Iran-US Tensions: Questioning the Dominant Narrative

This is a very long read, for those who still hold to the rather quaint notion that the Israel Folau saga is not the only issue of significance at the moment…

Introduction 

It’s with a mixture of bafflement and dismay that I read of the growing tensions between the United States and Iran. I’m baffled because I wonder how such tensions could be allowed to escalate so rapidly, with war being proposed as a serious option. I am also dismayed, since those who promote these policies seem to do so with alarming insouciance. Despite the surfeit of woe that has been visited upon the Middle East since 2003, the so-called “hawks” in the American establishment — men like Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton, or his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo — continue to press for confrontation with Tehran. My concerns have only been intensified by recent reports that Australia is considering joint action with the U.S., up to and including military intervention in the region. 

Although relations between the United States and Iran have long been marked by mutual suspicion, Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal — last May has seen them reach their lowest ebb for some years. Since that time, the Trump Administration has relentlessly applied pressure to Iran, both economic and rhetorical, in an effort to force the Ayatollahs back to the negotiating table. But instead of renewed talks, we have reached a point where oil tankers are being sabotaged, drones shot down, nuclear enrichment threatened, and administration officials enthusiastically beating the drums of war.

Those who favour confrontation with Iran maintain that the country is solely responsible for the burgeoning crisis. U.S. Central Command, for example (which oversees Washington’s theatre-level military projects in the Middle East), is “bent” on trying to blame Tehran for last month’s attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Whether or not the allegation is true (and on the available evidence, it’s probably the case that Iran is behind the attack), it is being used as part of a consolidating narrative. Indeed, it is of a piece with long-standing rhetoric aimed at depicting the Islamic Republic as a menace and an inherently destabilising force in the region. According to such claims, Iran is unique amongst the nations in the Middle East, fomenting crises and volatility as part of some grand strategy to secure regional hegemony. The country is also labelled a rogue nuclear aspirant, relentless in its desire to acquire weapons of mass destruction; its recent declaration that it would begin enriching uranium beyond what had been stipulated by the JCPOA is used as undeniable evidence by some that the Islamic Republic simply cannot be trusted to keep its word. It’s on the basis of such assertions that supporters of a more aggressive posture towards Iran advocate an array of policies: tighter sanctions, a show of force in the region, “pinprick” strikes, and even regime change (however that might be achieved).  

Now, I have no love for the Iranian government. It rigorously promotes a virulent form of Shia Islam, which has produced a ghastly catalogue of human rights abuses. Tehran thinks little of supressing political protests, and arrests activists without compunction. Dissidents are imprisoned, members of religious minorities are at risk of execution, and the levers of power are jealously guarded by a ruthless theocratic regime. Moreover, critics of Iran are correct, at least in narrow terms: it is guilty of contributing to the instability of the region. Aside from recent actions — including the seizure of a British vessel just days ago — it has long been a major sponsor of terrorism (think Hezbollah in Lebanon, or Hamas in the Gaza Strip), and its roles in both Yemen and Syria have helped fuel the civil wars engulfing both those countries. None of this can be disputed.

It is tempting, then, to lay the blame for the crisis at Tehran’s feet. But the morally decrepit nature of a regime doesn’t mean that it is guilty of every accusation levelled against it. And in this case, I am convinced that primary responsibility lies, not with Iran, but with the Trump Administration and its retinue of media supporters. Far from acting as a restrained, beneficent superpower, the US has consistently fuelled the roiling escalation of tensions with Iran over the past 14 months. Moreover, it has deployed a battery of tendentious claims as it seeks to justify its declared strategy of “maximum pressure” against the Islamic Republic. Those trying to promote the idea of aggressive, militarised engagement with Tehran have distorted recent history, inflated the threat Iran poses to regional stability, and minimised the potential costs associated with military intervention. Such assertions are as dangerous as they are fallacious, and demand scrutiny. 

