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Iraq Lessons Can’t Mean Paralysis on Iran

There’s been a deluge of articles and features in the media in the last week about the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War. The bulk of it has been a rehash of the old “Bush lied us into war” thesis that was convincingly debunked by Peter Feaver at Foreign Policy yesterday. Though much of what people think they know about the mistakes made by the U.S. before the invasion and after it are wrong, suffice it to say that most Americans aren’t particularly interested in debating the issue anymore. The prevailing narrative that the decision to topple Saddam Hussein was a mistake based on false intelligence and that all of America’s efforts to stabilize the country afterward were futile has become entrenched in our popular culture and the minds of most Americans, and it’s not likely anything can change that.

But the focus of American foreign policy is no longer whether Iraq was the wrong war or Afghanistan was the right one. With even President Obama acknowledging last week that Iran is probably within a year of a nuclear weapon, the question is whether the nation’s Iraq hangover will prevent it from taking action on a threat that can’t be honestly represented as the product of cooked U.S. intelligence or a neoconservative plot. As they continue to stall Western diplomats and ignore President Obama’s threats, Iran’s leaders are counting on America’s Iraq hangover to prevent Washington from ever taking action to forestall their nuclear ambitions.

Whether that calculation is correct will depend on whether the president means what he says about stopping Iran and all options being on the table—promises that he will repeat this week when he visits Israel. But as we get closer to the administration’s moment of truth on Iran, it’s vital to point out that the analogies between this dilemma and the Iraq conflict are specious and should be ignored by the president.

The faulty intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction continues to mar the legacy of a George W. Bush presidency that deserves far more credit than it has gotten for keeping the country safe after 9/11 and for taking down evil governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it has made U.S. intelligence and the foreign policy establishment even more gun shy about asserting the truth about deadly threats to American security.

Saddam Hussein deceived the world into thinking he was still actively developing nuclear and biological weapons. But that mistake cannot inform the debate about Iran. Whereas the evidence about Iraq was fragmentary at best, the Iranian nuclear program is an established fact and not the figment of anyone’s imagination or fears. The Iranians are quite up-front about the enormous effort they have put into developing this project. The existence of their facilities has been photographed and documented. The presence of centrifuges spinning away refining uranium to the point where it can be used in a bomb is also an established fact.

For a time the reluctance of the intelligence community to face up to the facts about Iran served to deter a strong U.S. stand on the issue. The National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 on the subject claimed Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program. But subsequent investigations by the International Atomic Energy Agency have thoroughly debunked that claim and even the Obama administration, which spent most of its first years in office acting as if they had all the time in the world to deal with the problem, now has adopted a sense of urgency about the nature of the threat.

So while opponents of the use of force against Iran will raise the specter of the blunders committed in Iraq to bolster their arguments in favor of containing or even ignoring a nuclear Iran, the analogies fall flat.

The only question about Iran is whether to believe their assertions that their intention is to use these facilities to produce energy or to conduct scientific or medical research, rather than to build bombs. And since only Tehran’s most egregious apologists buy the idea that an oil producing country needs nuclear power or that they have any sincere interest in science or medicine, the lessons of the intelligence failures prior to Iraq don’t really apply.

The notion that U.S. action would mean another land war in the Middle East is also a false argument. Regime change in Tehran is a desirable goal and the throngs that demonstrated in Tehran during the summer of 2009 about a stolen presidential election before being brutally suppressed bear witness to the tyrannical nature of the Islamist government. But the U.S. objective in any putative strike on the country is far more limited than the ambitious goals of the invasion of Iraq. All the U.S. needs to do is to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. That will not be easy (though it is something that U.S. forces are better suited to accomplish than Israel’s) and it will not be without cost or the possibility of retaliation via terror or attacks on U.S. allies. But it will not require a land invasion of Iran or its occupation.

There’s no doubt Americans are war weary. President Obama’s decision to bail on both Iraq and Afghanistan have been widely popular and embraced even by many Republicans, who either buy into Rand Paul’s neo-isolationism or are just echoing the nation’s collective combat fatigue. But none of this should inform the American decision to take action on Iran. Even if one doesn’t take Tehran’s threats against Israel and the West seriously, a nuclear Iran cannot be safely contained. Nor can the U.S. blithely contemplate a Middle East in which Hezbollah, Hamas or even the faltering regime of Bashar Assad in Syria is given a nuclear umbrella.

It is still possible to hope that sanctions and diplomacy will work to force the ayatollahs to back down. But the odds of that happening are slim. Barring a decision to accept a North Korea-like compromise that will leave Iran a back door to a bomb, force will have to be considered. There will be many who will wave the bloody shirt from Iraq in an effort to persuade the president to renege on his promise to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But that argument will ring false. Invading Iraq may have been a mistake. But not taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities could be just as, if not more, dangerous.


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