What is it about a nuclear deal with Iran that induces hysteria in certain quarters of the West? In recent weeks, editors at both the New York Times and the Washington Post have seen fit to run op-eds calling for preemptively bombing Iran, apparently under the impression that preventive war has not yet received a fair shake. Sure, Iraq didn’t work out, but why quit now? By ensuring that the American people and their leaders do not overlook the possibility of giving war one more chance in Iran, these newspapers are presumably performing a public service.
In the Times, John Bolton, Dr. Strangelove with an unkempt moustache, describes a situation on 'the brink of catastrophe,' entirely attributable to President Obama’s folly. Absent prompt, decisive action, an 'uncontrollable nuclear-arms race' beckons. With Iran negotiating in good faith an impossibility and economic sanctions doomed to fail, only a single alternative remains: 'military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor.' As envisioned by Bolton, such an attack whether by the U.S. or Israel – either would be fine -- 'could set back [Iran’s] program by three to five years.' In the meantime, 'vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran' would provide a definitive solution to the problem. On the one hand, Iran poses an existential threat; on the other hand, it’s a threat that few a well-placed PGMs can easily deal with. 'Time is terribly short,' Bolton emphasises, 'but a strike can still succeed.'
Bolton does not speculate on whether U.S. or Israeli bombardment might elicit an Iranian response. Writing in the Post, Joshua Muravchik, whose views mesh ever so neatly with the neoconservative bent of that paper’s editorial page, does -- only to discount that prospect as of little consequence.
Muravchik characterises the Islamic Republic as 'akin to communist, fascist and Nazi regimes that set out to transform the world,' intent even today on extending 'its Islamic revolution across the Middle East and beyond.' It’s not a nuclear arms race that worries him but the prospect that such weapons 'even if it is only brandished' will 'vastly enhance Iran’s power to achieve that goal.' The Lausanne talks ought to have convened in Munich. Negotiating with Tehran implies appeasement and puts Iran on the path to global dominion.
'Does this mean that our only option is war?' Muravchik asks rhetorically. Yes, indeed, it does. That a strike damaging Iran’s nuclear program might not fully destroy it is no excuse for inaction since 'we can strike as often as necessary.' In contrast to Bolton campaign plan, his is not a one-and-done war.
Nor is Muravchik deterred by the possibility of Iranian retaliation. Sure, 'we might absorb some strikes,' he writes. But this he dismisses as 'the price of averting the heavier losses' should an Iran emboldened by its possession of nuclear weapons 'overreach, kindling bigger wars,' inevitably involving the United States. To preclude being drawn into such future wars, in other words, it is incumbent upon the United States itself to initiate war now – indeed, the sooner the better.
Like Bolton, Muravchik writes with absolute assurance about matters regarding which nether he nor anyone else apart from God can know with certainty. Past errors in judgment – both enthusiastically supported the Iraq War – leave them unfazed and their standing as pundits undiminished. When it comes to pronouncing Iran beyond the pale, they just know what they know.
Yet without suggesting that those governing the Islamic Republic are well-disposed toward the West or keen to embrace liberal values, it seems fair to say that those warning of incipient Persian global hegemony just might be engaging in a wee bit of threat inflation.
Answering that question requires first understanding that the Iranian nuclear negotiations are only incidentally about nuclear weapons. Their true subject is the political landscape of the Persian Gulf and its environs. And their true aim is to transform that landscape by bringing Iran in from the cold.
Since the overthrow of the Shah and the subsequent hostage crisis of 1979-1981, the United States has (with the brief, bizarre exception of the Iran-Contra episode) systematically excluded Iran from participating in the politics of the region. Delegitimising Iran benefitted putative U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. For a time, it also seemed to benefit of the United States itself, which pursuant to the Carter Doctrine was seeking to position itself as the region’s self-appointed protector and stabiliser.
The Iraq War that the George W. Bush administration so recklessly launched in 2003 marked the high-water mark of this U.S. bid for regional dominion. The failure of that war, culminating in the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011, left American pretensions to hegemony in a shambles. Worse, the Iraq War contributed mightily to a broader destabilisation of the Arab world and its environs, today evident everywhere from Libya and Yemen to Syria and, of course, Iraq itself.
Efforts by Bush’s successor to repair the damage have gone nowhere apart from demonstrating the limitations of drone strikes and special operations forces as instruments of policy. In a fundamental sense, the United States has not had a Middle East policy for the last several years – unless you count vainly trying to plug a dike beset by a multitude of leaks.
The outreach to Tehran creates a possible alternative to endlessly plugging leaks. It signifies a tacit acknowledgment by the United States and its allies that restoring even a semblance of regional stability becomes possible only if Iran plays a role congruent with its historical stature. Whether those governing the Islamic Republic will chose to embrace that opportunity and act constructively remains to be seen, but President Obama – like Nixon regarding China – has evidently concluded that there’s no further value in pretending Iran doesn’t exist.
Assuming that negotiators succeed in working out the details of the recently announced deal and assuming that the Republican-controlled Congress refrains from suborning the final agreement – neither assumption should be taken for granted – Bolton and Muravchik won’t be seeing U.S. forces attack Iran anytime soon. Nor will Israeli forces do so unless the Netanyahu government actively seeks to rupture the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
What is likely to ensue instead is a recalibration of power relationships, not seen in this part of the world since the Suez Crisis of 1956. As part of that recalibration, the United States will abandon any further aspirations of hegemony. Regional problems will increasingly require regional solutions. Nor longer able to count on American deference to its requirements, Israel will either find ways to accommodate itself to this reality or risk further isolation. Above all, neither the United States nor Israel will be able to rely on brute force to have its way – which just may be the prospect that Americans like Bolton and Muravchik will find most objectionable.
Andrew J. Bacevich is writing a history of America’s War for the Greater Middle East.