Selective memories and historical distortions

American foreign policy hawks have used the recent past in a highly selective — nay, distorted — manner to frame current tensions in terms of Tehran’s alleged provocations and nuclear ambitions. So pervasive is this narrative that it has shaped even neutral reportage (see here). Of course, Iran is likely responsible for May’s oil tanker attacks — although the evidence isn’t absolutely clear — and is almost certainly behind the downing of an American military drone. However, it’s also the case that proponents of retaliation fail to properly contextualise these attacks. Whatever role Iran’s actions have played in deepening the crisis with the US, they have come after months of mounting pressure and sabre-rattling from Washington. President Trump, famous for his online bombast, has lashed out at Iran with a salvo of incendiary tweets, with at least one suggesting that in an armed conflict, the US would “end” Tehran. Whilst it’s true that the President is also notorious for his mercurial inconsistency, such missives are hardly likely to calm tensions, and do everything to corner Iran. 

Meanwhile, Senator Tom Cotton has been campaigning for a more assertive posture towards the Islamic Republic, and has confidently declaimed that the US could “swiftly” win a war against it. For Cotton, this isn’t a defensive policy, aimed merely at responding to a possible Iranian attack: the Arkansas politician has consistently argued for regime change in Iran, which can only be interpreted in offensive terms. Such arguments aren’t new, either. In 2015, for example, John Bolton — an unrepentant architect of the Iraq War — insisted that the US should not only “bomb” Iran to prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but ought to seriously consider toppling the regime. Seven years prior, he was urging the US to strike Tehran, arguing that the Iranian government was supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even now, he has hinted at the possibility of armed intervention to secure his favoured goal.

The concomitant to these declarations is the ceaseless promotion of supposed alternatives to the current Iranian government. President Trump’s key advisor, Rudi Giuliani, gave a speech recently in Albania – home to the mysterious Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a militant organisation grounded in a strange mix of socialist and Islamic principles. The MEK’s avowed aim is the overthrow of the Iranian government, and politicians such as Giuliani and Bolton have been forthright in their endorsement of the group. This is despite the MEK being subject to frequent and credible accusations of human rights abuses and corruption. 

It’s quite clear, then, that for some influential figures within the American political elite, effecting a change of government in Iran is what one might call an “embedded good”. That is, the notion of regime change as intrinsically beneficial has become an unassailable axiom in the minds of many policy makers, politicians, and analysts. The moral character of a government matters little at this point; being threatened with armed intervention or forcible regime change is bound to put any country on the defensive. In such a feverish, bellicose environment, the risks of retaliation — like the downing of an unmanned drone — are far more likely.

This isn’t merely a case of aggressive rhetoric. The US has been relentless in trying to pressure Iran to yield through the imposition of increasingly crippling economic sanctions. Despite claims to the contrary, these sanctions are not “surgical”, but have begun to suffocate large sectors of the Iranian economy. The Trump Administration has moved to cut off all revenue from the sale of Iranian oil, whilst eliminating waivers that previously permitted countries like China, India, Japan, and South Korea to purchase crude from Tehran. If that wasn’t enough, the US has also placed sanctions on Iran’s metallurgy industry, which comprises about 10% of the country’s economy. These actions don’t merely impinge upon Iran’s political and military elite; they have broad-based effects, harming ordinary Iranians. The economy has contracted and inflation has risen sharply over the past year, thus destroying the livelihoods of men and women everywhere in Iran. Certainly, there are many Iranians who despise the regime, and would like to see its demise. But collective economic punishment, of the kind meted out by the US, can only succeed in provoking Iranian intransigence and forging closer ties between the country’s government and its people. As Byzantine historian and seasoned Middle East observer, Daniel Larison, has remarked, whatever the Trump Administration thought it could accomplish via such means, the (predictable) effect has been to harden the resolve of the Iranian government.

