Thursday, November 17, 2005

Iraq is the reason we won't invade Iran, and why we shouldn't anyway.

Today, Russia's Vladimir Putin became the latest world leader give President Bush a polite, 'no' to the possibility of action against Iran.

Of course, with more and more evidence (and in this case, including direct and open claims by Iran itself to having centrifuges and other potential weapons components dispersed throughout the country) that Iran is working towards the development of nuclear weapons, one might ask why this muted response to the administration?

The answer is clear enough.

First, we right now don't have the military capability to mount an invasion of Iran. Given our inability to control Iraq, and the large number of troops tied up in that effort, it is ludicrous to think that we could begin a war against an opponent with twice the population and three times the land area of Iraq, and which had not been weakened by the 1991 Gulf War, a decade of 'no-fly' zones and much more restrictive sanctions than the token ones that the international community has on Iran. Sure, we could certainly bomb the heck out of them, but that is all. And it is likely that they have made a calculated gamble that they could survive a bombing campaign. We did have the capability to invade and occupy a country like Iran four years ago, but it has been squandered by using it up in a poorly planned war that seems to be going nowhere. American forces no longer have the aura of invincibility that they did a few years ago, and potential enemies like the Iranians know it. So do potential allies.

Second, the Iranians have learned that the way to confront the United States is with bluster and playing chicken. Saddam Hussein tried to weasel his way out, and gave in and let the inspectors back in, and got invaded anyway. The North Koreans have gotten more and more belligerent at every turn, and it's worked in keeping them safe. The lesson has not been lost on Iran.

Third, President Bush made a speech describing Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the 'axis of evil' and subsequently invaded Iraq. Those who think this happened in a vacuum are foolish, and it is not hard to understand that Iran is doing what any nation threatened militarily by a large and powerful opponent has always done-- build a deterrent. And nuclear weapons are a pretty good deterrent, given that no nation armed with them has ever been invaded by another country.

Fourth, given the losses, both in personnel and in their own people's public opinion that some of those governments who supported the Iraqi invasion have suffered as a result (in fact, half of our original 'coalition' of forty-one nations that President Bush alluded to during our original invasion of Iraq, have since abandoned the mission), as well as the ill will that the Bush policy of rigid and inflexible dogma on everything from treatment of prisoners to global warming has fostered all over the world, it is certain that any American invasion of Iran would be a 'go it alone' effort. Other nations might play cheerleader, but that would be the extent of their support.

But some would ask, aren't the Iranians a threat if they get nukes? Didn't Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently call for the complete destruction of Israel?

Sure, they are a threat with (or without) nukes, just as the Soviet Union was a threat during the Cold War. But history teaches us that we can survive a nuclear armed opponent. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't still make an effort to make it as difficult as possible for them to get, but the fact is that 1) the nuclear genie has long since left the station and the idea that we can prevent others from acquiring technology that we developed sixty years ago is naive to the point of being ridiculous, and 2) Iran is in no position politically to start a war even if they do develop nukes. Iran is not a one-man dictatorship. A group of aging mullahs call the shots there (just ask former President Mohammad Khatami, a popularly elected reformer who was frustrated in his reforms by the theocracy at every turn). They have to deal with a population, the majority of which is under thirty, and has no memory of the revolution or of Ayatollah Khomeini. These people are increasingly unhappy with the strictures of an Islamic society and keeping them placated becomes harder and harder even as their numbers grow. So, the mullahs have plenty of problems to confront internally. Of course they have a foreign policy, but no one has suggested that they are actually insane enough to start a nuclear war (remember M.A.D.--mutually assured destruction-- during the Cold War?) Israel has around 200-300 nuclear weapons according to most estimates, and the United States has many times as much, so even if the Iranians develop a few, they can count well enough to know that actually using them would result in the destruction of Iran. A policy of constructive engagement, which eventually brought down the Iron Curtain in a wave of consumerism and desire for freedom, would be a much better path to pursue with Iran.

As to Ahmadinejad's rhetoric, we have to keep in mind the context. Right now, the middle east is in political turmoil. Iran is a major player in middle eastern politics and has benefitted more than anyone else from the ouster of Saddam, but they want to parlay this gain into becoming the single dominant regional power. And one sure fire way to gain political points across the region is to take a hard line against Israel. The real victims of this are the Palestinians, who have at times placed their hopes and dreams on Krushchev, Nasser, Qaddafy, Assad, Saddam, and any number of other tough talking strongmen throwing their weight around in the middle east. Invariably these hopes and dreams are dashed, and they end up worse off for betting on some swaggering savior instead of negotiations with Israel. It seems that Ahmadinejad is playing the same game, and hopefully the Palestinians will not be so gullible this time around. But only a madman would invite a nuclear war, and for all of his hardline rhetoric and the hardline stance of the mullahs, they do not strike me as madmen.

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