The Incredible Undying Military Option

A recent New York Times/CBS poll has found that 59% of Americans believe that “Iran is a threat that can be contained for now.” This plurality of the public is right about that and 21 % of respondents got it even more right by answering that same question with “Iran is not a threat to the United States at this time.” This poll’s consistent popular preference for containment–it has been more favored than the choice of Iran is a “Threat requiring action now” since 2003–will now help buttress the efforts of policymakers in Washington who just so happen to be quietly paving the way for its return, as even our Middle Eastern allies recognize.

Haviv Rettig Gur over at the Times of Israel wrote that “according to [the Brookings Institute’s Kenneth] Pollack, if the administration’s policy of prevention fails, as the Saudis and other US allies in the region now believe to be likely, the US will likely find itself drawn into far greater investment in the region.” They have no confidence in the success of prevention not because they doubt President Obama’s resolve but from knowing that in the wake of any bombing campaign Iran will most certainly build a nuclear arsenal and would then have to be countered with containment anyway. That this scenario is certain to occur has dawned on Washington think-tankers who have begun to gingerly tip-toe towards advocating containment. A Center for a New American Security report entitled If All Else Fails, for instance, does not yet dare dismiss prevention outright, but nevertheless its author Colin Kahl insists “The failure to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would be bad, but the failure to be prepared for that possibility would be even worse.”

Fortunately, we won’t have to prepare for that possibility at all. The Obama administration will go to any length to ensure the United States can “re-balance” towards East Asia and is surely aware that an Iran with nukes, as noted by Pollack above, means the Pacific Pivot becomes a pipe dream. Consequently, Iran will score a sincere diplomatic deal from the White House via the P5+1, enabling the U.S. to disengage from the Middle East but still stay involved enough to contain Iran should the mullahs change their minds. A post-deal presence wouldn’t be necessary, however, since Iran has no interest in acquiring nukes. If the U.S. took a totally hands-off approach it could actually contain Iran by letting Iran contain itself. But non-interventionism is not as profitable as selling billions of dollars worth of arms to regional allies so Washington will go with the more muscular containment.

At all events, the containment of Iran is plainly underway, which makes a piece penned by former U.S. General James Cartwright and former Israeli General Amos Yadlin all the more peculiar. Why are they bothering to debate which of their countries should attack Iran if diplomacy fails when the military option for both would be a glaring failure? I can think of a couple reasons but first a quick digression to address a common misconception that Cartwright and Yadlin have internalized. The retired generals write “the Iranian nuclear program does not pose an existential threat to the United States as it does to Israel, so only an Israeli attack could legitimately claim self-defense.” No, it can’t and the first to admit to that would be the military option’s greatest booster, former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has said on the record that Iran isn’t an existential threat.

So why does the military option endure if a nuclear Iran wouldn’t pose the specter of Armageddon to Israel and if attacking to keep the Iranians from atomic weaponry would guarantee they get them later? One reason could be that our Middle East allies are secretly wishing for the U.S. to attack so Iran has no choice but to build nukes to deter further incursions. This in turn will successfully sink the Pacific Pivot as the U.S. is then forced to once again become heavily invested in the Middle East as the ongoing pseudo-Cold War with Iran suddenly becomes a real one. Fearful of U.S. withdrawal from the region as they are, I don’t believe the Arab autocrats of the Gulf States will mind provided Washington doesn’t stray too much. Whenever we see the military option being pushed in the press, it’s our regional allies’ way of saying ‘don’t leave us hanging.’

The other reason the military option will periodically crop up is to cause an Iranian overreaction to our belligerent rhetoric which will then be taken as continuing proof of the ‘Iran as a rogue nation’ narrative. Keeping Iran demonized is key for the Gulf States and, most of all, Israel. The Israelis have been hot against the possibility of the U.S. reconciling with Iran since the 1990’s and they became especially frenzied following 9/11 when it appeared the U.S. was going to cobble together an Islamic coalition to combat terrorism that included Iran and sidelined Israel.

Explaining how Israel escaped this predicament, Marsha Cohen wrote, “During the months following the events of September 11 and the proclamation of the “war on terror,” Israel played an active and discernible role in trying to prevent any possible warming of relations between the US and Iran,” and after some months of haggling Israel managed to secure its spot in the war on terror’s vanguard and sent Iran spiraling into the ‘Axis of Evil.’ “This [Axis] branding,” Cohen concludes, “not only pushed Iran further beyond the US foreign policy pale, it also undermined the domestic political position of Iranian leaders who had advocated the possibility of rapprochement with the US.”

So, in brief, Iran has to remain in the role of international villain lest the U.S. become too comfortable with the mullahs as might have happened if we had cooperated with them in the ‘war on terror’. In time, it might have led Americans to forget that Iran was the foe and question what has stalled friendly relations for so long. They would be asking ‘the embassy hostages were freed so just what is the big deal about Iran these days?’ Whenever they need to duck such an inquiry, politicians will dredge up the military option which never fails to rile the Iranians and they’ll be able to point to their indignant reaction and say ‘Look how much they hate the United States!’ That tactic disarms suspicion that Iran ought to be brought in from beyond the foreign policy pale. An Iran in banishment serves so many interests after all.