Economic “strikes” have been complemented by ominous American moves on the geo-political chessboard. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the US, in a purported show of strength and leadership, sent a carrier group into the Persian Gulf at the beginning of May – despite there being no imminent threat from Tehran, and despite warnings from several quarters that it would cause a further escalation in tensions. If the act was designed to be inflammatory, then it certainly succeeded. Of course, it could be interpreted as a response to the already-noted acts of commercial sabotage in the region — a deterrence strategy, designed to ensure vital sea-lanes remain open. But in the context of past American provocations, not to mention President Trump’s claim that the US might send thousands of troops into the region, one could be forgiven for being sceptical. All this has come in the wake of America’s precipitous withdrawal from the JCPOA, even though there was no evidence that Iran was failing to meet its obligations under the terms of the deal (see below). Is it any surprise, then, that Tehran — which entered that agreement in what appears to be good faith — should fail to acquiesce to American “strong-arm” tactics?

Indeed, American responses to Iran’s vow that it would begin enriching uranium again beyond the limits set down in the JCPOA – something that does violate the agreement – exhibit the same tendency towards historical amnesia. Iran’s decision to re-commence an element of its nuclear programme can be seen, in part, as a reaction to the very pressure the US claims is necessary to force the country back to the negotiating table. The Iranian government has strongly implied it will use this development as leverage in an effort to force a lifting of sanctions, and has made little secret of the fact that it is retaliation for American unilateralism. But Iran critics forget this inconvenient datum, or ignore it altogether. Instead, they leach the story of all historical and political context, so dedicated are they to the depiction of Tehran as a rogue nuclear contender. No one would argue that an Iranian breach of the nuclear agreement is a wise move, and several European governments have rightly criticised the country for it (whilst saying that such a breach is, for now, insignificant). But again, what some in Washington claim is evidence of Iran’s insatiable appetite for nuclear weapons is, in fact, a consequence of recent American policy. 

This isn’t to defend Iran. But its recent actions, as condemnable as some of them may be, cannot be properly understood without reference to the litany of previous American and Western actions surveyed here. Even the recent hijacking of the Stena Impero by Iran was in large part retaliation for the UK’s seizure of one of its own vessels (possibly at the behest of the United States). Trying to divine Washington’s rationale in all of this, however, is more difficult: is this a deliberate ploy, calculated to lure Iran into a reckless response, or the unintended (though eminently foreseeable) consequences of just this kind of aggression? As the journalist, Peter Beinart, has observed, officials like Bolton seem dedicated to the goal of “goading” Iran into foolish acts that will serve as a pretext for war. Beinart also makes the compelling case that Bolton, who has been spearheading the United States’ current response to Iran, has long searched for pretexts that would justify war with Tehran. Others, like the Lowy Institute’s Rodger Shanahan, seem to interpret unfolding events as a consequence, at least in part, of American myopia. In an article for The Weekend Australian, he argued that the United States’ strategy of trying to suffocate the Iranian economy — not to mention the general air of belligerence the Trump Administration generates — was always bound to lead to just the kind of incidents we have witnessed over the past couple of months. Shanahan rightly observed that any analysis of likely Iranian reactions “to increased unilateral pressure by the US should have concluded that…Iran would respond by exacting a cost…to show that…support for the US’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign” would exact a price (italics mine).

Both alternatives represent a contemptible subversion of the diplomatic process. A premeditated strategy of conjuring evidence — however tenuous — that would legitimise a military strike against Iran repudiates good-faith efforts to resolve international disputes in a sober, reasoned, and peaceful way. On the other hand, a failure to reckon with the likely consequences of such belligerency is simply a reflection of the same inept, ham-fisted approach the Trump Administration has generally shown towards international statecraft. My point, however, is that on either analysis, the US has fostered the conditions that have led to precisely the kinds of reactions for which it now condemns Iran. As former Bush-era official Kori Schake has sagely noted, “every single European government believes that the increased threat we’re now seeing from Iran is a reaction to the United States leaving the Iran nuclear agreement and trying to force Iranian capitulation”.

