Stop Hyperventilating: Obama Will Not Choose War with Iran

Obama knows that there is no winning outcome for the US and its allies if he chooses a military course with Iran, even if some of his team seem to enjoy flirting with that option.
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In September 2007, before the release of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, I wrote an article for Salon titled "Why Bush Won't Bomb Iran."

At the time, the belief that George Bush and Dick Cheney would take military action against Iran was palpable. When I wrote my piece which was based on a great number of discussions with intelligence analysts, military brass, and others in the national security bureaucracy, I was temporarily vilified by voices on the left and the neoconservative right for popping the bubble of their deterministic obsession that the US was on its way to bombing Iran.

While some of the terrain has changed in the nearly three years since that article was written, much has remained the same.

The many unknowables and unexpected consequences of adding another hot war to America's rather full plate of hot conflicts around the world remains the same. Iran, which clearly can dial up or dial down the activities of its transnational terrorist networks has them on low simmer at this point. An attack against Iran would probably blow this control valve off -- resulting in a terrorist superhighway running from Iran through Iraq into Jordan and Syria right toward Israel. This network would also unleash itself against allied Arab state governments in the region and also cause havoc against US forces and affiliates in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These problems were there three years ago and remain today.

On top of this, despite the confidence, even eagerness, of the US Air Force to bomb Iran's nuclear program capacity, the other military services are not so sanguine and fear that the logistics demands for such a military action and its followup would undermine other major operations. In other words, adding another major obligation to America's military roster could literally break the back of the US military, erode morale, and result in eventual, massive shifts in American domestic support for the US military machine which had become increasingly costly and less able to generate the security deliverables expected.

And thus, the likelihood -- despite whatever Iran may or may not do as it pursues various nuclear options -- is that the Department of Defense itself will find itself tied in knots during any new strategic review or decision to take overt military action against Iran.

Then there is the question of Iran's seeming desire to be attacked. As David Frum has commented and written, one should pause a bit before actually doing what Iran's theocratic elites seem to be inviting. Frum and I recently agreed that an attack on Iran would give Ahmadinejad, the hard right clan around Ayatollah Khamenei and the most despotic, anti-reformist wings of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard exactly what they need to further consolidate their political hold today. Given the contested election and turmoil among Iran's top elites and other strong internal tensions inside Iran's political system, the leadership today does not enjoy a strongly consolidated position. Bombing Iran would solve this for Iran's current leadership.

Other consequences of action against Iran are that it may increase by an order of magnitude the global doubt that already exists about America's ability to generate new and better outcomes in the international system. In the eyes of many nations around the world, the deployment of military force is a desperate act, not an act of confidence -- and usually not an act that will generate desired, predicted outcomes. China and Russia, no matter the relative warmth of relations today, will likely veto any UN Resolution endorsing military action against Iran -- and will wait on the sidelines to see what the outcome will be of a military action that doesn't receive a stamp of approval from the global body.

As others have written, Iran may find itself the beneficiary of sympathy reactions, that it doesn't deserve, from other states around the world including Russia and China that see its natural gas and oil reserves as something to attach themselves to as American power, perhaps unleashed against Iran, actually punctuates the end of American hegemony over oil and energy resources in the Middle East.

I could add perhaps another dozen or so likely nightmare outcomes and downsides for the US and allies if Iran were attacked -- the most serious of which is that such an attack would at most delay Iran's capacity to acquire a nuclear warhead, which today is still questionable, and turn it into a certainty. In other words, Iran may be pursuing a latent nuclear option, basically like Japan, in which it has the capacity to produce warheads but elects to stay on the edge of that capacity. Bombing Iran could assure in the future that it acquires these weapons -- and in such a case, Iran's security paranoia, used to justify so much of its erratic behavior and posture, is validated.

So, even after bombing Iran, we end up with a nuclear armed, pissed-off Iran. While I think great states, including Iran, operate mostly through carefully considered strategic calculus, such is not always the case -- and Iran's chances of emotion-led behavior, vengeance, or accidents, increase.

This is the worst box to end up in any theoretic assessment of outcomes with Iran.

And others in the Obama administration also know that bombing or not bombing Iran is not a binary proposition with neat and clean outcomes on either side. The security of circumstances of Israel and the view that many on the Arab street will have that their own governments may have acquiesced to Israel's security preferences without getting anything in ending the humiliation of their Palestinian brothers puts every government in the Arab League at risk.

I think that there are many things that can yet be done to change the incentive structure of the Iranian political leadership and either seduce or cajole its leaders into a more internationally acceptable course -- and all of these should be tried and put on the table before the potentially cataclysmic course of adopting the Iran War option.

While there are individuals in the Obama administration who are flirting with the possibility of military action against Iran, they are fewer in number than existed in the Bush administration. They are surrounded by a greater number of realists who are working hard to find a way to reinvent America's global leverage and power -- and who realize that a war with Iran ends that possibility and possibly spells an end to America presuming to be the globally predominant power it has been.

There are also political opportunists in the Obama administration -- who after a horrible year of relations between the President and Israeli Prime Minister -- want to spin the deep tensions over Israel-Palestine away long enough to get through the next set of 2010 elections.

There are many who worry too much that Obama's recent highly scripted, positive, buddy-buddy encounter with Benjamin Netanyahu means that the United States is acquiescing to Israel's view of Iran, of settlements, and of the world.

This would be a misread of the situation. Come December 2010, my hunch is that all of those who have recently placed faith in a White House posture of Israel uber alles will be as disappointed in the Obama White House as many other interest groups have been who thought that Obama would deliver on their single issue.

In this case, Obama will stick to script and offer a similar line as Ariel Sharon once offered after being criticized by his supporters on Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza: "One has to weigh many different options in determining our nation's security needs Things look different when sitting behind the Prime Minister's desk."

This will be true for Barack Obama as well -- who knows that there is no winning outcome for the US and its allies if he chooses a military course with Iran, even if some of his team seem to enjoy flirting with that option.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons

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