international analysis and commentary

Iran and the West: Slouching towards war


The US Congress has been insisting recently on sanctions against Iranian banks that, in effect, make it impossible for Iran to sell its oil. That is the equivalent of a military blockade of Iran’s oil ports – arguably an act of war. And these sanctions are being imposed unilaterally, without reference to the United Nations Security Council. Members of Congress can go home to their districts and boast about how tough they can be on Iran, and in an election year that is worth a few votes. President Obama seems unwilling to buck the tide, despite his better judgment.

Tehran has responded with harsh words, indicating that if Iran’s oil lifeline is cut off, others will also find their access to world oil markets imperiled. Iran does not need to close the Strait of Hormuz to make a point. Its words make it clear that an act of war by the United States will be treated as such by Iran. Even the threat of a confrontation immediately drove the price of oil above $100 per barrel, which has effects on economies struggling to recover from the recession.

The main reason why Iran’s putative threat to close the Strait of Hormuz was dismissed is because Iran also relies on the Strait to export its own oil. But if Iran’s oil revenue – 50% of its budget – is cut off, Iranians would have little to lose by striking out at those they hold responsible. Iran cannot defeat the US Navy, but the swarms of cruise missiles they could fire both from shore and from their fleet of speedboats could create havoc, as could the flood of mines they could put into the fast-moving waters of the Strait. Indeed, if pressed to the wall and facing the collapse of its economy, Iran might even target the loading facilities and refineries of the United States’ Arab allies across the Gulf.

Iran would eventually lose this battle, but the rest of the world would have paid a very high price. A prolonged period of oil prices above $200 and the uncertainty about when normal supplies could be resumed would do real damage to the fragile and recovering economies of Europe and the United States.

I’m afraid some of the members of Congress who are trying to outdo each other in anti-Iran bravado have not spent enough time worrying whether they and their constituents might be harmed in various ways by an Iran that sees itself under attack. A few of them openly welcome the idea of a third Middle East war, whatever the consequences.

These are the same illusions of righteousness and impunity that preceded the US invasion of Iraq. As General Zinni memorably noted: if you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you’re going to love Iran. Those who suggest that a US military confrontation with Iran would be surgical, limited, and one-sided are many of the same people who, eight years ago, assured you that the invasion of Iraq would be a cakewalk.

Remember that Iran has been developing a nuclear enrichment capability for more than twenty years – more than thirty if we include US nuclear cooperation with the shah – all the while as members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They almost certainly experimented with the development of a nuclear weapon during the days of Saddam Hussein, but according to US intelligence and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) those experiments stopped with the fall of Saddam in 2003. The latest IAEA report, based on the observations of their own inspectors at key Iranian sites, found no evidence that Iran is diverting nuclear material to build a bomb.

The alarms that some are sounding as they openly try to push the United States into another truly catastrophic war in the Middle East are based on the fact that Iran might choose at some point in the future to build a bomb. Advocates of war try to transform that into a certainty that Iran will build a bomb and then use it, probably against Israel. That fear of a suspected nuclear capability as a rationale for going to war should by now sound familiar to most Americans. It is exactly the same argument that got us into Iraq.

An impeccable array of US and Israeli security officials have spoken openly of the absolute folly of going to war with Iran and have warned against exaggerating either the threat or Iran’s intentions. Those voices include the top military leaders and intelligence officials in both the United States and Israel.

After a decade of war and trillion dollar deficits, the United States should be well aware that such adventures can do it real harm. An important set of experienced voices continue to call for a return to negotiations. Iran says it is willing. We risk greatly and unnecessarily if we ignore the chance.