Iran and the spectre of threat inflation

Those committed to a more hawkish posture towards Iran are often guilty of more than mere historical distortions. In an effort to promote their favoured policies, they have consistently sought to portray Iran as a unique existential threat to the peace and stability of the Middle East. This effort has involved a great deal of what many observers have called “threat inflation”, ranging from exaggerated claims concerning the depth of Iranian engagement in intra-state conflicts, to wild allegations regarding Iran’s allegedly imperial ambitions. Peter Beinart has amply documented the current administration’s attempts to propagate the idea that Iran is obsessed with regional dominance. Hawks have used these claims as a pretext, not only for withdrawing from the JCPOA, but for the United States’ ongoing pressure campaign against Tehran. That the nuclear agreement with Iran had nothing to do with its other activities in the region (involvement in Middle Eastern civil wars, support for favoured allies, ballistic missile testing, etc.) seems to have escaped their notice.

But leave that aside for now. It has been strenuously argued that Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria and the Houthi rebels in Yemen represent an attempt to acquire regional hegemony via strategic investment in local proxies. This is how Saudi Arabia, which launched an air campaign over Yemen in early-2015, has framed the conflict. Some have even gone as far as speaking darkly of an Iranian “empire”. The late Senator, John McCain — once an influential voice in American foreign policy circles — claimed several years ago that Iran’s presence in Yemen was evidence that the Islamic Republic was “on the march”, preparing to “take over” the Middle East. Bullish commentary has echoed this kind of political rhetoric: citing Iran’s activities in Yemen and Syria, a battery of op-ed pieces in major American media outlets ominously refer to the Islamic Republic as an emerging regional hegemon. 

Iran’s modest regional goals

Common though they may be, such assertions can be faulted on two grounds. First, it is simply untrue that Iran is, for example, trying to exercise hegemonic influence over the Yemeni conflict by directing the campaign of its Houthi “puppets”. As Thomas Juneau, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa, has sought to demonstrate, Iran’s involvement in Yemen — and in particular, its support for the Shia Houthi — has been relatively modest. He has argued that Iranian interventions in the Yemeni civil war remained slight, even after the entry of the Saudi-led coalition into the conflict in 2015. As Juneau observed, Iranian activity in Yemen has been “far too limited to have a significant impact on the balance of internal forces in” the country. As for why Iran’s support has been somewhat restrained, Juneau cited two primary reasons: Yemen is fairly low on its list of foreign policy priorities; and Tehran, cognisant of the fact that the country is a major Saudi concern, does not want its own involvement to spark an escalation of hostilities. Moreover, he also averred that whilst Iran did begin to increase its assistance to the Houthis after about 2014, it was a response to the intensification of hostilities to which other state actors (e.g., Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries) were already party. Juneau concluded that there is only meagre evidence the Houthis have fallen under the sway of Tehran, or act as a local proxy for the Islamic Republic. 

Similar dynamics obtain in Syria, where Iran has been assisting the beleaguered Assad regime, and Iraq, where for some years it has tried to exploit the chaos that emerged in the wake of the American-led invasion in 2003. Again, Juneau is an authority on these matters. In a more recent article on Iran’s activities in Syria and Iraq, he argued that its involvement in the latter country is checked by mutually constraining polarities. That is, whilst a weak Iraq allows Iran to project its power into the country and influence the Shia-dominated government, it also means the ongoing presence of the United States –the chief regional constraint on Iran’s ability to prosecute its interests. Further, Juneau perceptively argued that a weak central government in Iraq invites the entry of a host of militant groups into the country, many of which are likely to adhere to a form of Sunni Islam implacably opposed to Iranian Shiism. This not only tempers the influence of the Islamic Republic within Iraq; given the contiguity between the two countries, it also presents a positive security threat in its own right (as the Islamic State’s terrorist attacks on Tehran in 2017 showed). On the other hand, a strong Iraq is likely to be a more independent Iraq, pursuing its own foreign policy, and acting as a check on the projection of Iran’s power. Either way, Juneau suggested, the ability of Tehran to exert some kind of hegemonic influence over the country (assuming that it desired to do so) is deeply inhibited. 

