Commentary

Iran: Déjà Vu All Over Again

By Charles V. Peña
June 12, 2003

Al Qaeda. Weapons of mass destruction. But this time it’s Iran, not Iraq. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld says Iran is harboring senior al Qaeda leaders who are linked to the recent bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. And the administration says that Iran’s covert nuclear program could be used for weapons development but the Iranians say it is for peaceful purposes. Are we headed for another war?

In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush named North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as regimes that “constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” The first member of the club, Iraq, has already been dispatched with relative ease. So it should come as no surprise that in the aftermath of that victory confidence is high and regime change in Tehran is being discussed in administration circles.

In some ways, Iran appears to be more dangerous than Iraq, which now appears to have been less of a threat than Washington’s pre-war rhetoric suggested. Iran’s military is larger and probably in better condition than Saddam’s forces, which were degraded as a result of the Gulf War and a decade of sanctions. Iran’s defense expenditures are more than six times those of Iraq. Iran has Scud missiles, as well as longer-range Shahab-3 missiles that can reach much of the Middle East and South Asia, as well as the Persian Gulf. Iran has both chemical and biological weapons. And Iran is considered a state-sponsor of terrorism that backs the anti-Israeli groups Hezbollah, HAMAS, and the Palestine Islamic Jihad.

Let’s also not forget that it was the Iranians who took 52 Americans hostage after seizing the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979. Only after 444 days, a failed hostage rescue attempt, and the release of almost $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets were the hostages freed. If there are those in America who felt there was unfinished business and old scores to settle with Iraq, the same can be said for Iran.

The bottom line, however, is that Iran, like Iraq, is not a direct military threat to the United States, even if it possesses weapons of mass destruction. The terrorist groups Iran supports are anti-Israeli and do not currently target the United States. And the allegations of linkages to al Qaeda are as tenuous as the claims made about Iraq. As Yogi Berra said, it’s déjà vu all over again.

It would be folly for the United States to wage another war against another Muslim nation after Afghanistan and Iraq. Such action would likely be interpreted as a war against Islam by the rest of the Muslim world. If anything, the United States needs to avoid turning the war on terrorism against al Qaeda into a larger holy war against Islam and the more than one billion Muslims around the world. For that is exactly what bin Laden wants but is unable to accomplish on his own. Yet this seems to be the course the administration is steering by putting Iran in its sights since the military victory in Iraq. The reality is that the United States already has its hands full trying to restore law and order in post-war Iraq. America can ill afford to get bogged down in another military and nation-building adventure next door.

Clearly, the administration is concerned about a fundamentalist Islamic country acquiring nuclear weapons. But what better way to create more incentive to obtain such weapons than threatening to topple the regime in Tehran? And if the administration tries to undermine the ruling Islamic clerics, they are likely to suppress the fledgling democratic reform movement.

The rest of the world was skeptical about the administration’s rationale for invading Iraq. It is likely to be more skeptical about Iran. But the real question is whether — having yet to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or any real linkages to al Qaeda — the American public is willing to suspend disbelief a second time.

Charles V. Peña is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.