United States combat troops have only just exited Iraq, bringing to an end eight years of costly war, and we are already hearing the drums of war urging an invasion of Iran. The rationale is similar — an incipient nuclear program that must be preemptively destroyed before weapons of mass destruction are inevitably used against the United States or its allies.
Nine years ago, several of my colleagues and I warned against invading Iraq, predicting increased terrorism and a long insurgency ("Iraq war is not in U.S. interest," Jan. 23, 2003). The same predictions can be made of an ill-advised war in Iran. One thing we did not predict is the rise of Iran as a regional power. This is a new reality that makes the region significantly less stable than it was a decade ago and has diminished America's national security.
Despite the fact that Iran only possesses a latent capability to develop nuclear weapons, proponents of a preemptive war argue that we must attack now to avoid their worst-case prediction of the future. This sounds eerily similar to proponents of preemptive war in Iraq who asserted dire consequences if action against Saddam Hussein was not taken immediately.
The proponents of war assert that the Mullahs of Tehran are committed to developing a nuclear bomb and will use these weapons of mass destruction without hesitation. They assume that Iranian mullahs are less rational than others who obtained nuclear weapons, like Russian's Stalin, Communist China's Mao Zedong or the present leaders of India and Pakistan. They assume that America's enormous nuclear arsenal has no impact on their calculations.
The reality is no state has tried to blackmail the U.S. with nuclear weapons. The consequences of miscalculation are so horrendous that even fanatical mullahs are keenly aware of the dreadful consequences of provoking war that could escalate to a nuclear confrontation. History proves that the benefit of possessing a minimal nuclear capability is deterring war, but not an advantage in waging war.
Attempting to convince us that war is inevitable, these advocates argue that attacking Iran sooner is better than waging war later. They minimize the current costs of war and exaggerate the dire consequences of waiting. They discount the cost of waging war now and the long-term consequences of doing so, much like the advocates of war in Iraq did nine years ago. They assert that inaction is costly and war is inevitable, so why wait.
Broad support for an invasion of Iran to eliminate Tehran's nuclear program before it achieves nuclear weapons capability does not exist. And one of the consequences of the war in Iraq is the reluctance of our friends and allies to follow the U.S. on another ill-advised adventure in search of WMD that would likely morph into a costly project to build democracy in a Shiite-Muslim majority country.
Tehran's threat perceptions are difficult to decipher but the examples of North Korea and Libya are no doubt carefully studied. North Korea has obtained nuclear weapons and gone out of its way to show the world that is does possess a minimal nuclear capability. No credible voice is urging a preemptive attack on North Korea. On the other hand, the U.S. and its allies have pursued patient diplomacy in an attempt to stem nuclear proliferation in northeast Asia. On the contrary, after the U.S. convinced Muammar Gadhafi to abandon Libya's nuclear weapons program, the days of his regime were numbered. The talk of preemptive war against Iran in fact may be a big motivation for Tehran to initiate an accelerated nuclear weapons program as a guarantee of regime survival.
American credibility is not on the line. The assumption that if we do not attack Iran it will certainly behave aggressively does not consider the effectiveness of U.S. nuclear deterrence. The proponents of war in Iran should remember the costly consequences of the eight-year war in Iraq and how advocates of that war lowballed the costs of that misadventure and exaggerated the costs of inaction. There is simply no compelling national interest to rush to war in Iran, so stop beating the drums of war.
Eric Hyer is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and provides affiliation for purposes of identification only. His views do not represent BYU or its sponsoring church.