We should note, too, that Syria has been a long-time ally of Iran; their relationship stretches back to the 1980s, when the Assad regime sided with the Islamic Republic in its war with Iraq. On a purely geo-political level, there is nothing sinister about a country coming to the aid of a formal partner when that partner is under siege; whatever one thinks of the moral character of Bashar al-Assad’s government — and despite its undoubted savagery, there are arguments for allowing it to remain in power — meeting one’s alliance-related obligations is an unexceptional feature of international relations. Tehran’s incursion in Syria doesn’t automatically portend efforts to dominate the Middle East, and is a far cry from supposed “empire-building”.

It’s true that some of Iran’s interests in Syria extend beyond the terms of their alliance; for example, Tehran wants to ensure a friendly government in Damascus, since the country has long acted as a conduit for the passage of Iranian arms and equipment to militant groups in the Levant. But although the Islamic Republic seeks to maintain some influence in that part of the Middle East, those ambitions are largely realized through relatively weak non-state actors operating within a crowded political ecosystem — something that places a natural limit upon Iranian manoeuvres. Propping up the Assad regime also ensures that Syria doesn’t fall into the hands of a rival Sunni faction, which would likely come under the sway of Iran’s primary antagonist, Saudi Arabia. Again, this is the product of normal geo-political calculus: any expansion in the Kingdom’s regional influence is something Iran has long feared and seeks to inhibit.  

Context matters. In Iran’s case, much of its investment in other Middle Eastern countries stems from a desire to counter what it sees as a regional order dominated by the US and its local partners (e.g., Israel and Saudi Arabia) — not regional supremacy. In that sense, Tehran’s involvement in places like Yemen — largely a response to the presence of the Saudis there — represents reactive, rather than proactive, decisions. Furthermore, sober analysts like Thomas Juneau have pointed out that whatever Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East, and whatever activities it sustains in the region, its ability to project power is severely constrained by the sheer amount of energy the US and local client states expend in trying to contain it. That containment effort has succeeded in restricting Tehran’s involvement abroad. One of the key instruments employed — namely, economic sanctions — has managed to suppress Iran’s economy, thereby limiting its military capabilities and diminishing its capacity to provide logistical and financial support to allies and like-minded actors. This is exacerbated by Iran’s internal economic problems, which are both chronic and endemic. Decades of inefficiency, corruption, and mismanagement have severely retarded the country’s economic progress, leaving it in a relatively stagnant condition.  The Islamic Republic is thus bereft of the financial and productive means it would require to achieve anything more than fairly paltry goals in the region. All told, Iran is simply incapable of doing what its critics regularly claim for it.      

What about Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

Of course, supporters of a more aggressive response to the so-called Iranian “threat” cite Tehran’s nuclear programme as possibly the clearest indication of its nefarious ambitions. Iran’s recent vow to exceed the limits on uranium enrichment laid down in the JCPOA is used as key evidence of its untrustworthiness. However, this ignores several crucial facts. For one thing, Tehran’s vow to increase its uranium enrichment is, like other acts of provocation, the inevitable consequence of ceaseless American pressure. Its decision cannot therefore be interpreted in a vacuum; claims that it represents Iran’s overwhelming desire for a nuclear weapon should therefore be met with caution. For another thing, American intelligence agencies concluded in 2007 that Iran’s nuclear arms programme had ceased in 2003. They went on to conclude that whilst Iran was “keeping its options open” about future development, there was no clear evidence at the time that it was about to re-commence work on a weapon. Moreover, the International Atomic Energy Agency has publicly stated that Iran has satisfied every inspection it has conducted since the JCPOA was adopted in 2015, undermining claims concerning Iranian duplicity. None of this should be taken to imply that the Islamic Republic is a model international citizen; it remains engaged in a number of worrisome activities, at home and abroad. But it is to suggest that claims deployed by American and other officials concerning Tehran’s supposed threat to regional stability (often made with a geo-political axe to grind) seriously over-estimate both the scope of Iran’s ambitions and its ability to carry them out.  

