One would think that America’s volatile and still inconclusive intrusions into Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and, most recently, Libya would give American pundits and policy makers pause when discussing Iran. No such luck. Rather than appreciate the highly detrimental consequences unleashed by the aforementioned conflicts—some of them more harmful than others—many prominent observers seem to evince only mild unease when arguing for either attacking Iran or implementing confrontational policies that put the West on the path of attacking Iran. Such accepted wisdom is dangerous.
Iran is militarily inferior compared to the United States and Israel. Iran spends a piddling $10 billion per year on its military, compared with America’s nearly $700 billion. Ironically, American hawks are now invoking Iranian weakness as reason to deploy a U.S. naval carrier to the Persian Gulf. Though understandably intended to signal that Washington will not to be intimidated, the double-edged sword of this “get-tough” approach is that it increases the likelihood of a murky, Gulf of Tonkin-like scenario that can legitimate a unilateral strike. Even a minor, isolated incident could spiral out of control. If such a scenario were to unfold, even the most precise and targeted attacks on Iran could unleash a dangerously unpredictable chain of events, potentially triggering another war in the Gulf and possibly a short-term economic crisis.
Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, has said that a strike on Iran would be “stupid,” with more downside than upside. (Dagan has also said that Iran will not get a bomb until at least 2015.) Ephraim Halevy, another former Mossad chief, has said an attack could impact, “Israel and the entire region for 100 years” and that Iran is “far from posing an existential threat to Israel.” Former secretary of defense Robert Gates reportedly warned that bombing Iran could trigger “generations of jihadists” and spawn other unpalatable consequences. And former CIA officer Bruce Riedel has argued that “Iran’s capability to retaliate for an Israeli strike against the U.S. is enormous.”
In this respect, Iran is not as weak as, say, Afghanistan or Iraq. Afghanistan suffered more than two decades of continuous warfare before a small number of U.S. personnel teamed up with the Northern Alliance to punish al-Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban in autumn 2001. In the run up to the spring 2003 invasion of Baghdad, a great deal of Iraqi infrastructure and human capital had been destroyed during Desert Storm (1990– 91) and further impoverished, bombed and rocketed after a decade of continuous sanctions and no-ﬂy zones.