Generals, the old adage goes, are prone to fighting the last war. Political leaders and the people they represent typically prefer to avoid armed conflict. They have heeded what they have believed to be the lessons of the most recent conflict in which they have been engaged, seeking, in effect, to avoid the last war.
So it was with the United States and the two world wars of the twentieth century. In the wake of each war, the US government, with public support, adopted a foreign policy designed to avoid the necessity of waging another such war; but the approaches the country adopted after the two conflicts were diametrically opposed to each other. Disappointed by the results of World War I, America disengaged from European security in order not to become entangled in another conflict on that continent. That approach failed. The country was drawn into World War II, and in its aftermath took an entirely different tack, becoming deeply engaged in Europe and carrying out a successful policy of deterrence toward the Soviet Union, which had replaced Nazi Germany as the major challenge to American and European security.
Now the United States finds itself in a comparable situation in the Middle East. It has fought two recent wars in or near the region – in Afghanistan and Iraq – that are widely considered to be failures, costing too much in lives and treasure and failing to achieve the goals the country set for them. In the wake of those wars, America now confronts a serious threat in the Middle East: an aggressive, terrorism-sponsoring Iran with an ongoing nuclear weapons program that has brought it close to getting the bomb. In no small part because of the two previous wars, in response to the Iranian threat the American government has followed the post-World War I precedent. While not disengaging entirely from the region, and while declaring that they would not permit Iran to get the bomb, three successive American presidents have rejected the strategy that underpinned the successful deterrence of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. They have eschewed presenting a credible threat to use force, after the use of American force produced unsatisfactory results twice in the present century in that part of the world.
Barack Obama abandoned the long-standing American policy of refusing to allow Iran to enrich uranium, the crucial step in the development of a nuclear weapon, and negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) covering Tehran’s nuclear program, which, in the best case, would have merely delayed — but not prevented — Iranian acquisition of nuclear armaments. Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the JCPOA but made it clear that he was no more prepared than Obama to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, making the point most vividly by declining to respond militarily to a brazen Iranian-inspired attack on important oil facilities in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia. Joe Biden has sought, thus far without success, to reinstate in some form the agreement that Obama concluded and that Trump discarded.
Although they have never been fully articulated by any of the three administrations, underlying their common policy of military and political disengagement toward Iran are two sets of assumptions. One involves the likely consequences of undertaking the kind of robust deterrence that preserved both peace and security during the Cold War. The other has to do with the consequences of following the present course, which is all too likely to end with the radical mullahs who rule Iran possessing a nuclear arsenal. Both sets of assumptions deserve critical scrutiny.
The present policy rests on the conviction that confronting Iran with the threat of war would likely lead to war, and that such a war would follow the pattern of Afghanistan and Iraq, proving as costly to wage and as unsatisfactory in its outcome as those conflicts were. Neither proposition is necessarily correct.
Successfully deterring the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran is feasible, given the vast military superiority the United States enjoys over the Islamic Republic, provided that the Iranian authorities are convinced that the United States would in fact unleash its armed forces to stop them from getting the bomb. Various measures that the American government has thus far chosen not to take would enhance the credibility of such a threat: a more emphatic declared policy to that effect, military exercises that simulate an attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities, and actual but limited military reprisals for Iranian provocations such as the attack on Abqaiq, to give a few examples.
Effective deterrence requires the willingness to go to war if necessary. If the United States should switch from the kind of policy it adopted after the First World War to the path it chose after the Second World War, a direct military conflict with Iran could not be ruled out. Moreover, war is always unpredictable and an American war with Iran would surely bring surprises, possibly unpleasant ones. The prospect of yet another Middle Eastern military engagement is all the more unattractive in view of the challenges the United States now faces in East Asia from China and in Europe from Russia.
A war with Iran, however, would not resemble the American conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. American military operations would, in all probability, be confined to air and naval combat, without the involvement of American ground troops. Nor would the United States be attempting, as it did in Afghanistan and Iraq, to replace the government of the country with which it was at war, desirable as that would be in the Iranian case. The American war aim would rather be to set back Iran’s nuclear program as far as possible, to extend its lead-time to the bomb from weeks, which is where it stands now, to years. The cost of achieving that goal would likely be substantially lower than the price of the Afghan and Iraq wars.
The common policy of the last three administrations also tacitly assumes that the costs to the United States, to the Middle East, and to the world of a nuclear-armed Iran, while certainly unwelcome, would be manageable. After all, refraining from fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, most Americans now believe in retrospect, would have left America better not worse off.
The stakes are different and higher with Iran, involving as they do the prospect of the world’s most powerful weapons in the hands of one of the world’s most aggressive and anti-American regimes. Still, the present American strategy tacitly assumes the world has adjusted without undue damage to the spread of nuclear weapons in the past and can do so in the case of Iran. Other nuclear powers have been prevented from using their armaments against their adversaries and this can be true as well in the Middle East.
There are good reasons, however, to consider these two related assumptions excessively optimistic. Since 1945, the spread of nuclear weapons — nuclear proliferation — has proceeded slowly. An Iranian bomb might well trigger the acquisition, in short order, of nuclear armaments by a number of other countries in the region. Saudi Arabia would almost certainly take this step. Egypt, Turkey, and even the smaller states of the Persian Gulf, which could buy if not build a bomb, might not be far behind. Moreover, because proliferation on the part of these countries would signal that they no longer believed that the American nuclear arsenal afforded them adequate security, sovereign states in other parts of the world that now rely on American nuclear protection might be pushed to the same conclusion and act accordingly. An Iranian bomb, that is, might lead to nuclear proliferation in Europe and East Asia, transforming the geopolitics in those regions, and not in a way likely to make them more stable.
In addition, in the Middle East, the newly nuclear-armed countries would initially have small nuclear stockpiles that would be vulnerable to preemptive, disarming strikes. The governments of those countries would thus have compelling strategic reasons to put their nuclear forces on hair-trigger alert, which would in turn increase the chances of a nuclear shot being fired in anger for the first time since 1945. A nuclear war anywhere would have unpredictable consequences for the whole world. Such a war in the Middle East, even if confined to that region, would likely interrupt the flow of oil to countries in Europe and Asia whose economies need Middle Eastern oil to function, with devastating effects on the global economy.
The disillusionment of the United States after the most recent wars, and the consequent desire to avoid repeating them, are powerful political sentiments. By seeking to avoid a comparable experience with Iran through disengagement similar to that employed after the First World War, however, the American government runs the risk of repeating the experience of the interwar period.
The post-1918 approach, far from sparing America the costs of a major war, led to another global conflict, this time with even higher costs. The policy of military disengagement toward Iran runs the risk that events in the Middle East will unfold in such a way that in future decades Americans will conclude that choosing a post-1918 approach, rather than its policies after World War II, was the wrong choice.