Stoking War with Iran Courts Disaster

by Emile Nakhleh

If President Trump’s recent pronouncements on Iran are to be believed, it’s all but certain that he will not recertify the Iran nuclear deal the next time around. He is expected to accuse Iran of advancing its missile technology and supporting terrorism, which in his view would be a violation of the spirit of the Iran deal, formally known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Trump and his Iranophobe supporters are itching for a war with Iran, without any consideration of the disastrous consequences that will ensue.

It’s as if they have not learned any lessons from the Iraq invasion, nearly a decade and a half ago.

If the United States were to wage another misguided war against yet another Muslim country, plunging our country into another open-ended Middle East conflict in response to pressures from Saudi Arabia, Israel, and American weapons manufacturers, it would make Iraq look like child’s play. Such a misguided attack will unleash disastrous unintended consequences, including the possible toppling of tribal Sunni rule in the Gulf.

Lessons Unlearned from Iraq

At a National Security Council meeting the week after 9/11, a senior Bush administration official was clamoring for regime change in Iraq, erroneously claiming that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I turned to him and said, “If you want to go after that son of a bitch to settle old scores, be my guest. But don’t tell us he is connected to 9/11 or to terrorism because there is no evidence to support that. You will have to have a better reason.” In recalling this story in his book At the Center of the Storm, former CIA director George Tenet also concluded that the Bush White House, especially the vice president and his advisers, had already decided to invade Iraq despite the flimsy evidence they had tying Saddam to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. After returning from one of those critical White House meetings on Iraq in late February 2003, Tenet told me, “The train has left the station. They are going to war.”

The invasion of Iraq in March of that year proceeded without a serious examination of the sectarian dynamics in Iraq and the region. Nor were the war advocates in the White House interested in looking at the future of Iraq the “morning after” Saddam’s toppling, how such action would impact the region, the very real possibility that terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda would fill the vacuum created in the wake of the war, and the conflicts that would arise between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran..

The White House ignored multiple intelligence warnings that a “perfect storm” would engulf Iraq and the region following the initial invasion. Trump administration advocates for regime change in Iran seem oblivious to the post-Saddam storm that continues to rage in the Gulf and Levant countries 14 years after invading Iraq.

Trump and his administration can learn from history’s lessons and avoid similar mistakes. First and foremost, Iran is not like Iraq. Iran, which emerged as a modern nation-state in the beginning of the 16th century, has a large population, a rich and proud culture, and a sophisticated and committed military. Iraq was cobbled together by the British after World War I as a country—consisting of a Shia majority, a Sunni Arab minority, and a Sunni Kurdish minority—to further British imperial interests in the region. The British founders of modern Iraq at the time embraced the Sunni potentates in the region and imported a Sunni Arab outsider to rule over the Shia majority in Iraq. The country was ruled in this manner nearly 80 years, from the early 1920s until Saddam’s removal in 2003.

The American invasion of Iraq was a cake walk. If Trump decides to invade Iran, the US military will not have such luxury. The Iraqi military was forced to fight for Saddam and his Ba’athist regime, not necessarily for Iraq. The Iranian military and people will fight for Iran, regardless of the nature of their regime.

Several Shia groups outside Iraq, including the Iraqi National Congress and its leader Ahmed Chalabi, were clamoring for regime change in Iraq. The Bush administration at the time embraced Chalabi and was duped by his claims about Saddam’s fabricated nuclear WMD program. Furthermore, several regional states were directly and indirectly involved in the effort to topple Saddam.

Iran is in a totally different situation. No serious outside groups or self-proclaimed exiled leaders are calling for regime change in Iran. Unlike former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s dramatic speech before the UN Security Council in February 2003 showing “evidence” of Iraq’s nuclear program, Iran is not being subjected to such “facts” at the UN today. Those who favor invading Iran, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, are driven by their opposition to the nuclear deal and by Iran’s regional resurgence.

The Bush administration tried to sell the United Nations on the bogus claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and that it was a matter of time before a Hiroshima-type Iraqi “mushroom cloud” threatened the United States. By contrast, Iran has signed a nuclear deal to limit its nuclear program for nearly 15 years and has accepted an unprecedented intrusive inspections regime to make sure it lives up to the international agreement. By all metrics, Iran has complied with the conditions of the nuclear deal, Trump’s shrill protestations notwithstanding.

Saddam ruled by fiat through cooptation and the brutality of his massive security state apparatus. A decade and a half after the invasion and the demise of Saddam, Iraq remains a failed state mired in corruption, political uncertainty, and poor public services. Personal and public security is elusive, and Sunni terrorism is still prevalent across the country.

President Hassan Rouhani, by comparison, came to power as a second-term president through relatively fair and free national elections. Despite the regime’s theocratic moorings, Iran’s global trade and relations encompass many countries and regions. As a nation-state, Iran continues to pursue its interests and enhance its influence in the region, from Turkey to Afghanistan, which is not dissimilar to activities by other neighboring states. In fact, Iran’s Saudi and UAE neighbors are equally and perhaps even more aggressive in pursuing their perceived security interests against their Sunni Arab neighbors. The Trump administration should settle any disagreements it has with Iran through diplomacy, not war.

