Fear of a large-scale conflict is the only card the Mullahs have to play -- and the West is falling for it.
In 2007, Israeli Air Force jets crossed into Syria and destroyed an Iranian-backed nuclear reactor. The operation had the backing of the United States and employed intelligence derived from an Iranian defector. There was no regional war afterward. Not even an exchange of fire at the Israeli-Syrian border.
In 1981, Israel struck deep inside Iraq, destroying Saddam’s Osirak reactor. The attack was universally condemned at the United Nations and even by Israel’s allies. Had Saddam used it as the basis for a war, Israel would have had no international support at all. But again no war followed.
Today, Iran and opponents of any attack on its nuclear program hold up the specter of a regional war that will drag in the United States, devastate the region and drive up oil prices. This is the only card in their deck until the mullahs have their own bomb, and it’s an effective card to play. But is any of that a serious risk?
Let’s start by looking at the current state of the Iranian regime. The regime is wildly unpopular at home. It had to use its Revolutionary Guard corps to violently suppress protests against the regime, it does not trust its own military and without troops loyal to it close to home, the regime would be gone faster than you can say Nicolai Ceausescu. (If you have trouble saying that, substitute the fallen dictator of your choice.)
Iran has repeatedly attacked American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; its terrorists have attacked Israel and Jews around the world, but those attacks amount to terrorism and guerrilla warfare mostly carried out by secondary actors. It’s quite different from committing to a major conflict, which will give the regime a choice between either keeping its loyalist Revolutionary Guard at home and sending unreliable conventional troops off to fight and possibly turn on it, or sending off its trusted troops and leaving its leaders naked to the people’s wrath.
Another option is more terrorist attacks, which are already being carried out anyway. And as their recent attacks showed, Shiite terrorists aren’t all that much better than the Sunni kind. Their latest round of attacks mostly ended with dead terrorists killed by their own bombs. And it is only common sense that a regime this violent and stupid can no more be allowed to have nuclear weapons than Corcoran State Prison should allow Charles Manson to build his own flamethrower.
The only card in the Iranian deck is a naval conflict. The last time it tried one of those, the result was a decisive defeat for Iran, but that was back in the late '80s. The Persian Gulf is vital to Iran’s assertion of power over the region. It has invested in developing its navy and a strategy that will allow it to take on greater powers.
This scenario is only plausible if we assume that Iran will begin a conflict that it is bound to lose in order to avenge the loss of a nuclear program that it no longer has.
There are two possible attack scenarios. First, Israel carries out a unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear program. This is the most likely scenario under the Obama administration, which has made it clear that it wants a conflict with Syria, but will not back any Israeli attack on Iran. Second, in a very unlikely scenario the administration, for some reason, changes its mind and decides to take out Iran’s nuclear program.
In the first and likeliest scenario, Iran would have to begin a war with the United States over an attack carried out by Israel. A war that it’s bound to lose. Like the lunatic with the lug nuts, the folks in Tehran are crazy, but they’re not stupid. If they were going to begin a war with the United States over something Israel did, they had plenty of opportunities with Stuxnet and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.
In the second scenario, Iran would have the pretext, but that doesn’t automatically translate into an actual conflict either. For one thing, there is the same problem as before. A direct conflict would not end with an Iranian victory. There’s only so much guerrilla warfare you can carry out on the water before the game ends. Without a local civilian population and a vast landscape to hide in, the whole thing implodes.
A naval conflict would be less dangerous to the regime than a ground war, but it would be far more expensive. The Iranian economy is already in bad shape and while the regime will always choose guns over butter, it also needs a certain amount of butter to prevent the regime from being completely overthrown. It also needs credit to buy more guns.
The brief conflict would give the regime a boost at home, but would also demonstrate its unreadiness to take control of the Persian Gulf. It would set back its naval capabilities, impose a heavy price tag and pile one humiliation on top of another.
The Iranian regime is the motherland of terror, and terrorists are natural cowards. They want to intimidate and terrorize their enemies into giving in to their demands while avoiding the consequences. A nuclear bomb is the perfect coward’s weapon because it can be passed along to terrorists, while its mere possession makes retaliation too risky. Without the bomb Iran has to practice the fine art of shaking a stick that it can’t use.
The strangest twist in all this is that some of the most fervent progressive opponents of an attack on Iran are also proponents of an attack on Syria. Reports suggest that Iran actually has sent in a sizable force to help the Assad regime win the civil war. If opponents of an attack on Iran’s nuclear program really believe that it would have devastating consequences, why are they courting a conflict with Iran in Syria?
No one can predict the future, but the best guide to the future is the past. Israel took out nuclear programs in Syria and Iraq without a regional war. Taking out Iran’s nuclear program will require attacks on a larger scale, but the paradigm still holds. Israel and the United States recently took out an Iranian-backed reactor in Syria without it leading to a war.
That doesn’t mean that an attack will not lead to a war, only that it is not the likeliest outcome. And the war panic that is being brewed up serves Iranian interests. Iran’s best hope for buying time is to make an attack on its nuclear program seem as dangerous and costly as possible. That is the only real card it has to play and falling for it lets Iran bluff its way to a nuclear ace.
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