What is the Endgame with Iran?
Mr. Trump has surrounded himself with advisors that have survived by sticking a wet finger up to see which way the Trumpian hot air is blowing. The few exceptions — whatever you think of John Bolton’s foreign affairs views, he has hind legs — -have been rousing for a splendid little war with Iran for years.
It’s almost like how the neocons used their think tanks to rouse for the second Iraq war. They even got as formal a proposal as you can make from the outside in front of Bill Clinton, who put it in the round file where it belonged. But they kept after it and the quick march into Baghdad came true under Bush 43. We are still waiting for the flowers to be strewn in our path…maybe that’s why we still have troops there.
The first Iraq war was a police action by a broad coalition that needed to be undertaken unless the U.N. Security Council wished to dissolve itself for impotence. You don’t seize your neighbor’s real estate over a dispute of the kind the Permanent International Court of Justice handles every day. It was as if the U.S. had sought to end the Chamizal dispute by seizing Ciudad Juárez.
Whether reckless or feckless, the occupation of Kuwait was over the dead body of international law. The U.N. threw a penalty flag and blew the whistle but Saddam Hussein had no use for being told that he maintained the fourth largest army in the world but had to sit still for being nickeled and dimed by Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Emir of Kuwait.
The purpose of the police action was to put the map back the way it had been. That purpose did not require going to Baghdad. There was no reason to take Baghdad and lots of reasons contra, chief among them Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn theory of military adventures: if you break it, you bought it.
Bush 41 prudently did not break it; Bush 43 imprudently did. I remember reading about the civilians the Bush 43 administration sent to teach the Iraqis how to govern themselves. Educated at fundamentalist Christian colleges that had historically been shut out of responsible government positions, they did not know a Sunni from a Shi’a but they were, to a person, opposed to abortion.
It was as if the plan for Baghdad was cobbled together by someone who never read Seven Pillars of Wisdom, let alone modern works by Middle East scholars. Iraq was a fake nation, put together by the colonial powers to conform to lines on a map and containing peoples with little in common. The fake nation was held together by a strongman who ruled with terror and when he was removed, things fell apart.
Imagine, though, if things had not fallen apart. Like the Protestants and the Catholics in Ireland still fighting over the soul of Christianity — -a fight of which Mr. Trump demonstrated ignorance when he visited that nation — -the Sunni and the Shi’a have been fighting over the soul of Islam for centuries.
The tip of the Sunni spear used to be Egypt, but it has in our times been Saudi Arabia. The tip of the Shi’a spear has been and is the Persian Empire, modern Iran. This, and not the burning desire to push Israel into the sea that inspires the Arab street, is the primary divide in the Middle East.
The fake country of Iraq was a majority Shi’a population ruled by a ruthless Sunni. Assume the U.S. invasion went well and we left Iraq with a robust democracy. With Saddam Hussein’s boot off their necks, do you suppose the Iraqi people would side with Riyadh or Tehran?
Folklore in the U.S. holds that we were forced to side with Riyadh because we needed Saudi oil. Not exactly. We sucked on that Saudi light sweet teat for all we were worth, but heavy and sour will work at a much higher cost. It has to be stabilized before it can be safely shipped and then it requires much more refining. Light sweet crude made much cheaper gasoline but I would like to think the price of gasoline is not worth as much military exertion as whether we have gasoline.
What we need from the Saudis is that they price their oil in U.S. dollars and pressure all of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to do the same. This creates a much higher demand for dollars than would otherwise exist and cements the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency. That status makes borrowing cheaper for U.S. taxpayers, which enables trend lines of falling taxes on the wealthy and rising expenditures on military hardware.
So we have a side in the forever war between Sunni and Shi’a. The United States of America backs the Sunni. While that may be bad news for our expressed views of neutrality as between religions, the worse news is that we can’t allow Iran to build nuclear weapons. The usual delay in crafting delivery vehicles does not apply. They already have rockets that can reach Saudi Arabia.
