Here we go again. In a desperate bid to alienate the 9 remaining Muslims who don’t already hate the USA, the Republican candidates now seem to differ only on whether to bomb Iran right away or just real soon.
Now of course bombing is the Republican default solution for international problems, just like cutting taxes for the wealthy is their universal remedy for internal woes, so I can’t actually be surprised about these drumbeats. What would surprise me would be some discussion of the risks and benefits of the various geopolitical options.
I think we can agree that, all things being equal, Iran not having nukes is better than Iran having nukes. Religious nutcases with nuclear weapons make everyone nervous (an excellent reason to keep Rick Santorum out of the White House). But all things are rarely equal. So what do we risk by bombing or not bombing Iran?
The risks of bombing include
- Immediate war—that might not even achieve its stated aims
- Consolidation of the Iranian theocracy
- Long-term polarization of the Muslim world against the USA
War: Bombing another country is of course an act of war and the Iranian rulers would be at significant risk if they didn’t respond. Likely retaliations would include missile strikes on Israel, terror attacks on US military and civilian targets around the world, and interference with oil shipments to the West. Israel thinks the missiles would kill “only” hundreds, which they would tolerate. Not sure how many terror bombings and increases in the price of gas the US would tolerate without escalation to strikes on Iranian military targets and even invasion. Furthermore, although it’s likely that bombing would slow the Iranian nuclear program, it’s unlikely that material damage could stop it. Israel’s hope (see NY Times op-ed by a former chief of Israeli military intelligence) is that an attack would deter Iran from further work on a nuclear capability. However, it’s equally arguable that they would consider an attack prima facie evidence that they need nuclear weapons and would double their efforts.
Theocracy: Enemies are a despot’s best friend. There’s nothing like an external threat to unite people behind a regime, however oppressive and incompetent (eg, 9/11 and G W Bush), and an actual war is even better. Who could fail to rally ’round the flag when bombs are falling? Right now, the Iranian theocracy is tottering, as last year’s near-revolution showed. However, an American and/or Israeli attack would confirm the mullahs’ fear mongering and lock them into power for another generation or more.
Polarization: The main problem with nuclear weapons is not other countries having them, it’s other countries using them. On us. The more the USA is viewed as the enemy, the more likely we are to come under attack, conventional or nuclear. One more war with a Muslim country would probably be one war too many for most Muslim nations, and the populist movements we have seen spring up in many places would likely turn anti-American. The biggest existential threat to the USA in the next half-century (aside from a far-right-wing revolution) is a global nuclear exchange against a united Muslim world. Right now, they are too fragmented, but given sufficient motivation, the Muslims might well come together—united to protect themselves against us. Note that the Muslim world is already completely polarized against Israel, so this element is a risk only for the USA.
The risks of not bombing involve Iran developing nuclear weapons, leading to
- Nuclear missile attack on Israel or nuclear terror attack on USA
- Deterrence of Israeli and American interventions in the Middle East
- More brazen conventional terror attacks on Israel
Nuclear Pearl Harbor: A surprise nuclear strike on Israel or the USA is the specter that is raised in public. Scary? Yes. Gonna happen? No. Not even close. The reason being that Iran would be turned into a glowing wasteland in retaliation. Just because they send a few people to blow themselves up in shopping centers doesn’t mean they’re willing to destroy their whole country. And they’re not going to gamble that a weapon donated to a terror group would not be connected to them. The reality is that Iran would join the same nuclear stand-off that has prevented nuclear war since 1945.
Deterrence of US and Israeli interventions: The USA and Israel would feel less confident about intervening (i.e. invading and bombing) countries tied to Iran—Lebanon and Syria, both of which have made trouble for Israel over the years. Israel wants to maintain a free hand to quash threats from these countries. This is almost certainly the main reason for Israel’s strong push for us not to interfere with (and preferably to help) a military strike on Iran.
Increased terror attacks on Israel: Tied to previous point. Iran might feel emboldened to support an increased level of terror attacks on Israel. However, for this to be true, it would have to be the case that Iran hasn’t gone beyond current levels for fear of Israeli nuclear retaliation. It’s not at all clear that Israel would launch a nuclear strike solely in response to terror attacks.
So, in total, I’d say the benefits to the USA are far outweighed by the risks. For Israel, the balance is more in favor of an attack, and that’s likely what Netanyahu will push for on his visit here next week. So is it American or Israeli interest that will drive American foreign policy this year? Let’s see what President Obama tells AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee, self-described on their website, http://aipac.org/, as “America’s Pro-Israel Lobby”) when he addresses their annual policy conference tomorrow. They’re pushing hard for unqualified US support of whatever Israel wants to do. What do you think will happen?