Published: Friday, March 30, 2012, 10:52 AM Updated: Friday, March 30, 2012, 11:26 AM
As the late Barbara Tuchman, the eminent historian, explained in “The March of Folly,” certain types of belief have consistently led to national disasters. These include “not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts,” self-imprisonment in the “we-have-no-alternative argument,” and “underestimation of the opponent.” Are these themes operative with respect to war with Iran, as they were in the run-up to the disastrous Iraq war?
Just prior to the Iraq war, most Americans were convinced by press and government accounts that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that it was ready to use, even though U.N. inspectors were reporting negative findings. Today, most Americans believe Iran is building a nuclear weapon, even though American and Israeli intelligence report that Iran has not yet decided to do so.
Enrichment of uranium (at levels useful only for energy) and development of missiles (necessary for defense) are certainly elements of nuclear “capability,” but most experts believe Iran would need one to two years to make a single effective bomb if and when it decided to go ahead. For what it’s worth, Iran’s supreme religious leader has staked his reputation on a fatwa condemning nuclear weapons.
Bombing Iranian nuclear facilities because, at some time in the future, Iran may decide to build nuclear weapons, is a flagrant violation of international law.
A major difference from the Iraq war run-up is that so many military leaders have spoken out against war. Most former or present Israeli military and intelligence leaders oppose an attack, one or more pointing out that: Iran is not an “existential threat” to Israel; an attack would push Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon; the attack would only delay such development by one to three years; and the repercussions could be disastrous.
Many American military leaders agree, adding that an Israeli attack could drag the United States into a bloody and protracted war with a country three times the size of Iraq that has already united once against a powerful aggressor (Iraq). And polls show that Americans have seen enough death, injury and psychological damage to our troops to be more careful about putting them in harm’s way once more.
Again, unlike the Iraq war run-up, Americans already feel the pain of conflict with Iran in escalating gasoline prices. Neither domestic oil production nor conservation would greatly impact world oil prices. Three-fourths of our gasoline costs are directly related to global oil prices, which respond dramatically to uncertainty. Threats of an attack on Iran, and Iran’s counterthreat to close off Persian Gulf oil shipments, increase this uncertainty. If war breaks out, gasoline prices could easily double, with major damage to our economy.
It is unconscionable that otherwise progressive American politicians, who genuinely care about Americans who are struggling, so dutifully line up to vote against the interests of these Americans when it comes to laws and resolutions that could lead to a draining war with Iran.
Lastly comes the “no-alternative-to-war” argument, which claims that neither sanctions nor diplomacy will work. For sure, they won’t work if we continue to demand that Iran cannot enrich uranium even to the low levels necessary for nuclear power (about 17 times less than necessary for a bomb). Anyone who knows Iran’s sad historical experience with colonial powers will understand why Iran’s insistence on the right to enrich uranium has become a national rallying point. That domestic opinion enables Iran to withstand “crippling” sanctions, and to stall negotiations.
Demanding indefinite cessation of any enrichment, as in current Senate and House resolutions, is an absolute deal-breaker.
If we really want to prevent Iran from building a bomb, a “don’t trust, but verify” approach has a far greater chance of success than military action, which could backfire and do just the opposite. Unfortunately, Americans have seen little coverage of proposals by arms control experts that allow Iran to enrich uranium to low levels for nuclear power and under strict controls, in exchange for more intrusive inspections and transparency.
So why aren’t we pursuing this important diplomatic option instead of our March of Folly? If our best military minds tell us an attack on Iran will solve nothing and make things worse, why isn’t the majority of Congress paying attention? Is their fear of offending powerful interests greater than their commitment to America’s chances for peace and prosperity?
Norman Robbins is an emeritus professor at Case Western Reserve University and Iran consultant to Cleveland Peace Action.