There are two other lessons that the Bush administration refused to learn during its determined push to invade Iraq. My analysts and I tried to highlight those lessons to President Bush and his vice president, but to no avail. First, Iraqis’ dislike for Saddam was not synonymous with liking a foreign invader. Iraqis told the US government repeatedly before and right after the invasion that they appreciated Washington’s help in removing Saddam, but that once the task was completed, US forces should leave Iraq.

Second, despite Vice President Dick Cheney’s claim that US forces were “liberators,” he refused to believe that “liberation” would quickly morph into “occupation” or that a prolonged occupation, regardless of the original intent and mission, would soon antagonize the local population and turn them against the occupying forces. When I persisted in my briefings on the need to consider the critical “morning after” questions before going to war, Cheney accused the CIA of undermining the administration’s policy, which of course was ludicrous. It’s ironic that it took Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld almost six months before conceding that his twin policies of de-Ba’athification and dissolution of the Iraqi military produced two unwelcome consequences—an insurgency and a civil war.

Unintended Consequences

A war on Iran will most certainly disrupt the global oil markets and shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, Bab al-Mandab, and the Suez Canal. Aside from the inevitable destruction and human casualties, such an attack would result in Iran striking Saudi Arabia, inflicting serious damage to the Kingdom’s oil and water facilities.

More ominously for the Sunni regimes in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, a war against Iran would inflame the Shia populations in these countries against their Sunni regimes. Shia uprisings across the region could easily destabilize these countries, further escalate the Saudi war in Yemen, stir up the Shia majority in Iraq, and open a new Shia insurgency against American forces in that country. A war on Iran will also upend the fight against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups.

Not all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council will support a military aggression against Iran. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain would be the most enthusiastic cheerleaders while Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman would be more neutral. That will certainly be the death knell for the GCC. Nor will Qatar and Kuwait allow the US military to use their bases in those countries in the war effort. Turkey will most likely take a similar stand.

The Trump administration would do well to learn these lessons and consider the dire unintended consequences before withdrawing from the P5+1 nuclear deal and embarking on a war against Iran.

Photo: U.S. tanks in Baghdad during the Iraq War (Wikimedia Commons)

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. The consequences of undoing the deal are given in my blog

    “It was reported in the  Washington Post that the US Secretary of State, Mr Rex Tillerson, said the following words,
    “I would like to assure the North Koreans that the USA is not their enemy; does not want any harm to come to them; they have nothing to be afraid of; the US does not seek regime change or the forced unification of the Korean peninsula, and the North Koreans need have no fear of any military invasion from the USA.”
    He then went on to say that the North Korean ballistic missile program is a serious threat to the US. Therefore, it is exerting peaceful pressure on North Korea and would urge them to come to the negotiating table and start peaceful negotiations with the US.

