The Dominoes of War With Iran
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.