Some while ago Joshua Muravchik wrote an editorial for the Washington Post titled “War with Iran is probably our best option.” His hawkish stance is founded upon an unwillingness to accept the purpose or possibility of negotiation with Iran, and it is a stance which is sadly mirrored by the majority of the Republican field. However, he is wrong, and dangerously so. War with Iran is probably our worst option.
Joshua Muravchik would tell you otherwise, and in his advocacy for war he paints for us a picture of a “violent, rapacious, devious” Iranian regime which is bent upon evil, apparently for no reason other than to do evil. But this vision of Iran is one born of fantasy, as are his justifications for war. Joshua Muravchik’s Iran has more in common with a fairy-tale villain than it does with reality. His Iran is one conjured up from the annals of Edward Said’s Orientalism. It is a fantastically Manichean vision of the hopelessly foreign other. Equally fantastic is Joshua Muravchik’s vision of war. Nowhere is there a serious recognition that in the best circumstances war is itself an evil thing, always accompanied by death, with no guarantee of success. What follows is no defense of Iran’s regime, nor their nuclear ambition. Iran is a corrupt, repressive state, whose danger would only be amplified by nuclear weaponry. Nonetheless, Iran is also a place populated by good and bad people alike, many of them with ambitions not unlike our own. Thinking of Iran as an inscrutable other who can only be responded to with violence, and with whom rapprochement cannot be achieved, simply guarantees the fact that one day Iran will have nuclear weapons.
The question which is conspicuously absent from our discourse is as follows. Why is Iran interested in nuclear weapons? The fact is that Iran occupies a precarious strategic position in the Middle East. Their largest regional rival is itself armed with hundreds of nuclear missiles, and in the previous decade a belligerent world power invaded two neighboring countries. This same world power is one which had, only twenty years previous, supplied weapons and information to the armies of Saddam Hussein when they invaded Iran. The new government of the Islamic Republic to which this world power is opposed only came to power in the wake of revolution against the violently repressive regime of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Who, needless to say was supported by the aforementioned world power. Previous even to that, this world power had occupied Iran and, soon after ending its occupation gave tacit approval to the overthrow of the newly formed democratic and popular regime of Mohammad Mossadegh. While Iran has given little reason for the United States or Israel to trust it, the reverse is true as well. As a consequence of history Iran is deeply insecure about its sovereignty. Nuclear weapons would be a guarantee against the adventurous trespasses by world powers which they have so often endured.
Therefore, the thrust of any effort to contain Iran’s nuclear ambition must address their motives. The United States can pretend that Iran is not a growing regional power, but this pretense relies upon false premises and will be exposed. If we are serious about forestalling Iran’s nuclear program, then we must make its abandonment more attractive than its continuance. It’s clear from the last ten years that Iran will not be intimidated into ending their nuclear program. Already they have endured a decade of sanctions and the assassination of top nuclear scientists. Despite this, their efforts have quickened. Therefore, we must take the victory which our sanctions have given us and make something of it. Sanctions have brought Iran to the negotiating table, and now that they are here it is imperative that we reach an agreement which can make compliance sustainable.
While the agreement produced by negotiations may not be everything we want immediately, we can craft it with a vision for future improvement. Who knows what the political situation might be in Iran in five or ten years’ time? As it stands, western sanctions have given the Iranian regime the perfect demon by which to justify their power. They can tell the Iranian people, with a sort of cynical accuracy, that their poverty is a consequence of the United States’ attack upon their country. The existence of a looming foreign enemy makes the task of domestic opposition even more difficult than it would be otherwise. But, we cannot discount this opposition as Mr. Muravchik did. More than half of Iran’s population is under the age of 30, and despite the best efforts of the regime they are connected to the world around them. Could rapprochement engender an atmosphere where the ideals of the Green Movement could once again rise to the fore? The opposition is there in Iran, it needs only the right opportunity to flower.
The United States must also consider the consequences of failure at these negotiations, particularly if our stubbornness is seen as the cause. Will we be able to maintain the cohesive international agreement which has made sanctions so effective? Or, sensing opportunity will Russia and China break from the pack in order to engage with the Iranian regime? Will Europe, frustrated with American domineering, do the same? Will we be able to make sanctions succeed again if we let an agreement slip through our fingers?
And, if sanctions fail, is war truly any option at all? Mr. Muravchik acknowledges obliquely that, “yes, there are risks to military action,” but he does not make a serious examination of what these risks are. War with Iran means war in Lebanon. War in Iran means American casualties. War with Iran means even more enmity between the government of Iraq and our own. The above is the best case scenario: of a limited strike with little response from Iran, but it could be much worse. Iran’s military is not the decrepit hulk that Iraq’s was. They possess the S-300 missile system which poses a significant threat to even our advanced fighter planes. They also sit next to the straits of Hormuz, through which a huge portion of the world’s oil transits. And, they command the loyalty of Hezbollah and other paramilitary groups in Yemen, Iraq, and Bahrain – the home of the United States’ Fifth Fleet. War with Iran could mean burning oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, it could mean renewed Shi’a unrest targeting the Gulf regimes which are sympathetic to the United States. It could mean rockets landing in Tel Aviv, and thousands dead in Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon. It could mean, in the worst circumstances, attacks on American soil. The Taliban did not have the money or the global reach to seriously threaten our shores, but the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is richer, better connected, and savvier.
War can only be the final option. Once undertaken, Iran will never return to the negotiating table, as war will only validate their suspicion that the United States seeks to destroy it. Furthermore, it would prove to the regime and the people that nuclear weapons are the only serious protection from foreign attack. While war, if successful, might delay Iran’s nuclear ambition, it also guarantees that Iran will one day acquire nuclear weapons, unless we expect to spend generations of lives occupying and monitoring the country. If we continue to respond to problems in the Middle East with ill-planned, reactive violence, then we will continue to reap what we have sown.