Global Policy Forum

Iran: Don't Do It


By Matthew Yglesias

April 20, 2006

As the rumbles of war are heard over the horizon, many feel they've heard this whole story before. But with all due respect to those who correctly ascertained in advance that backing Bush's march on Baghdad was insane, following the neoconservatives to Teheran would be far, far, far more insane.

The United States military is, for one thing, in much worse shape today than it was in March, 2003, with far fewer resources at its disposal (see the Iraq War). The Iranian military, meanwhile, is in better shape than Iraq's army was, since it hasn't been subjected to more than a decade of stifling sanctions. Iran is geographically larger than Iraq. Its population is about twice as large as Iraq's. Perhaps more to the point, the vast majority of the trouble in Iraq has been made by a distinct minority of the population—the one Iraqi in five, more or less, who is Sunni Arab, the dominant group in the Baathist ancient regime. Fully half of Iranians are Shiite Persians, so we're talking about a nationalist backlash with a population base about four or five times as large as the one we're facing in Iraq.

Surveying that scene, many have concluded that rather than an invasion, some sort of aerial bombing campaign, perhaps backed by special operations forces, is in order. This is foolish. If we bomb Iran, Iran will find a way to strike back—either at oil operations in the Persian Gulf, at American troops in Iraq, or using Hezbollah as a proxy. The conflict will escalate. To stop the Iranian nuclear problem, meanwhile, it would have to escalate. Blowing some stuff up won't make the Iranians abandon their quest for nuclear weapons, it will intensify it. At best, bombing will delay the Iranian program. At worst, by causing them to redouble their commitment, it will actually speed it.

The more honest among the hawks, including Mark Steyn in a recent City Journal article, admit as much. Only "regime change" can keep Iran nuke-free. But we don't have the troops to occupy the country. Steyn's "solution" is for the United States to overthrow the Iranian government but skip the occupation.

This is so mind-bogglingly stupid as to defy belief. It couldn't possibly work. What would it accomplish? You need to believe that a stable, viable, democratic government would just emerge overnight—perhaps by magic—and immediately establish control over all of Iranian territory. It's a fantasy, a dream. Whether hawks actually believe this is or are just pretending to do so, counting on conscription (or something) to provide the troops necessary for an occupation, I couldn't say. Either way, these are not people who should be listened to or in any way given a respectful hearing.

The Iraq War, meanwhile, was semi-legitimate under international law. There were years worth of United Nations resolutions demanding that Saddam come clean about his WMD. Even though he turned out not to have had any, he really didn't ever come clean. Resolution 1441, passed before the war, was deliberately ambiguous as to whether it authorized the use of force. None of this is true of Iran. Everything it's done so far is allowed under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). If Iran does go forward with a bomb program, it will need to leave the NPT, something the NPT itself permits. There's nothing resembling a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force, and the United States has cozy alliances with two non-NPT countries (Israel and Pakistan) and is getting cozier with India.

Saddam's regime really was one of the most brutal in the world (probably number two after North Korea). Iran's regime is unpleasant, but not notably more repressive than those prevailing in the region. Indeed, compared to close Arab allies of the United States like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, etc., Iran is closer to being a democracy. Politically, it's about on the level of Morocco's pseudo-democracy, probably the most progressive of the bunch. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is given to saying crazy stuff, but unlike Saddam, the Iranians have never waged war on their neighbors and the government hasn't even "gassed its own people" or whatever other talking points you want to break out. Nor has Iran, to anyone's knowledge, ever been involved in any terrorist attacks on American civilians.

Instead, the big fear is supposed to be that Iran will launch an unprovoked nuclear first strike against Israel. The evidence for this is so weak that people feel the need to make stuff up. In The New Republic, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen tried to make this case and had to clearly misinterpret something a former (yes, former) president of Iran said after he left office to do it. In a later issue of the same magazine, Matthias Kuntzel just truncated the same quotation to make his interpretation seem more plausible. Jeffrey Bell once alleged in The Weekly Standard that Ahmadinejad "muses about the possibility of correcting that Nazi failure by dropping a nuclear bomb on Israel," which never happened. I called him up and asked him about that, and he explained he was using "poetic license" (my understanding had always been that journalists, not actually being poets or fiction writers of any sort, didn't have this license).

This aside, the idea that any Iranian leader would commit national suicide in order to harm Israel is ridiculous. Lots of "crazy" leaders—Stalin, Mao, Kim Jong Il—have had nuclear weapons and they've never done anything like that. What's more, if Iran wanted to start a war with Israel, kill a bunch of Jews, and get wiped out in the process they could do that with conventional weapons. But in more than 20 years in power, the Islamic Republic has never done any such thing. Indeed, just over the weekend Iran announced it would offer up a paltry $50 million in aid to the new Hamas-ified Palestinian Authority compared with many hundreds of millions in funding the PA lost from Europe and the United States. Just as they taught me in Hebrew school, the Islamic world's governments like to talk a big game about Israel, but don't actually give a rat's ass about the issue and never have.

They'll do anything to help the Palestinian cause unless it involves spending money, risking the stability of their own regimes, or deploying their military assets. Now we're supposed to believe that, suddenly, the mullahs are willing to guarantee their own destruction in order to turn the holy city of Jerusalem into a radioactive wasteland. That's absurd.

A nuclear Iran, however, would be worse than a non-nuclear one. Enough worse, that it's worth trying to see what kind of diplomatic concessions the Iranians might want in exchange for giving their program up. Maybe if we stopped trying to impoverish their country and overthrow their government while threatening to bomb them, they'd agree to rigorous inspections. If so, we should take the deal. If not, then we'll live with it. But under no circumstances should war be an option.

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