It is quite right to be worried and hesitant about entering a war with Iran.
War, as recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan show, is a dangerous, bloody,
often dirty mess in which things go wrong, civilians are killed inadvertently,
your own side loses people, and goals are not necessarily
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 is especially true. Iran is a large country with a population
of nearly 80 million. A sizable portion of that population – the ones with the
guns – is ideologically fanatical. The idea that a few planes will drop bombs,
return home, and then victory can be declared is naïve.
While war with
Iran might be eventually inevitable and necessary, that’s not true at this
moment. And such an operation poses some serious problems for the United
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
put out some propaganda, but 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, allied with Iran, is too preoccupied by a civil war and fears
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 doesn’t want to risk everything to defend Iran. Thus, the only
serious organized force on which Iran could depend would be Hezbollah in
It is likely that Hezbollah would fire rockets at Israel and
mount some cross-border raids. The question is whether Hezbollah would mount an
all-out campaign as in 2006 or merely stick to a symbolic demonstration of
loyalty to Iran. There are also Iranian forces in Lebanon that would be more
The large UNIFIL force intended to block Hezbollah from
staging a military build-up in the south and attacking Israel will be useless.
Yet Israeli defensive operations could end up accidentally killing UNFIL
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 high
Still, Hezbollah plus terror attacks is not too high a price
for Israel to pay for ending – if that indeed can be accomplished – the Iranian
nuclear threat. Yet the picture on the US side is much more complex and
In two ways, the US situation would resemble that of Israel.
While no other country besides Iran would be behind the attacks, terrorism would
be a problem for the US. The rest of the story would depend on decisions made by
Iran’s government and also by its local commanders.
attack on Iran would come from Israel. But even if the United States does
nothing overt, Obama’s AIPAC speech 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 is 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 American
reluctance to fight as a way to keep that superpower out of the war?
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
US forces and facilities are more accessible than those of
Israel. There could be terrorist attacks in Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the
smaller Gulf Arab states against 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 that country would be blamed for resulting carnage and
disruptions. Anti-Semitism would increase and many would claim Israel had
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.
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.
that day will come, and people better be psychologically ready for
The writer’s new book, Israel: An Introduction has just been
published by Yale University Press. He is director of global research in the
International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and a featured columnist at PJM and editor
of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.