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The Dangers of Launching a War Against Iran

By Amal Varghese

Washington seems geared towards its third war in just 11 years. Propaganda is not lacking on Capitol Hill, reminiscent of what we witnessed before of March 2003 when U.S. troops marched into Baghdad toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime in just four weeks. Since then, Maliki’s Iraq has plunged into sectarian warfare, deep corruption, and chaos. Hardly a "mission accomplished."

By characterizing Iran as an armed, existential threat, like the U.S. did with Iraq in 2003, and drawing arbitrary distinctions between "good" and "evil" regimes, Washington leaves little wiggle room for any effective diplomacy. Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans rightly pointed out that “the real world is a place of gray shades, not black or white.” The war drums on Capitol Hill should be viewed with deep suspicion and subjected to rigorous public scrutiny to ensure Washington does not stumble into Iraq 2.0.

Following America’s unilateral launch of the Iraq war, under the “Coalition of the Willing” umbrella, the international community began to question the precedent being set in U.S. foreign policy. The contradictions were clear from the beginning. In February 2001, Colin Powell stated that Saddam Hussein was not a threat, and that Iraq was not developing any significant Weapons of Mass Destruction capabilities. Yet only 24 months later, he infamously addressed the United Nations General Assembly, asserting that Iraq was aggressively rebuilding its WMD program and would likely share its technology with al-Qaida. Today we hear a similar argument: a nuclear Iran would likely be aggressive and share nuclear technology with notorious terrorist groups like Hezbollah.

Given its track record in Iraq, Washington is unlikely to muster international support for a war against Iran. The moral wounds and bruises of Abu Ghraib have not healed. The U.S. and its staunch ally Israel are likely to stumble alone together into a war with Iran without a comprehensive policy outlining the goals of the mission and a clear exit-strategy. As Colin Kahl, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East pointed out, “any war with Iran would be a messy and extraordinarily violent affair, with significant casualties and consequences.”

Unlike Iraq, Iran has developed strong proxy relationships capable of inflicting disproportionate destruction. America would find itself embroiled in another conflict in a region marred with deep antagonism towards the West and a hostile international community while still in the midst of an economic downturn at home. It would also deal a severe blow to the wave of democratization in the region, particularly in Syria, as Assad’s regime tries to hold on to power by massacring his own people. Waging a war on another Muslim country in the region would likely shift momentum away from the growing pro-democracy movements and further strengthen Arab despots who could justify state repression as a means to keep the West out.

Even a more limited military approach—a surgical strike to take out several Iranian facilities as Israel did on the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981—would backfire, spurring strong domestic support in Iran for a nuclear weapon at a time when the regime is vulnerable to opposition movements. The relatively succesful Israeli strike that took out the suspected Syrian nuclear site Al Kibar in 2007 cannot be used as a precedent to attack the Natanz or Qom nuclear sites in Iran. In contrast to Syria, the Iranian nuclear program is far more advanced, dispersed, and beneath ground, making it difficult to wipe out the entire program through airstrikes. Should Washington consider conventional war as it did in Iraq, it would be useful to understand that it would probably “win” a conventional war against Iran. But Tehran would likely respond with guerilla warfare tactics against American soldiers and missile strikes on Israel through its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

Objectively speaking, it is highly unlikely that Iran will abandon its pursuit of developing a nuclear capability, owing to a fragile geopolitical neighborhood and a nuclear armed Israel on its periphery. Republican presidential candidates have so far condemned President Barack Obama's more cautionary approach in dealing with Iran, pledging a tougher approach once they are in power. The GOP’s portrayal of the Islamic Republic as an irrational, radical, Anti-West regime shifts international public debate away from smart policy options toward the “us” versus “them” mantra Bush and Blair espoused after 9/11.

There are indeed lessons to be learned from the Iraq experience. First, intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion was skewed, highly politicized, and taken out of context. Repeated warnings from the intelligence community not to use flawed intelligence were ignored by the Bush administration, according to Paul R. Pillar, national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005. Policy makers in Washington should heed the lessons from Iraq and pay more attention to intelligence officers this time around. There is little evidence to suggest that Iran has made the decision to develop a nuclear weapon capacity. The IAEA Report on Iran released in November 2011 should not be conflated, as there is little reliable evidence to suggest that Iran has recently resumed operations at its nuclear sites, though admittedly if it was weaponizing its behavior might be indistinguishable from its present course. Joseph Cirincione and Elise Connor at the Ploughshares Fund estimate that it would take Iran at least three to five years to weaponize. Though the real concern with Iran’s nuclear program is that it may continue to enrich uranium up to 20 percent, thereby reducing the breakout threshold, should Ayatollah Khomeini and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad decide to weaponize in the near future.

So far, the preferred method in dealing with Iran has been through tightened sanctions. In an effort to choke the regime and force them to negotiate, the Obama administration placed an executive order restricting Iran’s access to international financial institutions. Shashank Joshi, an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, asserts that the Obama administration is likely to tighten sanctions and continue covert operations against specific targets and sites. Tighter sanctions will continue to strain Iran’s economy, given its heavy dependence on oil exports in the international market. Playing the waiting game will have two desirable effects: first, it gives Washington’s dual-track policy of diplomacy and sanctions enough time to work; and second, it gives military planners additional time to develop comprehensive policy options, should Iran pursue its nuclear weapon ambitions aggressively.

At this stage Iran, like Iraq in 2003, has agreed to the partial admission of IAEA inspectors. Last time however, they were not given legitimate opportunity to verify Saddam’s nuclear ambitions. The U.S. can ill-afford another Iraq, not with the knowledge we have today. But if Washington does not heed the lessons from war-torn Iraq and decides to unilaterally attack Tehran tomorrow, history will not be kind to the United States.

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Amal Varghese is a Contemporary Debate Columnist with ACCESS Publications at The Australian Institute of International Affairs .

[Photo provided by Sgt. Jeremy Todd] 

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