It is quite right to be worried and hesitant about entering into a war with Iran. War, as recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan show, is a dangerous, bloody and often dirty mess in which things go wrong, civilians are killed inadvertently, your own side loses people, and goals are not necessarily achieved.
Sometimes war is necessary. That was clearly true in Afghanistan in 2001, but less clear regarding Iraq in 2003. What are the goals? How are they to be gained? In what way can a war be brought to an end? How is victory defined? These are all serious issues.
Regarding a war with Iran, all of the above are especially true. Iran is a large country with almost 80 million people. A sizeable portion of that population – the ones with the guns – is ideologically fanatical. The idea that a few planes will drop bombs and return home, and victory can be declared, is naive.
Once begun, such a conflict will go on for many years and take unexpected turns. Iran’s regime would become desperate, vengeful and – concluding that it had nothing to lose – all the more determined to obtain nuclear weapons and far more likely to use them. Understanding that factor might not deter an attack completely, but it should be very much taken into consideration in assessing what to do.
At any rate, while war with Iran might be eventually inevitable and necessary, that’s not true at this moment, when Iran is far from being able to build nuclear weapons, much less deliver them on missiles. And such an operation genuinely does pose serious problems for Israel, and also, even if it does not participate directly in any way, for the United States.
On the positive side, not a single Arab state would lift a finger to help Iran. The moderates would be happy that Israel bombed Iranian nuclear facilities, hope it succeeded, and demand that the United States keep them out of any fighting. The radical Sunni Islamists would worry about the precedent and spread some propaganda, but they view the Iranian regime as a rival, not a brother. The Turkish regime would foam at the mouth, but do nothing, while the Syrian regime, which is allied with Iran, is too preoccupied by a civil war and fears a confrontation with Israel.
Hamas is happy to take Iran’s money, but is now pretty much a client of Egypt. It might want to start its own war with Israel, but it doesn’t want to risk everything to defend Iran. But the Palestinian Resistance Committees and Palestinian Islamic Jihad will fire rockets at Israel while trying to attack in other ways. Up to a point, Hamas will stand aside and let them do so.
The most serious organized force on which Iran could depend would be Hezbollah in Lebanon.
It is likely that Hezbollah would fire rockets against Israel and mount some cross-border raids. The question is whether Hezbollah would mount an all-out campaign, as it did in 2006, or merely stick to a symbolic demonstration of loyalty to Iran. There are also Iranian forces in Lebanon that would be more energetic.
The large UNIFIL force that’s supposed to block Hezbollah from staging a military build-up in southern Lebanon and attacking Israel will be useless. Yet Israeli defensive operations could end up accidentally killing UNIFIL soldiers.
Finally, Iranian assets would stage terrorist attacks on Israelis and Jews all over the world. The number of attacks might be limited. The question is whether one or some would succeed in inflicting many casualties.
Still, Hezbollah plus terror attacks is not a price too high for Israel to pay for ending – if that indeed can be accomplished – an Iranian nuclear threat.
The picture on the U.S. side is much more complex and worrisome.
In two ways, the U.S. situation would resemble that of Israel. No country other than Iran would hit at America or Americans. Terrorism would be a problem. The rest of the story would depend on decisions made by Iran’s government and also by its local commanders.
Ostensibly, the attack on Iran would come from Israel. But even if the United States does nothing overt, President Barack Obama’s recent speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is enough to associate America with the operation.
Iran has some choice. It could decide to try to avoid confrontation with the United States. Still, while Tehran’s decision could go either way, the worldview of that country’s rulers means they’re unlikely to make a calm, cool assessment along those lines. For them, America is the Great Satan, the Islamist revolution’s nemesis and Israel’s patron. Would Iran’s leaders really say, “Yes, let’s be smart” and keep the battle confined to Israel, using America’s reluctance to fight as a way to keep that superpower out of the war?
Again, that might be how western armchair strategists expect Iran to act, but it’s hard to believe that’s what would happen. Moreover, local commanders of either military and naval units or terrorist cells, irrationally confident of an Allah-granted victory, would not easily give up a chance to wage the ultimate jihad. Then, too, Iran’s inability to hit Israel would set off frustration, leading to attacks on Americans.
U.S. forces and facilities are more accessible than those of Israel. This could include terrorist attacks in Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf Arab states against any available American civilians, institutions, or soldiers. And the biggest front of all might be the Persian Gulf itself. Would small Iranian boats stage suicide operations to hit tankers or try to block traffic?
As happened in the latter phase of the Iran-Iraq war in the late 1980s, the Gulf Arab states would likely ask the United States, European countries, and NATO to convoy their tankers. A shooting war could lead to the dragging of the United States into a military conflict with Iran. Whatever happened on the ground (and water), the price of oil would skyrocket.
These factors also affect Israeli interests, since Israel would be blamed for the resulting carnage and disruptions. Antisemitism would increase, and a lot of people would claim that Israel dragged America into an unnecessary war. Promises of quick, easy victory, the disappearance of any Iranian nuclear capability or threat, and even the fall of the Iranian regime would prove false, stirring bitter controversy.
There are, then, major dangers and real strategic problems in any campaign to attack Iranian nuclear installations that require serious thought and a rejection of recklessness. A war with Iran, if conducted at all, should only happen when it seems otherwise unavoidable. And that is far from true this year.
But that day will come, and people had better be psychologically ready for it.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press.
This column appears in the March 22 print issue of The CJN