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Iran’s Long War

There has been a surge of alarmism about Iran within the U.S. foreign-policy community. Many experts fear that belligerent fanatics will soon use their fearsome arsenals to put the entire world at risk with unprovoked aggression.

Makes sense, you might say. Except that in the view of some analysts, the fanatics are in Washington not Tehran. Some of our most eminent foreign-policy thinkers seem to think that supposedly trigger-happy hawks in America are a bigger threat to world peace than terrorism-sponsoring mullahs in Iran.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 1, Zbigniew Brzezinski warned of a looming conflict with Iran “and much of the world of Islam at large” in which he sees the U.S. as the culprit: “A plausible scenario for a military collision with Iran involves Iraqi failure to meet the benchmarks; followed by accusations of Iranian responsibility for the failure; then by some provocation in Iraq or a terrorist act in the U.S. blamed on Iran; culminating in a ‘defensive’ U.S. military action against Iran that plunges a lonely America into a spreading and deepening quagmire eventually ranging across Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.” Note the skeptical quotes around “defensive.” In Brzezinski’s telling, a U.S. attack on Iran could resemble Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, which was preceded by a staged provocation in which SS soldiers in Polish uniforms pretended to attack a German radio station.

Stanford political scientists Larry Diamond and Leonard Weiss take up a similar refrain in the Los Angeles Times, urging Congress to use “its power of the purse to prevent an American attack on Iran.” Weiss and Diamond concede that “Iran is not innocent of dangerous and provocative behavior” but go on to assert that “war is not yet justified, except in the minds of those who have been lobbying for it for years.” Whoever they are.

As it happens, I agree with Weiss and Diamond—and with Edward Luttwak—that it’s not time to bomb, at least not yet. But I take exception to the premise of their argument and of Brzezinski’s, which is that if the U.S. were to bomb Iran, this would amount to starting a war out of the blue. In reality, Iran has been waging war on the U.S. for a quarter century, from the 1979 hostage crisis to the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut to its present policy of supplying Explosively Formed Projectiles—i.e., highly potent landmines—to Shiite and possibly even Sunni insurgents in Iraq who use them to blow up American armored vehicles, killing or injuring the occupants. A U.S. attack on Iran would not represent the beginning of a war; it would merely represent belated recognition on our part that a war is going on.

That isn’t to say that military action is the right course. For the time being, I would prefer more political, economic, and diplomatic pressure, which already seems to be taking a toll on President Ahmadinejad’s popularity with the Iranian political class. But my fear is not that we will respond too belligerently but that, as in years past (including during the first six years of the Bush administration), we will respond too supinely—that we will continue to do nothing, beyond a few tartly worded statements, about the growing Iranian threat. That really will make war more likely.


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