While The Military Balance expresses some concern about Iranian naval threats, these would likely bring about extra‐regional opposition, including from the United States, should they cause havoc in energy prices. A nuclear deterrent would not free up Iran to cause much trouble with its conventional military forces for the simple reason that its conventional military forces are weak and defensively oriented.
Indeed, some of the most serious risks posed by a nuclear Iran derive from its weakness, not its strength. The small size of Iran’s prospective nuclear arsenal might make it anxious about the prospect of a splendid first strike in which Israel or the United States attempts to destroy all of Iran’s weapons, producing a “use them or lose them” attitude in the Iranian military. The way to diminish the prospect of a twitchy trigger finger in Iran is to increase communication and to make clearer doctrinal distinctions about what sorts of military developments would cross which red lines for states in the region. These are not happy thoughts, but neither are ones about another preventive war.
The main reason the United States and Israel do not want Iran to obtain a nuclear deterrent is not fear of Iranian regional hegemony, but rather that they do not wish to be deterred from attacking Iran. The Iranians certainly know this and accordingly see the frantic efforts to prevent them from acquiring a deterrent as threatening.
That this reality is tragic makes it no less real. Matthew Kroenig, a professor at Georgetown University, begins with this kernel of truth and argues that Iran could obtain a veto on any U.S. military initiative in the region: “A nuclear‐armed Iran would immediately limit U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East. With atomic power behind it, Iran could threaten any U.S. political or military initiative in the Middle East with nuclear war, forcing Washington to think twice before acting in the region.”
If one is willing to follow Kroenig in ignoring away the relative stakes involved for Tehran and Washington in these hypotheticals, this argument stands. Without doing so, it collapses. It is absolutely true that “U.S. freedom of action” to, say, change the regime in Iran would be limited by an Iranian deterrent. But it is absurd to believe either that a.) Iran would make nuclear threats over peripheral interests in the region, or that b.) even if it did, the United States should credit such threats. It is difficult to ignore the fact that many of those advancing fears of a nuclear Iran also favor a very ambitious strategy in the region, up to and including preserving America’s option to change the Iranian regime should it decide to do so.
Heroic Eunuchs in Congress
Despite President Obama’s declaration that a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable,” there is reason to believe he may not unilaterally launch a war against Iran. He did not accede to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s request that he make an Iranian nuclear weapons “capability” the U.S. red line. Doing so likely would have been a political winner for Obama, but it also would have allowed pundits to declare, depending on their definitions of that term, that a war should have begun some time ago. The president has condemned the “loose talk of war” coming from Republicans looking to curry favor with hawkish campaign contributors, demanding that they make clear exactly what they would do in his shoes. These sentiments could change, of course, but should Obama be reelected, Congress may become the X factor.
If Obama were to remain dovish on Iran, the profound moral cowardice of the hawks in Congress might perversely be the biggest bulwark against war. Despite all their chest puffing and rhetorical bravado, there is little chance that Congress will declare war on Iran or force the president’s hand. The reasons for this are complicated but worth explaining.
Traditional conservatives will recall that Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war. They will also recall that despite the last 60 years of American diplomatic history, the last enemy against whom the United States declared war was Ion Antonescu’s Romania in June 1942.
Part of the reason congressional war‐making has fallen out of favor is that in declaring war Congress leaves its fingerprints all over the affair. If the decision is a bad one, legislators might pay a dear political price for having embroiled the nation in a costly or counterproductive war. The Founders’ decision to vest war‐making power in the Congress reflected in part a belief that the nation should be reticent to enter conflicts. As enunciated by James Wilson, entrusting the war power to Congress had the advantage that “this system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it.”
But as with so many other legislative powers, the war power has been delegated by Congress to the president. To this point, Congress has urged the president to launch a war on Iran while ignoring its own power to do so. Last November, Senator Joseph Lieberman told the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol that there is “a broad, bipartisan base of support if the Commander in Chief comes to a point where he thinks [war with Iran is] necessary.” Lieberman and his permahawk confrère Sen. Lindsey Graham have drafted legislation declaring that the president can do anything he wants to Iran except contain it. And on the heels of the AIPAC policy conference in Washington this March, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell called on the Congress to pass a resolution authorizing the president to bomb Iran—but not forcing him to do so.
By urging the president forward in these ways without exercising its war power, Congress can turn the war transaction into all upside and no downside for itself. By delegating the actual decision to the president, Congress can claim to interested political audiences that it is sufficiently alarmed about the threat posed by Iran without taking responsibility for actually doing anything about it.
Imagine the president used the authority of nonbinding legislation to bomb Iran. If the war turns out terribly, Congress can shrug and say that the resolution didn’t mean the president should really do that. If it goes well, legislators can claim credit. If, on the other hand, the president does nothing and Iran goes nuclear, Congress can complain that they wanted the president to do something but instead he ignored their advice and let Iran get a bomb. As policy, this is terrible. As politics, it’s genius.
Congressional cowardice is not all upside for the rest of us, however. Many of the things Congress has done only push the United States and Iran closer to war. As the Brookings Institution’s Suzanne Maloney pointed out after Congress passed sanctions on Iran’s central bank, the legislation makes no demands that Iran could comply with in order to get the penalties lifted. Combined with loose talk of war from high‐ranking Republicans and Democrats like Sen. Carl Levin, who recently murmured on C-SPAN about blockading Iran, these sorts of moves are likely to harden the belief in Tehran that the only thing that can satisfy America is regime change—and that Iran needs a nuclear deterrent to prevent that.
And should Mitt Romney or another Republican win the presidency, all bets would be off. Romney’s three counter‐proliferation advisors are Eric Edelman, a hawkish official who served in the Rumsfeld Pentagon and has publicly argued for bombing Iran; Robert Joseph, also a hawkish official in the Bush administration; and Stephen Rademaker, yet another a hawkish nonproliferation retread from the Bush administration, one who recently served with Edelman on a task force recommending a naval blockade and/or air strikes against Iran to prevent it from going nuclear.
Stuck on Stubborn
The central dilemma of U.S. policy toward Iran is this: What might work can’t happen, and what might happen can’t work.
To be sure, there is an Iraq fatigue syndrome in Washington and in the country, and this is having a salutary effect on the debate over Iran. In contrast with the groupthink that accompanied the decision to invade Iraq, there are a number of voices opposing war with Iran. The American people are showing increasing cynicism about buying a conflict from the same talking heads who sold them the last one. The intertwined themes of austerity and national decline should further dampen any latent adventurism.
For now the question is whether one believes diplomacy can work. Hope in most quarters that it will makes a war in the near term unlikely. But in all probability diplomacy will not work, and the question of war or not‐war will rise again. When it does, Washington may decide to restrain itself. Before rushing to think that it will, however, ask yourself how much money you would bet on that proposition.