Archive for January, 2012

Originally published in Harvard’s Nieman Watchdog

By Haviland Smith

It’s difficult not to notice that there is a growing crescendo here at home which appears to be encouraging the United States to attack Iran.  Backers of this campaign, at least until recently, have been limited to the Neoconservatives who would like us to invade everywhere and who got us into the Iraq invasion, parts of the Israeli government, and those American supporters of Israel who never question anything the Israelis do.

However, to the amazement of many who do follow this kind of story, the game changed late last year with an article in “Foreign Affairs” which purported to explain “Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option”.  And this from one of the most venerated, serious, foreign policy publications in the world!

So, what’s wrong with this notion of attacking Iran?  Perhaps it’s best to look at it strictly in terms of American national interests, because that is what US foreign policy is supposed to reflect, particularly in matters of war.

Even if Iran is actually in the process of developing a nuclear weapon, which, incidentally, they and the International Atomic Energy Agency both say they are not, how does that represent an existential threat to the United States?  The Iranians do not have the required rocketry to deliver it here.  Even if they did, the decision to do so would involve Iranian acceptance of the fact that the inevitable retaliatory strike would destroy most of Iran.  If you are among that group of Americans who think of the Iranians as ignorant ragheads, think again.  These are educated, intelligent, sophisticated people.  They may be annoying, but they are anything but suicidal.

Furthermore, irrespective of the exhortations of the current Israeli Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, the same is true for Israel, since Israel’s nuclear arsenal and delivery systems leave little to be desired in terms of their effectiveness.  Retaliation, either from Israel or the US, for a strike on Israel would essentially eliminate Iran and the Iranians know it.  Nothing we have learned since the Cold War has invalidated George Kennan’s “containment policy”.

The value of nuclear weapons in foreign policy remains valid only as long as those weapons are not used.  Once used, once the damage is done, they are irrelevant.  No one can say precisely what is likely to happen if we or the Israelis are somehow stupid enough to try a preemptive attack on Iran, but it is worth looking at the possibilities.

Iran presides over the 34-mile-wide straights of Hormuz and probably can shut them down for long enough to create economic chaos in the rest of the world.  Where the Iranians are not stupid enough to initiate nuclear war, they most certainly would retaliate conventionally against an attack on their own country.  Such an attack, originating from the West or Israel probably represents the only thing that could unite the Iranian people behind the Ayatollahs.  Shipping through the Straights carries 20% of the world’s crude oil.  Its denial to worldwide markets, particularly in these times of economic stress, would be catastrophic. How does gasoline in the range of $15-20 a gallon appeal?

Iran is the 18th largest country in the world.  It has a population that exceeds 77 million, a standing army of over 500,000 backed by an active reserve of over 600,000.  The military is well-equipped and well-trained.

Iran has Shiite connections throughout the Middle East.  They constitute 36.3% of entire regional population and 38.6% of the regional Muslim population.  The Shiite majority countries are Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, homeport of the US Fifth Fleet.  Shiite Muslims constitute significant portions (20% or more) of the population in Lebanon, Yemen, Kuwait, Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Through these Shiites, Iran has the potential to cause all kinds of trouble for us and our interests in the Middle East, most emphatically including our naval assets and troops in the region.  Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Mahdi army in Iraq and the Shiite majority in Bahrain represent only a partial list of the troubles Iran can cause us through the Shiite populations of the region.

Unless the US has some unknown, magical weapon to deploy against Iran that will prevent Iranian retaliation after a raid on their nuclear sites, it would appear that we suffer from a real tactical disadvantage in the Middle East when it comes to planning an attack on Iran.  Unfortunately for us and the rest of the world, that tactical disadvantage has almost limitless potential to morph into a strategic, worldwide, economic disaster.

An attack on Iran is a really bad bet, whether initiated by us or by the Israelis.

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