Commentary

An Iran Trap?

By Stanley Kober
November 21, 2005
The Middle East, never a region of the world known for calm, is now experiencing especially unusual turmoil. There is the ongoing struggle between Israel and the Palestinians, and the new conflict for control of Iraq. Syria is under UN investigation for alleged involvement in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. And Iran is the subject of international concern because of its nuclear program.

Now Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has thrown a match. His call for wiping Israel off the map has been denounced in the West, and there has even been some suggestion of military action. At a press conference, British Prime Minister Tony Blair pointedly warned, “If they carry on like this the question people will be asking is, ‘When are you going to do something about it?’” Underlining the threat, a “senior government source” told Britain’s Daily Telegraph, “The prime minister didn’t use the ‘M’ word — but he is making clear that we have to think about these things very seriously indeed.”

To be sure, Tehran is also thinking seriously about these things. The possibility must be considered that Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric is part of a campaign to provoke a Western country — the United States, Britain or Israel — into launching a military strike. What better way to precipitate the war that will ultimately result in wiping Israel off the map?

At first glance, this will appear astonishing, given common perceptions of the military balance. But it is precisely the difference in those perceptions that would be at the heart of such a strategy. What is in question is not the difference in the balance of power as such, but rather in the balance of what might be called usable military power.

The United States is a superpower because of its ability to destroy. But the United States does not want to destroy so much as it wants the threat of destruction to achieve its political purpose. That was the idea behind “shock and awe”: our enemies would be so stunned by the demonstration of our military power that they would be awed into submission.

Unfortunately, it has not turned out that way. We repeated the mistake we made during the Cold War. Because the Soviets typically retreated when we confronted them, we expected the Vietnamese would, too. After all, the Vietnamese were much weaker militarily than the Soviet Union, so that was only logical. But the Vietnamese sensed there were limits to our escalation, and within those limits they were able to wear down steadily U.S. forces until our morale cracked. We preferred withdrawal and defeat to the moral and political consequences of escalating to total war against North Vietnam.

That same situation confronts us now in Iraq. We have, if anything, an even greater power to destroy, but our forces continue to suffer casualties. Against whom can we use our superior firepower? Whom can we threaten — whom can we destroy — to make the roadside bombs stop?

That is why the United States and her allies in Iraq are now trying to train rapidly Iraqis to replace our forces. We are, in effect, admitting we have lost the ability to awe.

British forces, like the Americans, are also threatened by roadside bombs and the British government has accused Iran of providing the bombmakers with more effective technology. Whatever the case, the British are increasingly forced to modify their tactics, using helicopters rather than vehicles to deploy troops. Indeed, the British are even encountering difficulties finding enough planes capable of flying into the hostile environment of Basra so they can rotate troops in and out.

In short, Blair’s outburst may be explained not only by his outrage over Ahmadinejad’s statement, but by his concern that unless something is done, the British position in Iraq will become increasingly endangered. Blair is threatening, in the hope that he will not have to carry out the threat.

But what if that does not work? What if the Iranians, like the Vietnamese, are not intimidated? If you threaten and do nothing, you look foolish. And if you do attack and the other side does not back down, you must either expand the war or conduct an ignoble retreat.

Ahmadinejad’s threat, it should be noted, was not isolated, but looks like part of a coordinated strategy. He may be attempting to foment a wider war between Islam and the West, beginning with the most western-oriented country in the region, Israel.

And he does not appear to be alone. Akbar Rafsanjani, the head of Iran’s Expediency Council, credited the actions of organizations like Islamic Jihad for compelling the Israeli evacuation from Gaza, endorsing the view that resistance — rather than negotiation — would lead to withdrawal from other territory. When the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, visited Syria in late September, he scorned U.S. “pressures on the two nations” to desist in their support of “the legitimate rights of the Palestinians.”

In short, the Iranians are not backing down; on the contrary, their actions indicate preparation for further confrontation. Like the Vietnamese, they seem to have calculated the limits of American escalation. If that is the case, we need to find out where we’re going before we escalate. Otherwise, we might find out — too late — that we have walked into a trap.

Stanley Kober is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.