Who has been a destabilising force in the region?

The second point to make in regards to Iran and threat inflation is this: Iran hawks can criticise Tehran for its foreign entanglements only on pain of hypocrisy. Yemen is a case-in-point. American critics, for example, will decry Iranian participation in, say, the country’s civil war, but are loathe to examine the US’s own role in that murderous conflict. Despite having no congressional or international authority to intervene, the US has been a staunch supporter of Saudi Arabia’s involvement — which, as noted, has led a brutal air campaign against forces opposed to the beleaguered government. Airstrikes have seen busloads of children bombed and schools destroyed, often with American-made ordnance. Homes, hospitals, water treatment plants, roads (which are vital arterial routes for humanitarian aid), funerals, and weddings have all been struck. The Saudis themselves have been credibly accused of war crimes, violating international humanitarian law for allegedly targeting non-military areas; at least one UN report has indicated that the Saudis have regularly bombed targets that were on a “no strike” list of civilian locations, thereby flouting the normal rules of military engagement. 

Saudi Arabia has also been responsible for a ruthless blockade on Yemen’s ports — an action it justifies by arguing that the passage of Iranian weapons is thereby halted. But the siege has prevented humanitarian aid reaching millions of civilians, many of whom are on the verge of death. This is in addition to the tens of thousands who have already been killed in the fighting. A deadly cholera outbreak has now gripped parts of the country, and it is estimated that at least eight million Yemenis are close to starvation in what would be one of the worst man-made famines of recent memory. Some analysts suggest that this is deliberate strategy on the part of Saudi Arabia: unable to win a swift military campaign against the Houthis, it has sought victory via the use of siege tactics, denying the entry of basic goods into the country. Infrastructure has collapsed, and the government barely clings to its titular authority. If Yemen doesn’t count as a devastated nation, then it’s difficult to imagine what would meet that threshold.  

That the Kingdom and its local allies have been able to engage in such barbarous conduct for nigh-on four years is thanks in part to the diplomatic shield provided by the United States. Washington has only made feeble efforts to restrain its ally in the Gulf. In addition to providing the Kingdom with a variety of materiel and military supplies, the US has regularly fuelled its fighter jets (sometimes in mid-air) to enable the smooth continuation of its campaign. It has also provided intelligence and logistical expertise, on the grounds that American participation can moderate Saudi excesses. What began as a relatively limited operation under the Obama Administration — itself morally problematic — has expanded under Donald Trump. The President even recently vetoed a bipartisan resolution to end US participation in the war, despite the untold damage that’s already been wrought.      

There’s little space to examine the US’s calamitous blunders in Syria, where attempts to arm anti-Assad opposition groups have seen American weapons ending up in the hands of radical Islamists. Nor is there time to explore in depth the progenitor for recent US interventionism in the Middle East, the Iraq War — an illegal, “pre-emptive” campaign, grounded in the neo-conservatives’ hubristic notion that the United States has both the right and the moral duty to transform foreign countries into bastions of democracy. Reality, of course, failed miserably to reflect American idealism, which has proven to be an enduring disaster for Iraq and its people. The ripple effects of its destabilisation are still being felt today — not least in the flourishing of ISIS, for which an imploding Iraq acted as a vital incubator.   

Suffice it to say, decrying Iranian participation in Middle Eastern conflicts smacks of double-standards. To claim that Tehran has destabilised the region through such activities ignores the fact that American foreign policy since 2003 has accomplished precisely that (and to a far greater degree). We would do well to remember the old adage: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander”. In other words, if the US is going to remain devoted to an adventurist foreign policy — one that has seen it dive headlong into one discretionary war after another — then it shouldn’t be surprised if other countries engage in similar actions based on their own self-perceived interests. Conversely, if it wants to label Iran a security threat by citing its participation in a series of morally ambiguous wars, then it should also be prepared to cast a critical eye over its own role in such ruinous conflicts. 

