by Shireen Hunter
There is a fear that the United States might become embroiled in war in 2018 with Iran, North Korea, or possibly both.
In view of the inflammatory rhetoric directed by the United States and North Korea toward one another over the past several months, it would appear at first glance that the risk of war with North Korea is higher. The risk appears still higher because North Korea poses a considerable security risk to America’s allies in the Pacific region, especially Japan and South Korea.
However, barring some new and unexpected developments in the Korean Peninsula, the likelihood of a full-scale war between the U.S. and North Korea is less than the chance of a U.S. military intervention against Iran.
There are several reasons why this is so. First, American regional allies, notably South Korea and Japan, are more vulnerable to North Korean attacks. In particular, South Korea could suffer unbearable human and material damage in case of war. Therefore, most likely it would try to dissuade America from going to war and instead seek a negotiated settlement to the dispute. Second, the United States must consider the risk that countries like China might become involved in the conflict. Third, the U.S. must calculate the risk of possible use of a nuclear device against American territory by North Korea. In other words, North Korea’s much inferior nuclear capability nevertheless exerts a deterrent effect on American policy.
But, perhaps most importantly, there is no domestic pressure in the United States for America to rush to war against North Korea.
The situation vis-à-vis Iran is quite different. Despite talk of Iran’s military power, especially its ballistic missiles, the fact is that Iran is militarily weak. In particular, Iran lacks an adequate air force and air defense system. A week-long American bombing campaign would inflict considerable damage on Iran’s military and economic infrastructure.
More to the point Iran, unlike North Korea, does not have a direct retaliatory power against America. Iran’s missiles and its much talked about speed boats are no much for American power at sea or in the air. And under the Joint Comprehensive program of Action (JCPOA), Iran has forgone the option of developing a nuclear device. A rudimentary nuclear device might have increased Iran’s vulnerability to a preemptive U.S. attack. But it might also have given American decision-makers pause.
What makes Iran’s situation different—and the risk of war higher—is the existence of both a regional and a domestic U.S. lobby in favor of an American attack on Iran.
Domestically, American hawks as well as the ardent supporters of Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have long advocated an American attack on Iran. Many had expected that after Iraq, Tehran would be the next target. Some were disappointed that Iran was not attacked first.
For this group, a change in Iran’s behavior or even a regime change is not sufficient. They want to see Iran’s capability to be a military and economic power in the region destroyed. With Iraq and Syria already out of the way, and with Egypt having become toothless, Iran is the only remaining Middle Eastern power that must be brought to its knees. It is the rebellious satrapy that should be tamed. As long as it has the rudiments of power, it cannot be trusted to behave.
Disposing of Iran at a time when Arab leaders appear to be willing to forgo the Palestinian cause altogether would hasten the settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute, or so they think, because Iran is the only state willing to sacrifice its own national interests for the cause of liberating Palestine. At least, Iranian hardliners’ rhetoric seem to indicate such willingness.
These sentiments are also shared by some Arab states—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, to name but a few. They have been urging an American attack on Iran for a long time. Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah’s request that the United States should “cut off the head of the snake,” i.e. Iran, is one example. More to the point, the former Secretary of State, John Kerry, recently related how Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were pressuring the United States to bomb Iran while America was trying to reach a negotiated settlement on Iran’s nuclear program. They have not changed their minds. If anything, they are even more eager now for such an operation.
The political winds in Washington also seem to be blowing in a similar direction. Increasingly hostile rhetoric about Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts and comments made by several high-ranking Trump administration officials, such as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, seem to indicate that US might be leaning towards intervention. Making matters worse for Iran is the fact it has no great power patron willing to come to its defense. Neither Russia nor China will risk their own interests to defend Iran.
This may not come to pass, and Iran and the U.S. might just continue on their current no war no peace trajectory. But authorities in Tehran would be advised to take the risks seriously.
There has been an unfortunate tendency among Iran’s hardliners to dismiss threats of an attack by America. The fact that, so far, they have escaped such an attack has encouraged them in this attitude.
Those hardliners have made anti-Americanism the cornerstone of their ideology and the basis of their power and legitimacy, and thus have remained unwilling to engage in serious dialogue with America. They have developed an ostrich-like mind set and attitude that could prove disastrous for Iran.