Our guest blogger is Patrick Disney, former Assistant Policy Director for the National Iranian-American Council, who is currently pursuing a Master’s in International Relations at Yale University. Disney publishes the blog Talking Warheads.
In yesterday’s Washington Post, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellows Ray Takeyh and Steven Simon asked whether President Obama would be willing to attack Iran if it looked like an Iranian nuclear weapon were imminent. Takeyh knows more about this subject than most, having served as Obama’s key Iran expert during the campaign and as a State Department special adviser for a short time in 2009. Simon authored a memorandum on the possible consequences of an Israeli strike on Iran. While Takeyh and Simon conclude that “political, military and policy constraints” would prevent Obama from authorizing war against Iran, the authors ignore two critical facts about why such action would be disastrous.
First, there is no military option short of a full-blown invasion and occupation. Even if all of Iran’s nuclear facilities can be located, and even if they can all be destroyed with surgical air strikes, the ruling hardliners will just rebuild them — only this time without the constraints of IAEA safeguards. Just like Iraq after the first Gulf War, when Dick Cheney decided (rightly) not to pursue regime change and occupation, an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities now will simply set the stage for a full-scale war later. After a few years following an airstrike, Iran’s nuclear program will be back on track and the same voices in Washington will be calling for blood once again.
The only difference will be Iran will have been given the perfect excuse to pull out all the stops and openly declare the need for a nuclear deterrent. “We’ve always believed nuclear weapons are un-Islamic,” they will say, “but Western aggression has given us no other choice.” With the cards all on the table, the US will find itself with no other options besides Iraq War-style invasion, occupation, and — most likely — counterinsurgency.
Secondly, and most disappointingly, Takeyh and Simon’s analysis totally ignores the devastating impact an attack would have on the long-term prospect of democracy in Iran. Iranians last summer took to the streets in the most passionate outbreak of popular dissatisfaction since the 1979 revolution. Those who know their history viewed the events of last year as the latest step in Iran’s democratic evolution — a process that began over 100 years ago with the constitutional revolution of 1906. Although the street protests have died down and the democracy movement is in some disarray, it is clearly still a factor in Iran. Unfortunately, dropping bombs on Iran now is the surest way to uproot any hope for peaceful democratic change in the country. The hardliners will most likely use an act of foreign aggression as justification for a brutal crackdown, and the focus of political discourse will shift away from questions of internal reforms and regime legitimacy toward external threats and the need to rally the nation’s defenses.
This would be a tragedy, as absent a diplomatic coup de grace, democratic reforms in Iran are the only long-term hope for peaceful coexistence between the US and Iran.
With the anti-Iran rhetoric at a fever pitch in Washington, it’s easy to forget sometimes just how remote of a threat Iran’s nuclear program actually is. According to numerous unclassified assessments by the US Intelligence Community, Iran has not yet decided to pursue a nuclear bomb, and the US and international community still has time to convince them not to. The three to five years an attack would gain now will most certainly not be worth the cost it would incur: a non-democratic Iran with an overt nuclear weapons program and a vendetta against Western powers who attacked it.
Better to put the war plans on hold and sit down for real, sustained negotiations.