Iran is not a fake nation. It is what remains of the Persian Empire and that heritage is part of the national identity of every Iranian. It might be as easy to roll tanks into Tehran as it was to roll them into Baghdad, but the rent may quickly become more than we wish to pay. Do we need to be reminded that we still have troops in Iraq over 15 years later with no end in sight? Iraq was supposed to be a cakewalk, and compared to Iran it was a cakewalk.
The so-called “Sunni awakening” in Iraq was more a U.S. awakening to the facts that fighting men were loyal to tribal leaders and the backdrop of it all was the Sunni-Shi’a divide. Add to that the brutality and incompetence displayed by the fighters who became ISIS and management of the conflict got much easier. To manage is not to win.
There were not Iraqi patriots fighting like patriots, like the French maquisards who never gave in to Hitler. In Iran, every citizen will be a patriot and they will never give up because they are at home. They have nowhere to go and rule by an American viceroy is not an option.
That’s the bad news. An Iran war will take more treasure and more blood than an Iraq war and we will leave with our tail between our legs if it takes 20 years or more.
Now for the good news. Just as Iran is not Iraq, it is also not North Korea in that the issue is not giving up nuclear weapons. Iran has no nuclear weapons, but neither does its arch enemy, Saudi Arabia.
I am not informed how the Iranian clerics would weigh this, but the U.S. is unlikely to allow many missile tests after a nuke is built and a shot that overflies Riyadh by about 500 miles lands on Mecca. A similar overshot on a slightly different heading hits Medina. This assumes a short and straight shot across the Persian/Arabian Gulf. Iran’s missiles are short range by international standards, but Iran has at least three deployed that could carry an atomic warhead to targets in Saudi Arabia — Chadr-1, Sejjil, and Shahab 3. They have the distance but the accuracy is open to serious questions.
It would take a much bigger mistake to destroy the holy sites with a longer shot from the northern part of Iran but that would put the Iranian missiles at the extreme edge of their range, which would not help accuracy. At this time, we don’t know where the Iranian bomb would have to travel to be mated with a delivery vehicle. The point remains that an atomic weapon fired at Saudi Arabia puts at risk the holiest soil known to Islam.
From the Iranian point of view, should they make an atomic weapon, one of two things happens: they have a war with the U.S. or Saudi Arabia makes an atomic weapon.
Once Saudi Arabia makes an atomic bomb, the genie is out of the bottle in the Middle East and Israel — which already has atomic weapons — -has some terrible decisions to make.
Trying to get Kim Jong Un to give up his atomic weapons is futile, and pointing at Libya as an example to follow is laughably so. The downside of “denuclearization” is huge, because love letters to an American president are unlikely to be a long term defense. Mr. Trump’s offer to build a ski resort is not enough upside. Can Mr. Kim afford a minder for every ski bum?
Iran was offered a substantial upside in release of impounded assets and easing of economic sanctions. The gamble was that in ten to fifteen years Iran can be drawn back into the web of material and cultural interchange that makes destruction of the world as they know it very unattractive. Reasonable people opposed Obama’s gamble, but it was working until it was trashed.
As a pariah nation, Iran has much to gain from mere possession of an atomic weapon within such easy lobbing distance of Saudi Arabia. Kim Jong Un has a mighty conventional army that threatens nobody but South Korea and the few U.S. service members stationed in the way to die and trip public opinion in favor of war. Mr. Kim’s possession of atomic weapons with a means of delivery gets him a seat at most tables he would choose.
Mr. Obama’s idea was to give the Iranians respect out front — a commodity that costs us little — -and allow them to be reminded what life was like interconnected with the world.
It’s hard to discern Mr. Trump’s idea beyond destruction of every policy, foreign and domestic, with Obama’s name on it. On the current U.S. policy trajectory, what is the endgame?
Invading Iran would be a terribly costly way to achieve a delay in the Iranian nuclear program we already had through diplomacy. The only way to make the delay permanent is to make our occupation permanent in a country much better fixed to impose a cost on occupiers than Iraq was. “Trump Tower Teheran” sounds cute; USAF planes landing at Dover with a cargo of flag-draped coffins much less so.