How might the United States end up in a boots-on-the-ground shooting war with Iran?
This is the specter that President Obama summons when he warns that congressional rejection of his nuclear agreement with Iran would lead to “some form of war . . . . if not tomorrow . . . then soon.” But it is Obama’s deal itself that is more likely to lead to such a regrettable outcome. It is all but guaranteed to make a region that is already convulsed in violence, thanks to Obama’s strategy of reducing America’s presence, that much more violent. The administration virtually acknowledges this by suddenly promising all our regional allies vast new transfers of weapons to allay their anxieties about his Iran deal.
When he warns of “war,” clearly Obama does not mean merely a U.S. air campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities (as I and a few others have openly espoused) for by that token he has embroiled us already in “wars” in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Rather, he means to evoke the image of a protracted, bloody struggle, like what we faced in Iraq last decade. What scenarios could lead to that?
The United States and other democracies have gotten into wars more often by excess dovishness that has tempted expansionist dictators to overreach than by the hawkish “mindset” that Obama cited as having gotten us into Iraq and would somehow do likewise in Iran. The best-known example is the policy of appeasement that paved the way to World War Two. But something analogous led to World War One, when England’s announced aversion to fighting on the European continent emboldened the German military; and to the Korean War which was preceded by U.S. declarations that the Korean peninsula lay outside America’s “defense perimeter”; and to the 1990-91 Gulf War when U.S. ambassador April Glaspie told Saddam Hussein: “We have no opinion on your Arab – Arab conflicts.”
In today’s Middle East the principal expansionist power is Iran. Through Hezbollah it already largely controls Lebanon and as much of Syria as is still ruled by Damascus. It is also the sole backer of the Houthi movement that now dominates Yemen, and it is the most influential outside force in Iraq.
Iran’s ambitions go much farther. In a speech in March, Ali Younesi, an advisor to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and a former minister of intelligence, gloated that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “acknowledged . . . Iran’s might and influence” by saying that “Iran has taken over four countries.” But, Younesi corrected, “Iran was only trying to help” them. He added that, likewise, Iran would “support all the people living in the Iranian plateau, and we will defend them.” He defined this plateau as stretching “from the borders of China and the Indian subcontinent to the north and south Caucasus and the Persian Gulf.” (Translation by MEMRI.) If this sounds grandiose, recall that Ayatollah Khomeini viewed the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran as but the first shot in a worldwide Islamic revolution.
Obama’s nuclear agreement will stoke Iran’s ambitions in three ways. First, the lifting of sanctions will provide Tehran an infusion of funds, estimated by some experts as $150 billion although Obama puts the figure at $56 billion by counting only the sums of Iranian money frozen in foreign banks, not any of the new profits and investments that will be undammed. Whatever the number, it means billions for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its proxies (as well as the apparatus of domestic repression). Second, the agreement will assure that Iran can make nuclear weapons sooner or later. Even a delay of ten years means little in a region where rulers often hold power for thirty and the sense of historical drama sweeps over millennia in a way that it is hard for us denizens of the new world to understand. Iran’s looming nuclear power will begin at once to generate power shifts as well as threats, accommodations and counteractions. Third, Iran and its proxies feel they have won a victory over the West. Iran secured “more than what was imagined,” boasted President Rouhani, while the leader of Hezbollah’s bloc in Lebanon’s parliament exulted that thanks to the nuclear agreement, “Iran is now a superpower” that has “succeeded in humiliating the world’s ruling powers.”