There’s a lot to recommend in Ken Pollack’s new piece outlining an Iran containment strategy, but I’d put his dismantling of the argument that Iran’s nuclear program can be dealt with through air strikes at the top of the list. Many of the key points — an attack would unify Iranians, deal a death blow to the Green movement, cause the regime to redouble its efforts toward obtaining a nuclear deterrent — have appeared elsewhere, but Pollack assembles them into a methodical and devastating (and, I think, dispositive) argument against the sort of “roll of the dice” that air strikes would represent.
Once the United States starts a war with Iran — and launching air strikes will be war — it is impossible to know how it will end, and what would be required of Washington to end it. America may well feel compelled to respond to any Iranian retaliation, setting off a tit-for-tat cycle, raising the risk of escalation on both sides. The incredible paranoia and intractability of the Iranian regime has led to repeated instances in which Tehran refused to abandon courses of action even though it was suffering horrific damage — remember the hostage crisis? The Iran-Iraq war? In other words, the same behavior patterns that make it hard for the United States to coerce Iran by sanctions also make it unlikely that Washington can coerce the Islamic Republic by war. As we should have learned in Iraq, wars always entail very significant unforeseen consequences, and we need to recognize that bombing Iran could lead us down unexpected paths to even-worse outcomes (like invading and occupying Iran) to end what we started.
With a country as difficult as Iran, the United States should only launch air strikes if it is ready to pay all of the potential costs — and there are few Americans ready to bear the price of another major U.S. war in the Middle East.
After seven years in Iraq, and almost ten years in Afghanistan, Americans are clearly not enthusiastic about getting into another war, which is why the Bomber Boys would much rather not have to discuss the actual implications or likely consequences of the “military action” they keep calling for. It’s also why it’s important that they be forced to. Because at the end of the day, there’s only one way that Iran’s nuclear program will be dealt with to anyone’s satisfaction: Inspections. The only question is whether those inspections will be conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency, under the auspices of the United Nations, or by occupying U.S. troops.