Glossing over the risks of military engagement

Finally, a word must be said about the extent to which Iran critics are willing to glide over the possible risks of initiating military engagement. This, too, seems to be a product of the overriding aim of strangling the regime and forcing its eventual capitulation. Hawks, like the aforementioned Tom Cotton, make grand declarations concerning the ease with which the United States might prevail in armed conflict with Iran. Cotton’s pronouncement that only “two strikes” would be required to subdue Tehran speaks to the overweening confidence some Iran critics have in the power of military force to achieve their intended goals. His comments are little different from President Trump’s bombastic tweets, or Bolton’s casual recommendation that the US ought to foment regime change in the Islamic Republic (something that would likely necessitate a certain degree of armed involvement, however indirect). 

It’s difficult to reconcile these re-assurances with concurrent claims regarding Iran’s imperial designs; after all, if the country is powerful enough to fulfil its hegemonic ambitions, how could military engagement be “quick and clean”? Either way, however, those like Cotton and Bolton radically understate the inherent complexity of such an undertaking. Thinking that every contingency associated with military action can be safely accounted for, or that an enemy can be easily defeated, is an arrogant and dangerous conceit. Warfare is, by its very nature, an unpredictable beast, even when the most propitious of circumstances prevail. Not only is it frighteningly easy for two countries to stumble into war (whether or not they wish to do so): the length, severity, and costs of armed conflict are likely to far exceed even the most realistic predictions. The bodies of countless young men (and women) lie entombed beneath the earth — forgotten casualties of the breezy optimism that often attends military operations. Most European rulers and military strategists, for example, believed that a relatively brief campaign could be conducted in the wake of the Austrian Archduke’s assassination in June, 1914. Instead, large swathes of the continent were consumed by a war of attrition for more than four years, claiming the lives of some 20 million soldiers and civilians.  It’s a cautionary tale that every political leader ought to heed.

As for any possible conflict between Iran and the US, Middle East security expert, Ilan Goldenberg, recently cast a predictive eye over the potential for escalatory action between the two countries, and the disastrous consequences that could follow. He argued that although neither state really desires direct confrontation, it hardly follows that they will not stumble into conflict. Goldenberg rightly observed that any attempt to use armed force against Iran is likely to see retaliatory action. This could include militarised harassment of US soldiers in theatres such as the Syrian civil war; attacks on Israel via Tehran’s local proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah; or closure of the Strait of Hormuz — one of the most important sea lanes in the world, given its status as a key exit point for the exportation of Middle Eastern oil. It’s worth quoting Goldenberg at length as to what could happen next:

In one scenario, all these escalatory pressures set off a larger conflict…At every turn, Iran tries to save face by showing resolve but stopping short of all-out war; Washington, intent on “re-establishing deterrence,” retaliates a little more aggressively each time. Before long, the two have tumbled into full-scale hostilities. At this point, the United States faces a choice: continue the tit-for-tat escalation or overwhelm the enemy and destroy as much of its military capabilities as possible, as the United States did during Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in 1991. The Pentagon recommends “going big” so as not to leave U.S. forces vulnerable to further Iranian attacks. [National Security Advisor John] Bolton and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo support the plan. Trump agrees, seeing a large-scale assault as the only way to prevent humiliation.  

Goldenberg went on to outline further implications of such “escalatory pressures”, should they materialize. This is a worst-case scenario, to be sure. But it is still plausible for all that, particularly given the inflammatory rhetoric and “maximum pressure” campaign the US has been mounting against Iran. Even David French (himself a foreign policy interventionist) has admitted that it is entirely possible that current tensions between the US and Iran could culminate in the sight of American military vessels ablaze in the Persian Gulf. 

