, once the initial spark set the war machines in motion. Like a domino effect, the defensive alliance system instead guaranteed that all the major powers in Europe got dragged into the conflict. Given the growing complexities of the region in the current situation since the Arab Awakening and the emerging fault lines there, a situation that shares even a fraction of the consequences and instability of the catastrophic European experience should give pause to anyone pursuing a belligerent policy now. 

 The article of faith in the U.S. is that pressure is the only thing that the Iranians understand and will eventually force them to commit to serious negotiations. A bill currently being pursued in the U.S. Senate stating that containment is impossible, and any enrichment in Iran is unacceptable, is not ratcheting up the pressure on Iran. On the contrary, it's tying the hands of the Obama administration and making the whole point of negotiations moot. In those negotiations no one will achieve their maximalist goals. And those who think that the nuclear program is solely an Iranian government ploy should remember that when Ahmadinejad was backing the original Tehran Research Reactor deal in late 2009, he was heavily criticized for giving up too much by both fellow conservatives and the leaders of the Green movement. While no one knows for sure how large the support is for Iran's nuclear program among the population there, it is fairly certain that a civilian program has support across the political spectrum. 

 The sanction proponents in the West can be divided into three groups; those who actually believe the sanctions can be effective (as in changing Iranian position on the nuclear program); those who see it as a way of avoiding war while still doing "something;" and finally those who think it's a box that needs to be checked before moving to the real goal of war. And considering the draconian sanctions already in place, it is difficult to imagine any remaining strategic arenas that could be sanctioned. So for those who have held on to sanctions because it looks like good policy and because, by now everyone knows how to "do sanctions," (the inertia of bureaucratic habit) they are now reaching their end destination. 

 In this regard the Obama administration seems to be somewhat more flexible than the Netanyahu government. While the Israelis insist on zero enrichment, the U.S. position seems to allow for some enrichment facilities remaining in Iran. It is highly unlikely that Tehran would give up its enrichment program altogether, and to insist on its total dismantling is both unrealistic and gives the impression that the purpose of such a demand is to ensure the failure of negotiations. What engagement with Iran actually means and the nature of the end game is still unclear to many, indicating the general lack of strategic thinking in Washington and Tel Aviv. The problem now for the Obama administration is not necessarily its own assessment of what can be achieved, but the fact that it seems that Prime Minister Netanyahu and U.S. Congress are not willing to take an Iranian "yes" for an answer unless it amounts to complete capitulation. 

 Obviously the concomitant problem on the other side is that the factions in Tehran have to get their own act together, setting out clear objectives and possible concessions for any negotiations to even begin. In this regard the latest letter by Iran's top nuclear negotiator Dr. Saeed Jalili is a step in the right direction as it both signals a willingness to negotiate concrete issues and a clear cut mandate to do so. But U.S. posturing suggests that Tehran's pessimism and skepticism regarding the political ability or willingness of the Obama administration to lift sanctions (a first incentive in any bargain) is not wholly misguided. 

 The Iranians have their own echo chamber which magnifies the most defiant and hardline tendencies within their system. Their logic is that a possible attack is best averted by aggressive posturing, which will signal just how costly such an adventure would be for the U.S.. They believe that concessions have a very uncertain yield and that the ultimate aim of this pressure and threat of military strikes is regime change. Additionally, the economic pressure from the U.S. and the EU is seen as a form of warfare. They have seen the starkly different fates of Qaddafi in Libya and the Kim Il-Jung dynasty in North Korea. We can only speculate about what the original motivation for a nuclear program was, but most likely it went from being a future deterrence against Saddam Hussein's Iraq to becoming a potential insurance against U.S.-led regime change by means of war. Taking a lesson from the Israeli playbook, a certain ambiguity about the program may also have been seen as beneficial. The problem now is that the threat of war might very well prompt the decision to actually weaponize, a decision not yet taken (regardless of claims to the contrary by some inside the Beltway), and which the pressure on Iran is actually supposed to avert. And those who project diabolic intentions into Iran's behavior will interpret this not as a reason to take a step back from the brink of war but rather as yet another reason for why initiating war is better sooner rather than later. 

 Besides the risk of an accidental war, due to all the military vessels from both sides that now traverse the Persian Gulf and no regular lines of communication existing between the parties, the mutual projections of ill intent and mistrust and the rigid set of policies everyone abides by will keep moving us towards the edge of the cliff. Now the question becomes: who has the wherewithal to step back and suggest something that allows everyone to go home with enough of a gain, if not outright victory, as to avoid the eruption of a full scale conflict? A number of important active and former politicians and security officials have voiced their concern regarding the situation and how dangerous and ultimately fruitless a war would be, but only time will tell whether the principals will take heed and manage to stop the juggernaut of war from starting to move. 

This piece was first published in Foreign Policy