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The conflict between Iran and the United States began in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution and the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran. Born partly of ideological differences and partly of real and perceived differing national interests, it has continued, alternately hot and cold, for almost three decades and seems unlikely to end soon. Like most previous conflicts, its conclusion cannot be foreseen. Many such struggles, like the Anglo-German tensions between 1871 and 1945 and the centuries-long tensions between Britain and France, lead to full-scale war. Others, like the Anglo-Russian or Russian-Ottoman tensions throughout the nineteenth century, lead to more limited conflict. And some, like the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, are resolved without direct armed confrontation. One key to resolving any such conflict is understanding both the nature of the enemy and the scope of the conflict–insights that have eluded most Americans and, indeed, many Iranians. This report addresses this lack of understanding and argues that while neither Americans nor Iranians desire full-scale military confrontation, Iranian activism and American passivity are contributing to a drift toward war.
Iran has been in the headlines on and off since 1979, but its significance for the United States increased dramatically after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran had long been recognized as the premier state sponsor of terrorism, but following 9/11, Americans were less willing than they had been to tolerate Iranian attacks, such as the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks bombing that killed 241 U.S. troops and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, and Iranian support for groups–like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and Gaza–with a history of killing Americans.
After Saddam Hussein was overthrown, it immediately became clear that Iran would have significant influence in post-Saddam Iraq. Indeed, mounting evidence of Iranian support for Shia and Sunni groups fighting American troops in Iraq generated deep concern in the United States, and sporadic reports of similar Iranian support to the Taliban in Afghanistan have received short bursts of attention. But Tehran ensured its place in the spotlight as it rapidly moved toward an escalation of tensions over its nuclear program.
The policy debate in the United States has generally centered around a single issue: will (or should) the Bush administration launch military strikes against Iran? Most have seen the Iranian nuclear program as the likeliest trigger for a U.S. attack. Those in the United States and Europe who oppose such a reaction have attempted to design a program of sanctions and diplomacy aimed at resolving the “nuclear issue.” Fear that other points of conflict, particularly Iranian support of insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, might become another trigger has also led to controversy over and even obfuscation of events in those two important theaters. And Iran’s continued support for Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist groups, while undisputed, is rarely mentioned–most likely out of fear that “war hawks” will use any evidence of Iranian wrongdoing to press for immediate military strikes.
The desire of the Bush administration–and even most of the supposed hawks–to attack Iran has always been overstated. Although some writers have advocated using military means to promote regime change in Tehran, few–if any–serious Iran analysts or defense specialists have recommended using force in the first instance. There has been no concerted effort within the administration–and very little pressure from the outside–for an attack. There is no comparison, for instance, between the bipartisan efforts to condemn, contain, or remove Saddam Hussein in the 1990s and again in 2003 and isolated attempts to promote military strikes against Iran since the start of the Iraq war. The reason is simple: Iran is more than three times as large as Iraq in every dimension, with daunting physical terrain, even more daunting human terrain, and a global terrorist network. The prospect of full-scale war has never been appealing, and the waning of enthusiasm for precision-strike regime change after 2003 has made that option relatively unattractive as well.
This is not to say that the Bush administration or its successors will not launch either limited or full-scale military operations against Iran. Unattractive as the prospect of military conflict is, the prospect of an Iranian nuclear arsenal is at least equally unappealing. Much as Americans might desire to avoid war with Iran, continued Iranian intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the Middle East might ultimately make that option less repulsive than the alternatives. Western democracies do not go to war because they want to–they go to war when they determine that they have no other choice. The challenge in managing any cold war lies in ensuring that neither side ever feels that hot war is the lesser evil. And the key to that challenge is finding a modus vivendi, rather than insisting one side surrender to the other. This platitude is normally taken to mean that the United States should make sufficient concessions to Iran to mollify the mullahs. But the often-ignored converse is also true: stability will not result any more from an American surrender to Iran than from an Iranian surrender to America.
Sadly, there is very little prospect of success in this or any other endeavor unless the policy debate moves beyond the compartmentalization and hysteria that have characterized the discussion thus far. We must be able to recognize openly, fully, and objectively Iran’s activities in the region that affect our interests without fearing that such recognition will lead to a foolish war. And we must also recognize that our conflict with Iran is regionwide, complex, and broad-based–it is not a simple misunderstanding over the nature of Iran’s nuclear program or the threat Tehran feels from having U.S. troops deployed to its east and west. This report aims to present empirical evidence of Iran’s actions in three critical areas: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, and the West Bank and Gaza). It does not address Iran’s nuclear program, which is relatively familiar to most people who follow the issue, nor does it address Iranian activities beyond the broader Middle East and South Asia, although these are also worthy of study. Above all, it makes few claims about Iran’s intentions.
The debate about the aims and even the nature and power of the Iranian regime is charged. The regime is unusually opaque. The combination of openness, rhetorical diversity, apparent internal schism, plausible and implausible deniability, and American neuralgia about Iranian intentions has made drawing firm conclusions about Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government or its possible successors almost hopeless. In the end, the United States is not likely to achieve any important goals vis-à-vis Iran without addressing better than we have thus far the issue of who controls the levers of power in Tehran and what they intend to do. But the American debate has thus far been so short on facts and so compartmentalized that establishing a ground-truth of Iran’s activities in its immediate environs, whatever their goals and whoever ordered them, is an important undertaking.
Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at AEI. Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War. Danielle Pletka is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI.
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