by Shireen T. Hunter
In the aftermath of attacks on two Saudi Arabian oil installations, attributed either directly or indirectly to Iran, calls in the United States for punitive military action against Tehran have once more increased. As has often been the case in the past, those clamoring for military strikes against Iran focus mostly on the potential impact of inaction on U.S. credibility, as the patron of the Gulf Arab states, and its prestige as a great power. The other argument used is that inaction will embolden Tehran to intensify its provocations. Advocates argue that Washington’s unwillingness to retaliate militarily when Iran downed a U.S. drone in June contributed to its engineering/supporting/sanctioning these more recent incidents.
Those who argue in favor of military strikes also tend to play down the risk of escalation and the danger of any strike degenerating into a full-scale war.
A Flawed Argument
The reasoning behind the position of those asking for military retaliation is flawed. The argument that if the United States did not retaliate its credibility would suffer is incorrect. To begin with, Washington does not have any treaty obligation to any of the Persian Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia. Even if such a treaty existed, it would apply only to a direct invasion of any of these countries—as was the case, for example, with Saddam Hussein’s August 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The same objection applies to the argument that U.S. prestige would suffer. It is likely that a hasty resort to military action, with attendant consequences, would do more damage to U.S. international prestige than a show of restraint. This is especially so at a time when traditional U.S. allies in Europe and Japan are unhappy with aspects of Washington’s policy towards Iran and, because of their greater dependence on the region’s oil, would suffer more from a conflict there. This proved true with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. That war did little to enhance U.S. prestige. More seriously, any potential damage to U.S. prestige and credibility should be judged in comparison to the human and material costs of such operations.
Another flaw in the arguments made by supporters of military action is their assumption that these actions would not escalate to the level of a full-scale war, because Iran will take the punishment without retaliating. But this has for some time been wishful thinking. Several Iranian officials, notably commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have said that the United States can start the war according to its own timetable, but it cannot end it that way. It stands to reason that Iranian officials have prepared a strategy for engaging the U.S. in a protracted war. Most recently, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated that, if there is a war, it will be a “complete war” (Tamam Ayar).
The mind-set of Iran’s hardliners and the fact that they are convinced that Washington is determined to bring about regime change also would push them to escalate the confrontation and increase its cost for the U.S. In other words, they would prefer to be hung for a sheep than for a lamb. Since Iran will be defending its territory and statehood, it will fight and will take the fight to neighboring states. In fact, the smaller Gulf Arab states will pay a heavy price should a war break out. Moreover, although having suffered much, the pain threshold of Iranians is quite high, since the majority of them have never had an easy life. In short, a so-called surgical strike on sensitive targets is unlikely to subdue Tehran. To do so, the U.S. will have to embark on massive bombings and even introduce ground troops and keep them there for a long while.
Risk of Intervention by Other Powers
A war with Iran could also lead to the intervention of other powers, such as Russia and China. Iran is much closer than Syria to the Russian Federation, and Moscow is concerned about a potential surge of refugees coming from Iran, passing through the Caucasus, and ending up in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Russia would also be more than happy to see Washington bogged down in Iran and therefore might be willing to help Tehran without actually becoming involved in hostilities. China, too, would feel anxious about having its oil supplies become wholly dependent on American good will. In short, should a war break out, its trajectory cannot be predicted accurately. The so-called cake walk in Iraq turned into a swamp. A surgical strike against Iran could deteriorate into a drawn out war.
A Better Alternative
A more acceptable alternative to war is diplomacy and compromise. But to succeed, it will have to meet the following requirements:
- A realistic assessment of power equations and the limits of military force as instrument of policy. The United States still has a superiority of military power over other international and regional actors. However, regional actors now also have improved their military capabilities and thus are able of inflicting more damage than was the case even two decades ago. Moreover, the U.S. has global responsibilities and concerns and therefore needs to be present in different theaters. These responsibilities restrict Washington’s ability to devote a disproportionate part of its forces to a single theater. By contrast, local actors’ concerns are limited to their immediate neighborhoods.
- A realization that military power cannot always be translated into political dominance. Again, experiences of Afghanistan and Iraq, and even Syria, demonstrate the validity of this point. Thus even bombing Iran would not necessarily achieve America’s political goals.
- Understanding that global hegemony is no longer achievable. The emergence of new powers, notably China, together with traditional powers such as Russia, plus local powers, means that no single power can impose its hegemony globally and certainly not by military force.
These realities mean that regional and global stability can only be achieved through the predominance of diplomacy, compromise, and respect for international norms by all actors, big and small. Applied to the present situation in the Persian Gulf, these principles would require that international agreements, including the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), be applied; that Iran accept direct talks with Washington on the whole range of issues of concern to both states; and that Iran and Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, abandon desires for regional dominance, engage in dialogue, listen to each other’s concerns and fears, make necessary compromises, and ultimately agree on some form of regional security structure that could secure their basic interests. Of course, for such a dialogue to be possible, it must have the blessing of the United States, since almost all other major actors already favor such measures.
If key regional and international actors refuse to accept these realities, then stability will remain elusive and the risk of all-out conflict will increase.