Are U.S., Iran Headed Toward War?

BY Michael D. Mosettig  January 18, 2012 at 10:24 AM EDT


Omani fisherman in a harbor along the Strait of Hormuz. Photo by Marwan Naamani/AFP/Getty Images.

In the salons of foreign policy wonks in Washington and New York, a fast and furious debate is raging over whether the United States or its allies should launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Even short of pre-emptive action, there is growing talk in these quarters that the United States and Iran might be stumbling toward military conflict as the West tries to pressure the mullahs to stop a presumed nuclear weapons program.

Some of the arguments have seeped into the national political discussion, both in the Republican presidential campaign and in Congress, but whether the debate reaches coffee shops and diners from South Dakota to South Carolina could be determined by events.

What takes the talk beyond just talk is that it comes amid continuing sanctions; a sabotage and assassination campaign against Iran’s nuclear program; threats and counter-threats; and statements by top U.S. officials of “red lines” that Iran would not be allowed to cross, either in developing a nuclear weapon or blocking shipping in the vital oil lanes of the Strait of Hormuz.

If intensity of think tank discussions is any gauge, the level is definitely heating up. The Council on Foreign Relations and the Atlantic Council have hosted panels on the same day on “what next” in Iran.

At the first session, for a cluster of diplomatic reporters and bloggers, Council fellow Matthew Kroenig argued that a U.S. strike, for all its risks, might be the least bad option if Iran appeared to be closing in on a nuclear weapon. Council fellow Ray Takeyh said the current tensions might offer a prospect for diplomacy, although he was skeptical Iran would trade away its nuclear option.

In the afternoon, more than 100 diplomats, think tankers and reporters from news organizations all over the world heard Washington Institute fellow Michael Eisenstadt express similar skepticism about Iran’s willingness to negotiate, while Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution argued that Washington officials should not view an Iran with a nuclear weapon as an apocalyptic event and that options such as containment, practiced for 40 years against the Soviet Union, should remain on the table.

That Kroenig was a speaker at the Council session (Disclosure: We know each other well enough to attend baseball games together) is appropriate. The young scholar and nuclear proliferation specialist, who has done stints at the Pentagon, helped kick off the debate with an article in Foreign Affairs, “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike is the Least Bad Option.” His basic argument: that the risks of Iran getting a bomb outweigh those of an attack on the country. More to the point, his article ventilated publicly what some analysts and officials have been saying privately for months.

Not surprisingly, Kroenig’s article brought a backlash and ignited a debate on foreign policy blogs. Leading the counter-attack in foreignpolicy.com is Steven Walt (The Worst Case for War with Iran). He and Kroenig have been exchanging dueling blogs on that site along with Dan Drezner.

Meanwhile others have jumped in pro and con, including former top CIA Mideast analyst Paul Pillar in The National Interest, DemocracyArsenal.org, Duck of Minerva and Center for a New American Security. In the Washington Post, two former diplomats William Luers and Thomas Pickering weighed in.

Yet even short of a pre-emptive attack, the United States and its allies have ratcheted up the pressure on Tehran, raising the question of whether, when and how that country might feel compelled to hit back.

At the end of 2011, President Obama signed into law legislation allowing the United States to stop dealing with any entity that does business with Iran’s central bank. That is the latest squeeze in efforts to shut down export avenues for Iran’s oil, along with proposed sanctions from the European Union and the likelihood that two major Iranian customers — South Korea and Japan — will reduce their imports.

But what happens if Iran decides these measures constitute the equivalent of a blockade — an act of war — and retaliates, perhaps by mining the Strait of Hormuz, the gateway for 20 percent of the world’s trade oil?

That possibility also has flooded the think tank blogs. Former State Department adviser Suzanne Maloney, now at the Brookings Institution, wrote in foreignaffairs.com that the United States cannot negotiate with a country while it is devastating its economy and suggested the administration is moving from negotiation to “regime change” with Iran.

That theme also was taken up by two analysts at RAND, Alireza Nader and former Ambassador James Dobbins, in a New York Times piece (log in required). They warned military action would only strengthen the regime, which “needs to be persuaded that it will become more isolated, more penalized and more vulnerable to internal unrest if it chooses to test and deploy nuclear weapons.”

If the two nations are heading for a cul-de-sac, what possible ways out, or exit ramps, exist?

To convince the world that its nuclear program is peaceful, writes former IAEA deputy general director Olli Heinonen, Iran should suspend production of enriched uranium.

Atlantic and Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg called on President Obama to offer Iran “one final chance at real dialogue” because a war with Iran would be a disaster for everyone. Another Atlantic writer, Max Fisher, called for “the kind of Herculean diplomacy that occurs maybe once a generation.” Neither seemed convinced this approach would work.

A more conservative take came from Victor Davis Hanson, who warned, “History teaches that the saber rattling of lunatic regimes should be taken seriously.” Washington Post columnist David Ignatius suggested a diplomatic avenue could be opened via the heads of the two countries’ intelligence agencies.

And if none of this works, and conflict erupts? David Cloud of the Los Angeles Times reported on the quiet U.S. military buildup in the region, even amid the final pullout of ground forces from Iraq. In a post on Inside Iran, Ehsan Mehrabi, a journalist who recently left his country, said Iran would counter any U.S. action with a war of attrition in the region and around the world. And Adam B. Lowther, a professor at the Air Force’s Air University warned, “Iran possesses what is likely the most capable military the United States has faced in decades.”

Research by Ryan Brooks. Follow Michael Mosettig on Twitter.