War has become Washington’s panacea for any international problem. Since the end of the Cold War, no other state has attacked as many countries or threatened as many countries as has the United States.
The most persistent threat to use force has been against Iran, which is said to endanger the United States. Yet Iranians likely believe differently.
In 1953, Washington supported a coup against the democratic Iranian government. Through 1979, every American administration backed the repressive Shah. In the1980s, the United States supported Iraq’s aggressive war against Iran. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama ostentatiously kept “all options on the table.”
Military threats continue to rain down on Tehran. For instance, since Iran will not negotiate away its bomb, in the view of Bush administration aide, John Bolton the United States must attack: “Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.”
SAIS’s Joshua Muravchik recently argued that “we can strike as often as necessary.” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) explained, “we have to be willing and we have to make the leadership of Iran realize that we are willing to take military action.”
The belief that war would be quick, simple, and sure reflects either simple-minded naiveté or criminal arrogance. Virtually every military action Washington has taken in the Middle East has resulted in unintended consequences. Bombing Iran would be no different.
Former General Anthony Zinni warned: “I think anybody that believes that it would be a clear strike and it would be over and there would be no reaction is foolish.” Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta predicted that “we could possibly be the target of retaliation from Iran, striking our ships, striking our military bases.” Another former Pentagon chief, Robert Gates, warned of possible “catastrophic” consequences, including making “a nuclear-armed Iran inevitable.”
Treating one of the most important Middle Eastern states as a permanent enemy would rally the Iranian public around the regime, set back the cause of democracy, encourage Tehran to proceed with nuclear weapons, and create another Islamic grievance. An attack on Iran could spark a violent reaction among Arabs as well as Muslims elsewhere in the world.
American actions also should be constrained by morality. War can be justified in self-defense, but Iran poses no meaningful threat to the United States. For instance, Sen. Cotton noted that Tehran “can’t challenge us,” including America’s Mideast allies.
The case for war comes down to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power. There are lots of good reasons to want Tehran to remain free of nuclear weapons. But absent a suicidal impulse, which so far has been absent from Iran’s leaders, there is no chance that Tehran would launch an attack on either America or Israel (which possesses upwards of 200 nukes).
Israel has particular reason to feel uncomfortable with an Islamic bomb, but one already exists in unstable Pakistan. Senior Israeli policymakers in Mossad and other security and military agencies routinely dismiss claims of Iranian irrationality.
The region’s Muslim leaders also oppose an Iranian bomb and other nations conceivably could join Tehran in a nuclear race. An undesirable outcome, no doubt, but one not warranting America to initiate war against a state which has not attacked or even threatened to attack the United States.
One of the oddest arguments for bombing Iran is that if America doesn’t bomb Iran now, possession of a nuclear weapon would allow Tehran to deter America in the future, preventing America from bombing Iran then. War thus goes from means to end: The United States should kill and destroy to protect its ability to kill and destroy.
As I wrote in Forbes: “War is not just another policy option. It should be a last resort, reserved for the most important interests and most moral causes.”
None of these is at stake in the case of Iran. The mere fact that America is able to war against every nation on the planet does not justify it doing so.