Iran, World War III, and the Madness of President George

Put a straight-jacket on them. That seems to be Los Angeles Times columnist Rosa Brooks’s position on President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney.

As she explains, “We’re in the middle of a disastrous war in Iraq, the military and political situation in Afghanistan is steadily worsening, and the administration’s interrogation and detention tactics have inflamed anti-Americanism and fueled extremist movements around the globe.” Yet Bush and Cheney appear to want another war, this one against Iran.

It does seem mad. Iran has more territory, a larger population, bigger GDP, and more effective military than did Iraq. Tehran possesses missiles capable of hitting Israel and is aligned with America’s client government in Iraq. If any regime is capable of destabilizing Arab regimes allied with the U.S., it is Iran. A cakewalk such a war would not be.

In contrast, being concerned about a nuclear-armed Iran is not mad. Tehran unsettles the world for obvious reasons. It is hard to find anyone anywhere who believes that a nuclear-empowered mullocracy would be a good thing. Although the Islamic republic has behaved as a rational actor for three decades and seems subject to deterrence like other, more normal, states, a residue of doubt remains.

But concern about an unlikely future threat is not the same as a clear and present danger. The former certainly does not justify the kind of rhetoric tossed around by President Bush and Vice President Cheney. They might not be mad in a clinical sense, but they are pretty nutty if they really believe their rhetoric.

First, the vice president said the administration would not stand by in the face of “the Iranian regime’s efforts to destabilize the Middle East and to gain hegemonic power.” This is, to coin a phrase, a hoot. It has been more than two centuries since Iran, or a nation resembling Iran, attacked anyone. The last war in which Tehran was involved was started by Iraq – which was supported in its aggression by America and several American allies.

Second, the administration, through its invasion of Iraq, has destabilized the Mideast. If Iran is poised for regional hegemony, it has that opportunity only because Washington was kind enough to take out both of its principal enemies: the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Washington also urged Israel on in its botched war against Lebanon, which weakened Israel and strengthened Iran’s ties to Hezbollah.

Moreover, in 2003, after Washington appeared to be invincible, Iran indicated its willingness to negotiate a regional settlement on America’s terms. The Bush administration, full of hubris, rejected Tehran’s initiative. Indeed, Washington refused to even respond, instead chastising hapless Switzerland for passing along Iran’s offer (since Washington and Tehran do not have diplomatic relations).

But forget the U.S. government’s past mistakes. It still is not clear how Iran could gain “hegemony.” Presumably even the vice president doesn’t believe Tehran thinks it can supplant America as the globe’s strongest power. Last year the U.S. GDP was estimated at $13.2 trillion, number one in the world. Iran came in at number 31 with $212 billion. It ranked just behind Argentina and slightly ahead of Finland. America’s per capita GDP is 15 times as great as that in Iran. The U.S. population is more than 300 million, compared to about 70 million for Iran.

America’s military edge is equally overwhelming. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Iran spent $6.6 billion on its military last year. The country rated about 2.5 pages in the IISS publication The Military Balance. The comparable IISS figures for the U.S. were $535 billion and 10 pages – supplemented by five pages listing foreign deployments of American forces.

Okay, forget competing with the U.S. President Bush opined on the need “to defend Europe against the emerging Iranian threat.” Not the revived Russian threat. Not the possible future Chinese threat. But “the emerging Iranian threat.”

Egads. Does he really believe Iran is aspiring to European hegemony? The Europeans had a collective GDP of $14.5 trillion last year, more than a trillion dollars above that of America. Europe’s total population runs about 535 million, almost 80 percent more than that of the U.S. The Europeans do spend less on the military than does Washington, but even so, the IISS figures the collective EU expenditure at about $212 billion. And two European states, France and Great Britain, possess nuclear weapons. The Europeans might be wimps compared to America, but they aren’t likely to fall to an Iranian invasion any time soon.

So how about regional hegemony? Could Iran dominate the Middle East?

Not likely. Israel is by far the region’s strongest military power. Israel spends substantially more than Iran on the military and has upwards of 200 to 300 nuclear weapons. War with Israel would yield suicide, not hegemony, for Iran. Absent evidence of ill intent more substantial than a rabid speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran’s presumed nuclear program looks more like an effort at deterrence than aggression. (Indeed, correctly translated, Ahmadinejad’s famous threat against Israel apparently meant something closer to pushing regime change than national destruction.)

Moreover, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has dismissed the frenzied rhetoric about Iran posing an existential threat to Israel. She was particularly critical of the attempt by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, with poll ratings below those of President Bush, to use the issue for political purposes. Former Mossad head Ephraim Halevy has voiced similar sentiments. As Trita Parsi details in his book, Treacherous Alliance, beneath Tehran’s hostile rhetoric lurks shared regional interests that have long bound Israel and Iran, even after the so-called Islamic revolution.

No doubt, Iran makes the Gulf kingdoms nervous, but they have an incentive to carefully balance against Tehran. A more sophisticated U.S. diplomatic approach to the region might help detach Syria from Iran. Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan also could play a balancing role to some degree. Iran faces significant internal economic and political challenges, and is not poised for regional greatness.

However, Vice President Cheney’s argument about the danger of Iranian hegemony seems rational compared to the president’s recent remarks. President Bush recently declared: “if you’re interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.”

