Commentary

Is Iran Next on Washington’s Hit List?

By Charles V. Peña
September 9, 2002

The major media are dominated by the debate over the United States taking military action against Iraq. Skeptics are more vocal. And the administration appears to have dug in and become more resolute in its goal of regime change. But lost in the rhetoric on both sides is an important question: What comes after Iraq?

President Bush has named North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as regimes that “constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.” If the administration feels so strongly about the threat posed by Iraq, certainly the rest of the axis of evil can’t be given a pass.

If toppling Saddam Hussein goes as quickly and easily as advocates of war against Iraq assume, then why not take on the rest of the axis of evil (not to mention the other dozen or so countries that the Pentagon says are engaged in weapons of mass destruction programs and represent a threat to the United States)? Clearly, Iran is a logical candidate.

From an objective perspective, Iran would appear to be more dangerous than Iraq. Iran’s military is larger and probably in much better condition since Saddam’s forces have been degraded as a result of the Gulf War and sanctions and embargoes. Indeed, Iran’s defense expenditures are more than six times those of Iraq. Like Iraq, Iran has Scud missiles. But Iran also has longer-range Shahab-3 missiles that could reach much of the Middle East and South Asia, as well as the Persian Gulf. Also like Iraq, Iran has both chemical and biological weapons. And Iran may be closer to developing a nuclear weapon than Iraq. Finally, a better case can be made about Iran supporting terrorism than Iraq.

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 releasing almost $8 billion in frozen Iranian assets were the hostages freed. If there are those in America who feel there is unfinished business and old scores to be settled with Iraq, the same can be said for Iran.

Assuming the Turks are on board for military action against Iraq (it’s amazing what $5 billion can buy), the United States will then have Iran more or less boxed in on multiple sides from Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. With U.S. military forces already in the neighborhood and seemingly willing allies, it appears as though it would be a whole lot easier to go to Tehran next rather than taking on, say, Pyongyang.

It may be too late in the game to stop the administration juggernaut from taking military action against Iraq to remove Hussein from power. But it’s not too late to question the overall wisdom of pre-emptive strikes and regime change beyond Iraq. An unprovoked war against Iraq sets a dangerous precedent and whets the appetites of war hawks for a larger crusade against Iran.

Recently, the administration has accused Iran of harboring top-level al Qaeda leaders. This is simply the culmination of increasingly hostile rhetoric designed to bolster the case for the administration to take action against Iran after Iraq.

It would be folly for the United States to wage another war against another Muslim nation after Afghanistan and Iraq. Such action would 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. Yet this seems to be the course the administration is steering by putting Iraq and Iran in its sights.

It’s important to consider one other potential unintended consequence of the administration taking a hard line with Iran and having engaged in increasingly heated rhetoric against that country. The Iranian government might not support al Qaeda at present, but it could find a use for it under certain circumstances. If Iran is the next target after Iraq, then - much as Hussein might have nothing to lose by using chemical or biological weapons if we attack Iraq - perhaps the Iranian government would have nothing to lose by employing al Qaeda operatives to engage in terrorist acts against the America in response to U.S. military action.

There are always risks and consequences to U.S. actions. The United States ought to think twice about pursuing a policy of pre-emptive military action that might lead to even more terrorism and the creation of more enemies. That is especially pertinent when the job of taking down al Qaeda - the group responsible for killing thousands of innocent people on Sept. 11 - remains largely unfinished.

Charles V. Peña is senior defense policy analyst at the Cato Institute.