    He also confessed that,
    “The US does not have any good options available for it to limit the North Korean ballistic missile program.”
    These are very conciliatory words from the foreign minister of the most powerful country in the world directed to Kim Jong Un, a puny military dictator of an economically bankrupt country.
    On the face of it, one would think that such a speech would allay any fears the North Korean have and that the US would come around to adopting a more reasonable stance. This is more so since there have been open hints that a peaceful settlement of such matters could be accompanied by significant economic incentives.
    So, what does the little guy have to lose? On the face of it, it seems to be a perfect win-win situation.
    However, during the same briefing, Tillerson went on to say that the US is examining the P5 +1 nuclear agreement with Iran very closely to find out how it can prove that Iran has violated the agreement. This could then become grounds for it to tear up the agreement.
    He made this statement only days after the State Department had certified that the Iranians had held up their end of the bargain. However, Tillerson said that even though this may be so, they have not adhered to the spirit of the agreement in view of their involvement in several regional conflicts which expose their regional ambitions.
    It appears that if a country enters into an agreement with the US on a particular issue, it should also follow their lead on all other peripheral issues – even if these matters may have nothing to do with the issue on which the original agreement had been signed on.
    This seems like a pact with the devil. You succumb to one temptation and find yourself sliding down to hell.
    The saving grace in the case of the nuclear deal is that the US is not the only power with whom the agreement has been signed. Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China are also a party to it. The other powers are content that the agreement managed to end a major area of uncertainty and instability in the world. They are sure that its signature and continued adherence are essential for Iran to not be able to develop nuclear weapons, for a short while at least. They view this as a very positive development for regional and world peace.
    Numerous people in the world, including myself, applauded the signing of the Iran nuclear deal and complemented former President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for their foresight and statesmanship.
    However, in view of the unfolding attitudes of the US and some Arab nations in the region, there is an alternative view taking hold, one that believes that it may have been a “historical mistake” on the part of Iran to sign this agreement. This view is based on the fact that many of the concessions made by Iran are irreversible.
    As a result of this deal, Iran has dismantled most of its centrifuges and given up the stock pile of nuclear fissile material it had accumulated. Furthermore, it has agreed to open its nuclear facilities for international inspection in order to assure the world that it has no plans to back out of this agreement. In return for their actions, the United Nations lifted previous sanctions off of some embargoed funds.
    In view of the inspections, it would be extremely difficult for Iran to reassemble the bank of centrifuges or build up a stockpile of fissile material. Even if Iran was to back out of the agreement, any attempt to reassemble its nuclear potential would most likely be met with military action from the US, Israel and some Arab states. They may be able to get the support of the Europeans also.
    On the other hand, the concessions made by the other powers are not irreversible.
    The “snap-back” provision in the deal allows the sanctions and other economic restrictions to be reinstated immediately in case of any violations by Iran.
    As of now and despite arguments emerging from Washington, the rest of the world still believes that the Iran nuclear deal was a great measure for world peace and to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
    The Iranian regime continues to say that the agreement was accepted in order to demonstrate that it never had any intention of making nuclear weapons. It was not agreed upon because of some clever negotiations by the other powers.
    If the US does decide to take unilateral action in breaking the agreement under some pretext, despite Iran’s adherence to the deal, Iran’s views on the deal being a big mistake would gain unanimity.
    In any case, the US’ attitude towards the Iranian deal has dealt a fatal blow to their credibility. This should serve as a lesson for any country negotiating issues with the US.
    It has also made potential negotiations with the North Koreans all the more difficult. It gives Kim the message that all this sweet talk from Tillerson may just be a subterfuge to get the North Koreans to the table, make some irreversible concessions and then leave them high and dry.
    At a time when the whole world is watching the US with a close eye, the last thing they need is another nail in the coffin to worsen the already negative light the world views them in.

  2. Good article – Iraq cost us 4,489 military lives, over 33,000 military personnel with life-changing injuries and over $2 trillion to the treasury. I believe retired General Anthony Zinni’s comment, “If you liked Iraq and Afghanistan, you will love Iran.” I see the same Americans that helped push us into a very costly war in Iraq writing articles and giving speeches pushing an Iran war. People like Dr. Nakhleh need to tell their story again and again and again to remind the American people of the Iraq blunder if we are going to avoid an Iran blunder.

  3. Excellent article! The argument needs to be repeated in multiple fora.

  4. Dr Nakhleh, thank you for finally coming to your senses! How could we help you to repeat and get your message to the American people! The two jokers, Trump and Tillerson, are playing the bad & good cops which is nonsense and meaningless to the leaders of other countries! American administrations have come to love quagmires and repeating the same thing over and over expecting different results!

  5. @ Ali Hashim

    ….’In any case, the US’ attitude towards the Iranian deal has dealt a fatal blow to their credibility.’

    To the Iranian public the US government is not an abstract entity but comprised of influential Americans who have been voted into office by the ‘American public’; to us in Iran the US Administration not only represent the American political elite but the American ‘culture’ and ‘values – regardless of inheriting the predatory history of the American civilization and its barbaric invasions and violation of other nations’ values and resources which have cost millions of lives.

    The loss of the US prestige, has always been a ‘small’ price to pay in order to accomplish what they call ‘national interest’. But eventually this loss can leave its marks on the ‘American’ psyche.

    The brief worldwide sympathy that Americans received in 2001 in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, soon faded away with the savage bombardments of the civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. The mask of victim-hood soon came off and the world saw again the US government that had already lost her WWII prestige with the American invasion of Vietnam – four million Vietnamese dead and a country ruined by chemical attacks. The world also remembered the decades of America’s full support for Israel’s vicious appropriation of the Palestinian lands and mass murder, and military incursions into its neighboring countries; there were also the endless violent military coups to install right wing or pro-American dictators, especially in South America, as well as the previous US military attacks on Iraq and the economic sanctions killing so many Iraqi children.

    So, the gloves had come off again and the world saw the predatory face of the defenders of the civilized world and human rights. In Iran we had often reflected on these exposures, especially during the Iraqi army’s ruthless invasion of Iran in the 80’s with the full blessing of the US President and his pro civilized world government supporting massacre and chemical attacks on the civilians. And then we had the 2003 attack on Iraq leading to millions of civilians becoming homeless, wounded, traumatized, killed and buried like animals in mass graves in Iraq and Afghanistan; a horrific display of the American civilization to avenge the 9-11 attacks but as a pretext to take over an oil rich nation. And this is exactly what divides the Iranians and the Americans: the loss of the US credibility! And we are not the only people affected by the US hypocrisy:

    Americans travelling ‘outside’ the US suffered a great humiliation after the barbaric invasion of Iraq in 2003, many were ashamed and embarrassed to say they were Americans!!

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