Along the same lines, Norman Podhoretz, a foreign policy adviser to Rudy Giuliani, says President Ahmadinejad is “like Hitler” in that the Iranian leader wants to replace the international system with “the religio-political culture of Islamofascism.” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) compared today’s Iran to Nazi Germany: “During the run up to World War II, Europe failed to heed the warnings.” He believes that Washington has given Tehran too many concessions, including allowing some private trade. “The price of their aggression has been too cheap for too long,” he added.

World War III? Adolf Hitler? Nazi Germany? Aggression? Eh?

Precisely how would Iranian knowledge of nuclear weapon technology bring on World War III? In fact, Tehran probably already knows how to make nuclear weapons. After all, Pakistan does. North Korea does. Iraq did. Libya probably did. Even South Africa did. But no war, let alone world war, erupted in any of these cases.

Moreover, there’s obviously a significant difference between knowing how to make nuclear weapons and building them – and especially using them. If the president really believes world war stems from nuclear knowledge, it’s already far too late.

But even if Iran builds nuclear weapons, it’s hard to imagine how world war would result, at least absent an American attack on Iran. So far there’s no evidence that the Iranian leadership is suicidal. True, they don’t mind sending young people off to die – the Iraq-Iran war featured World War I-style human wave attacks against Iraqi trenches. But as yet no one in the mullocracy has volunteered for a similar mission.

What evidence is there that Ahmadinejad is a new Hitler dedicated to transforming the international system? More important, does anyone, even Norman Podhoretz, believe that Ahmadinejad has the domestic political support and effective military power to overturn the international system? Well, maybe Podhoretz does – he attacked Ronald Reagan for being an “appeaser.” But does anyone else outside of an insane asylum believe this?

And how is Iran like Nazi Germany? Where is this aggression of which Sen. Kyl speaks? Fearmongers have cheapened the Hitler brand over the years. There was something uniquely hideous and evil about that man and the regime that he created. Hitler really was dedicated to military conquest, ethnic slaughter, and Jewish extermination.

Moreover, he had the means, the Nazi-controlled German state, to come distressingly close to achieving his objective. That is, Hitler dominated the most populous, most prosperous, most industrialized, and most militarized country located in the center of Europe. His nation effectively fought much the world alone a generation before. (Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire hurt almost as much as they helped imperial Germany; Berlin never did choose allies well.)

Since then everyone from Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam to Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia to Saddam Hussein of Iraq has been attacked as the new Hitler. Now Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran is supposed to be the reincarnation of one of the greatest mass murderers in human history. None of these political leaders, evil though all might be, comes close to the original either in intent or means. Moreover, Tehran’s recent behavior has been eminently rational despite the Islamic revolution. (Of course, that is not the same as saying that the Iranian government is moral, legitimate, or democratic, or has aided American objectives.) The Khomeini government actually increased oil production after taking power and maintained back-channel relations with Israel.

Although control of the Iraqi presidency has oscillated between seemingly moderate and immoderate Islamists, the establishment mullahs who hold real power have done nothing to risk their power or influence. They have made what appears to be serious efforts to reach an accommodation with Washington. They have been working to assuage the concerns of their neighbors. Indeed, Srdja Trifkovic of Chronicles writes of Iran’s “broad diplomatic counter-offensive,” reaching out to “Central Asian, Caucasian, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and North African leaders in a series of talks on security and energy.”

And there is not yet solid evidence that Tehran is actually developing nuclear weapons. There’s good reason for suspicion, but even in the worst case, the regime appears to be years away from creating a usable weapon. A minute before midnight this moment ain’t.

In any case, the best way to test the Iranian position is to negotiate seriously with Tehran. The Iranians made just such an offer when Washington was at its arrogant worst in 2003. Now the Bush administration should swallow its pride and back away from its foolish “we don’t talk to mean people” stance. Just as it did with North Korea.

The latest U.S. sanctions – imposed, it appears, in frustration more at America’s growing international isolation on this issue than at any Iranian advance on its nuclear program – will make contact even less likely. By targeting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Washington makes it even less likely that this powerful political force will allow the Iranian government to yield to the U.S. Which means, at the end of the day, America will face either an Iran with not just nuclear knowledge, but nuclear weapons, or a war whose hideous impact will radiate outward around the world.

Unfortunately, there the leading presidential candidates in both parties seem unwilling to or capable of crafting a sensible strategy towards Iran. John McCain, Fred Thompson, and Rudy Giuliani all say “bombs away” when it comes to Iran. The latter even made the astonishing assertion that Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, who join Hitler in the pantheon of humanity’s moral monsters, were rational actors compared to Ahmadinejad, who, Fareed Zakaria asks, “has done what that compares?”

Mitt Romney, whatever he actually believes, obviously doesn’t want to be seen as Mr. Milquetoast in comparison: he has threatened a blockade or “bombardment” of Iran. (Even more weirdly, Romney has proposed indicting Ahmadinejad for inciting genocide. Hunh?) The Democratic pack is better, but not the front-runner. Last month Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) voted for a resolution that endorsed “military” means to “combat, contain, and roll back” Iranian power.

In short, U.S. policy, if not U.S. policymakers, is mad. Vice President Cheney articulated the standard refrain when he proclaimed: “We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.” Yet no one wants to admit what that likely means in practice: war.

President Bush and Vice President Cheney, as well as the long line of hawkish presidential wannabees, probably aren’t clinically insane. But their policy prescriptions are foolish and dangerous. There are rare occasions when war is necessary, but Iran today is not one of those moments. With the Iraq debacle ongoing, Washington desperately requires a new mix of humility and realism. Without it the U.S. government could easily trigger a much larger conflict than it imagines possible. Maybe that’s what President Bush really meant when he talked about World War III.