Once more, the catastrophe of the Iraq War is poignantly instructive. Although then-President George W. Bush stood atop the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in May, 2003 to declare “mission accomplished” — only six weeks after the commencement of hostilities — we now know that this was absurdly optimistic: Iraq was subsequently plunged into an abyss of sectarian bloodletting, from which it is still slowly emerging. Saddam Hussein’s demise and the destruction of centralising authority rapidly led to the political disembowelment of the country, as rival factions fought with ruthless abandon for supremacy. The true number of Iraqis who have violently lost their lives in the 16-year war is likely to remain a mystery. For the United States, the loss has been measured in the 35,000 military casualties sustained since 2003 (including 4,400 deaths), as well as untold quantities of materiel at a cost of well over $2 trillion. 

Contrast Iraq with present-day Iran. At the time the war began, Iraq was a country of roughly 25 million people, with a decaying military and an economy asphyxiated by many years of American-led sanctions. Although it’s true that Iran’s current economic situation is relatively parlous, it remains far stronger than Saddam Hussein’s domain was 16 years ago. And, with a population of 80 million, it is much larger — meaning that if a confrontation evolves into open warfare, any effort to subdue the country would be far more gruelling (not to mention far bloodier). A country like Iran would strain American military capabilities to their limit, especially if the goal were to mutate into Tehran’s utter defeat. It’s difficult to know what victory would look like under such circumstances; given Iran’s relative power and size, the cost in lives alone would be abhorrently high. Needless to say, they would be devastating for both the country itself and the region-at-large. And even though the US could, given its remoteness, contain some of the costs associated with such action, full-scale conflict would nevertheless exact a terrible price in blood and treasure. But again, Iran hawks, like their ideological forebears in the run-up to the Iraq War, fail to reckon with the foreseeable tragedies flowing from such a foolhardy endeavour.*

Concluding thoughts

Many policy-makers, pundits, and commentators in the American foreign policy sector seem to inhabit a Manichean universe, in which a righteous United States is forever pitted against an array of devilish foes. For disciples of American interventionism, Iran is just the latest villainous actor to appear on the international stage, against which the unrivalled goodness of American power ought to be applied. This is not a new worldview — nor a new danger — by any means: in 1821, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, warned the then-infant nation against going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy”. Of course, since that time, the United States has confronted a ceaseless litany of state and non-state “monsters”. Some have certainly deserved the label; others, however, have been created out of whole cloth by a political and intellectual elite intent on forgetting Quincy’s words.

It is this moralising ideology that ultimately lies behind the arguments Iran hawks proffer, animating them with whatever persuasive power they possess. As I have sought to show, those arguments rest upon an unstable mix of distortions, exaggerations, and the suppression of inconvenient truths. Intellectual calumnies like these need to be exposed for what they are. To be sure, the relative cogency of arguments like mine may matter little: existential narratives, which supply a nation with an overarching sense of purpose and resolve, are often more seductive than the kind of unromantic analysis I have tried to conduct here. Suffice it to say, the overweening role ideological idealism plays in driving contemporary approaches to American foreign policy — and in particular, Iran — cannot be ignored.

The US’s allies, including Australia, must therefore make every effort to forge an independent position on the question of Iran. Even if Canberra wasn’t considering some involvement in the crisis, there would still be ample reason for concern. But as I noted at the beginning of this essay, my disquiet has been amplified by reports suggesting that the Australian Government is mulling some kind of contribution. I can only hope that policy-makers in Canberra are able to see beyond the critical myopia of their American counterparts, and acknowledge that Iran, for all the odium it so richly deserves, cannot be credibly held responsible for the current crisis. As a sovereign nation-state and regional power, Australia has a bevy of well-defined priorities. Following the United States “in search of monsters to destroy” — largely on the basis of half-truths and threat inflation — isn’t one of them. 

*After posting this essay, I read an article in The Moscow Times, which quoted a senior Russian official as saying that Iran would not be alone if the US decided to attack it. Whilst this could be interpreted in a variety of ways, one cannot discount the possibility of Russian military support for Iran if hostilities with the United States were to break out. Although a military campaign against the Islamic Republic would be arduous (to say the least), it would pale into insignificance when compared with a conflict involving the Russian Republic.

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