Our Iran Problem Is Not a Product of The Iraq War

[This is a piece I wrote for GlobalPolitican.com, an excellent foregin policy and international affairs web site run by my friend David Storobin.] On www.globalpolitician.com, David Storobin (whom I regard very highly as an international political analyst) argues that Iraq War has not been worth its long term strategic cost because of our current difficult and dangerous situation with Iran and with remaining Islamist terrorist organizations. A summary of the facts in the Middle East as presented by Mr. Storobin: • Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad are very dangerous, and maybe increasingly so • Iran is not negotiating in good faith about their nuclear program and fully intend to develop a nuclear weapon • For several reasons, Iran wants to destroy Israel • “Iran is everything anyone ever said about Iraq and more” • “US troops are stuck in Iraq...” I do not disagree with any of this. Where I come to a different conclusion is in attributing the causation of these facts to the war in Iraq. Other than the US troops being “stuck” in Iraq, each of these facts would be at least as true had we not taken down Saddam. The Hezbollah issue is exceptionally dynamic given the flux in Lebanon. Much will depend on whether Hezbollah chooses to side with Syria or with their “host” country. On first glance, they appear to be siding with Syria, but they’ll change in a heartbeat based on what maximizes their power. It’s conceivable that Syria will be under so much pressure from other Arab countries as well as the US that they might abandon Hezbollah. While it’s impossible (for me) to predict with great confidence how that might change Hezbollah’s behavior, my guess is that they will be less inclined towards violence without a state sponsor. The same goes, but to a lesser extent, for Islamic Jihad since their state sponsorship is less obvious and less subject to US pressure at this time. In both cases, it is more likely that our actions in Iraq make us safer rather than less safe with respect to groups of this type. While I do not believe terrorist organizations have gotten more dangerous due to the war in Iraq, I do agree that their getting a nuclear weapon from Iran is a frightening thought, but not one which has become more likely due to the war. It is only because Iran has seen that we can occasionally be more than a paper tiger that they are even pretending to negotiate. Had we not gone to war Iran would likely be moving ahead much more secretly and rapidly with nuclear weapon development. I predict that we will see Europeans cautiously bringing out “sticks” to deal with Iran despite their usual predilection for doing whatever they think will annoy us most. Although Iran probably understands that the United States’ military options are limited at this time, both by military and diplomatic constraints, they understand equally well that there is a limit beyond which the US will ignore those restraining considerations. One of these limits would be proof that they had transferred a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group. Israel will likely have a much quicker trigger finger than we will, another thing which can not be lost on Iran and which is not substantially affected by our prosecution of the war. If anything, a side product of the war has been removing some of the United States’ restraint of Israel. More than elsewhere in the world, Middle Easterners respect, fear, and respond to power...and nothing else. The fact that we have demonstrated our own power and our willingness to let Israel use theirs is a clear positive by-product of the war. Iran’s desire to destroy Israel is no more enhanced than is their realization that Israel and the US are more determined than ever to stop them. The combination of the death of Arafat (the father of modern terrorism) and the war in Iraq also increases the chance of some sort of deal between Israel and the Palestinians. If this happens it will be a strong stabilizing force in the Middle East and it will be due at least in part to having gone into Iraq. That said, I am not predicting a quick or easy resolution to the Israel/Palestinian issue in no small part because a large faction of the Palestinians do not want a solution. They still enjoy printing maps which do not show Israel existing. These people will be swept away in the tide of history, swept away by their own people who realize that such ideology keeps Palestinians poor and in constant danger, but it will take time. Back to Iran for a moment: I would mention an interesting interview I heard with Gary Sick of Columbia University and long-time member of the National Security Council in which he argued that American intelligence often simply assumed the worst about other countries such as Iran (and as they did with Iraq). While the worst might be true and while we must be prepared for the worst, we must also consider in our dealings with Iran that our intelligence could be wrong. For example (and this is my example, not Mr. Sick’s) it could be a very dangerous but clever ploy by the Iranians to sound as if they’re proceeding down the nuclear path while not actually doing so. A little imagination could think of interesting reasons to play this very high stakes game. I’m not arguing that this is what is happening, but I have the same sense Mr. Sick has that we do not always have our minds open to other possibilities beyond the “obvious” or the “worst case scenario”. It is probably true that “Iran is everything anyone ever said about Iraq and more”. The key is to keep the Iranians (and even the Europeans) unsure about how we will react. Generally I prefer our country’s policies on such things to be predictable, but this is a complicated game and requires serious strategery. Bush did well in that regard recently when in answer to a reporters question he said “Suggestions that we are about to attack Iran are ridiculous.....But no options are off the table.” It might have sounded like a Bush-ism, but I believe it was a well-calculated tactic in the ongoing mind game with the Mullahs. In summary: • Terrorist groups are losing state sponsorship to a significant degree which means losing weapons, protection, and especially financing. • The regional powers and players finally have respect for our willingness to use power and our willingness to let Israel use theirs if necessary. • Iran is very dangerous and complicated but no more so than before the war. Even the Europeans are now getting more interesting in stick and carrot rather than just the fine vegetable plate. • US troops are temporarily stuck in Iraq in fairly large numbers, but will soon be stuck in Iraq in numbers too small to cause our military options to be limited due to the fact. Furthermore, having troops “stuck” there has serious strategic advantages in our ability to project power, both in terms of rapidity, familiarity with terrain, and with the subtle but unmistakable force of the world simply knowing we’re there. Thus, although I agree with David Storobin’s description of situation on the ground in and around Iraq, I reach a very different conclusion about its ramifications: I do not believe the war in Iraq has done anything but help us in our strategic position in the Middle East. I have long believed that history would prove Mr. Bush correct in his assertions regarding the power of freedom. Although there are still many dangerous days and months ahead, it appears that history might be upon us sooner than we expected.
  • T. F. Stern
    Comment from: T. F. Stern
    03/12/05 @ 09:13:12 am

    This is an intelligent way to display the challenges that face the world without playing politics. I wish the general news media would present the facts in such a clear manner; but then they might be on the other side, the side that wants to see the US fall.

  • Marvin
    Comment from: Marvin
    03/14/05 @ 06:15:11 pm

    The primary fault in Mr. Storobin's column is the assumption that the situation with Iran is somehow more dangerous now, given U.S. forces in Iraq, than it was prior to the war in Iraq. As you note, Iran would have continued its HEU efforts and perhaps done so with less external attention, had the U.S. not been in the region. Now that we are, they are rightly aware of our will to end terror in the region. Democratic Arab states are going to be less supportive of Iran's grip on the Iranian people, and it is that concern, if any, that will bring them to real negotiations. Unfortunately, not likely, but it is better that we are there should their efforts with nukes not be curtailed through negotiation. Excellent post.