A Flawed Strategy to Intimidate Iran

An especially dubious argument that some advocates of using military force against Syria put forth is that missile strikes would “send a message” to Iran about U.S. power and determination.  In a new article over at the National Interest Online, I point out that not only is the logic of that argument badly flawed in this specific case, it’s not even a new argument.  Numerous hawks during the prelude to the Iraq War a decade ago insisted that eliminating Saddam Hussein’s regime would either intimidate Tehran or (somehow) lead to a popular uprising against the mullahs.

Of course, neither of those developments occurred.  Instead, the United States became mired in a lengthy war that snuffed out some 4,500 American lives, consumed $850 billion in direct costs (plus hundreds of billions more in indirect and long-term costs), and caused extremely bitter domestic divisions.  Moreover, far from being intimidated, Tehran doggedly continued to pursue its nuclear program and became even more recalcitrant toward the United States.  One would like to see the armchair war hawks who pushed the “intimidation” thesis in the Iraq War debate acknowledge their blunder instead of peddling the same foreign policy snake oil with regard to Syria.

Lobbing missiles at Syria might make Tehran even more determined to develop a nuclear arsenal.  Saddam Hussein was a mortal enemy who had invaded Iran and waged a nearly decade-long war.  The clerical regime shed few tears at his departure.  The United States did the mullahs a large favor by removing the principal strategic counterweight to Iran’s power in the region.  Post-Saddam Iraq under a Shiite-led government in Baghdad is actually quite friendly to Iran, much to Washington’s chagrin.

A U.S. attack on Syria would have no such inadvertent benefit for Iran.  In fact, leaders in Tehran would likely view a move against Damascus as merely a prelude to an assault on Iran itself.  Bashar al-Assad’s government is one of Iran’s few close allies, so unlike the U.S. war against Saddam, there would be no sense of schadenfreude in Tehran.  Instead, it would give greater credibility to hard-liners who argue that there is no hope of a decent relationship with Washington, and that Iran must redouble its effort to build nuclear weapons, since the possession of a nuclear arsenal is the only way to deter a U.S. attack.  Blasting Syria might indeed send a message to Iran, but it would not be the one U.S. leaders desire.

U.S. policy makers need to rethink their strategy with respect to Syria, and the Russian chemical weapons proposal has given them the opportunity to do.   They especially need to abandon the notion that attacking another Middle Eastern country will intimidate Iran.  The Iraq War already demonstrated the fallacy of that thesis.