The perils of attacking Iran

Speculation is growing in America and around the world that the Bush administration might take military action against Iran in the near future. Thinking through this possibility should go beyond the usual partisan arguments of Washington about Iranian interference in Iraq and the security of Israel.

Taking on Iran would be a first step to a new kind of world war. American analysts are looking upon Iran as a Shia vs. Sunni affair and appear to be much too sanguine about its ability to withstand US air strikes or outright invasion. They seem to think that it has sufficient internal cohesion to withstand such stress because of its 6,000-year civilization. That is far from the truth.

Iran does not have enough experience as a modern State to live through a US military onslaught and reemerge as a unified and strong law-abiding democracy. The likelier outcome is prolonged internal civil war with a fair possibility of the outcomes suggested below. Such outcomes of lengthy political and military instability would amount to a debilitating new world war for Americans and Europeans.

The instability in Iran caused by an invasion or even air strikes deep inside its territory would trigger internal conflicts and civil wars within Iran and a spreading ring of countries like flames gobbling up a vast forest. It would be impossible for America or any Western politico-military alliance to restore stability and constructive peace to a single one of those countries because each has latent antagonisms internal to its population.

Each is fertile soil for civil conflicts and weapons are available very easily. None has the political maturity to withstand severe internal stress especially when its neighbors are collapsing into chaos. Punitively bombing those countries to impose surrender and order would worsen the civil wars.

No Western alliance has the wealth or the soldiers required to patrol each neighborhood of such vast and politically fragile territories to stop the bleeding and heal the wounds. Inevitably, the US and all its allies would be targets of terrorism in their homeland. Such developments could change the character of Western democracies for a long time.

The cost in human suffering would be catastrophic. The numbers of displaced persons, refugees and those trying to enter Western nations would be unimaginable. Obviously, Russia would try to profit strategically from the situation and China would not be an idle spectator.

Iran would be the first country to be destabilized and collapse into civil war among Persians, Turkmen, Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Pashtuns and smaller ethnic groups. It is worth remembering that Iran is located in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucasus. It is as big as Britain, France, Spain and Germany combined. Collapse of governance in Iran would also destabilize Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which are among the world richest states.

The Teheran government knows its political vulnerability and the powder keg nature of the entire region. It is scared of American power but, quite naturally, does not want the US military behemoth to permanently acquire Iraq and station troops there. Its experience of Americans since World War II is not pleasant. It has little cause to trust Washington and much cause to feel claustrophobic. As a Shiite nation of about 80 million, it is hemmed in by a sea of nearly one billion Sunnis. Further, it is surrounded by the huge countries of Russia, China and India.

In neighboring Iraq, the civil war may not become worse but the country certainly would not have stable administration for a very long time. American and Western coalition soldiers based on its territory would be targets of widespread terrorism and insurgency from both Sunnis and Shiites.

If the Shiites control Baghdad, Sunni rage would continue to spread drawing in Saudi Arabia. Jordan would collapse as its ruling Bedouin tribe is hit by over a million angry Iraqi refugees and millions of Palestinians, who the government still fears despite many decades of living in Jordan.

Instability in Iran and Iraq would draw in Turkey especially if the Kurds, allied to the US, try to use the chaos to carve out a greater Kurdistan from Syria, Turkey and Iran. Syria would deliberately destabilize Lebanon, which is already on the brink of civil war, to secure power for its Hizbullah allies. In turn, the Damascus government may collapse because of instability in all its neighbors.

Israel would be severely tested. Terrorists and rogue missiles would strike it from all sides because of its close alliance with the US. Palestinians would use the fog of war to make gains against Israel. If Israel and the US riposte heavily against the Palestinians, pressure from the Egyptian street would force Cairo to get involved.

In the East, Afghanistan would collapse into civil war provoked by Al Qaeda and the Taliban. NATO, which is already having a hard time in Afghanistan, will be helpless because US actions against Iran will consume the resources of many of its members.

Pakistan will almost certainly collapse as Islamists of the radical Sunni majority burn Shia mosques and Ismaili Muslim places of worship to create chaos and grab control of Islamabad with help from Al Qaeda and the Taliban. That would inevitably draw India, which is the second most populous Muslim country after Indonesia.

In the North, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan – all of which are weak and unstable nations – would collapse if Iran descends into prolonged internal conflicts. From there unrest could spread to the fragile central Asian countries –Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. China would have to get involved because of its restive Muslim Uyghurs in the Western Xinjiang province.

Previous world wars involved two alliances fighting until one overwhelmed the other. After victory, the peace was secured by imposing governments and new laws on the conquered alliance’s members to remove the possibility of rearmament or militarism capable of avenging defeat.

The Cold War that followed World War II was again a confrontation between two alliances. One finally collapsed from within making hot war unnecessary. In any case, the possibility of hot war was reduced by the deterrence of Mutually Assured Destruction caused by the capability of each alliance to successfully inflict nuclear annihilation upon the other.

Similar pro-stability outcomes are unlikely if America makes war on Iran because of the political immaturity of the local populations and long simmering internal hatreds among tribes cobbled together to make a modern State. As in Iraq, military coercion by America will simply ignite internal conflicts papered over for centuries.

The US can easily conquer and occupy any country it wishes to keep the American people safe but the subsequent internal wars would bleed it interminably. That messy Pandora’s Box would be impossible to close without enormous sacrifice.

Author: BRIJ KHINDARIA, Foreign Affairs Columnist

  • Dave Schuler

    I’ve been making similar arguments for the last couple of years.

  • mikkel

    I wish I read that after dinner instead of right before as it makes an unsettling appetizer. Has anyone read this though?

  • kritter

    So how come Hewitt didn’t accuse General Odom of jeopardizing Gen Petraeus’ chance for complete victory in Baghdad?? What a surrender monkey.

  • jdledell

    Brij – My hats off to a very insightful analysis. My guess is that not all the countries listed would fall into chaos but if only 25% of your prognostications came true it would still be catestrophic for the U.S. and western economies.

  • Kevin H

    I agree with your assesment of the implications of a US led invasion of Iran, however I think if we are to see long term peace and stability in the ME there are some troubleing issues that need to be delt with.

    The general problem with an Invasion of Iran well outlined above can be summed up into a single sentence for me:

    In the Middle East, State borders and territories do not conincide with tribal and ethnic boundries.

    This situation has arisgn for many reasons, both external and internal to the ME, and I think provides a large weakness for the region as a whole. It allows problems in one region, such as sunni Iraq, to more easily spill over the border into adjacent sunni Saudi Arabia. Even in the absence of direct problems, the push and pull between the two power structures could cause instability.

    So the tough question becomes, how do we rectify these ancient tribal bounderies with modern state territories without forceably redrawing the ME map? And if we don’t, how much does it hurt the prospects of the ME?

  • cosmoetica

    Boy, someone did not get up w a smiley face view of the world.

  • cosmoetica

    Seriously, history shows that predictions as this- yet another Domino Theory, rarely, if ever, come to pass. There are far too many variables that figure in, and too many all are even unawares of. This is why things rarely work perfectly, or end in Armageddon. It’s usually a muck somewhere between A & B.

  • Rudi

    Good adult analysis of the situation, lets hope the US leaders think out the situation in a similar manner. Idoubt the Bushinistas have the capacity to admit the situation would unfold this way. The Bush Doctrine and PNAC …..

  • kritter

    I think the best approach treads a fine line between protecting our vital interests in the region, winning hearts and minds of the average Muslim (if still possible, and not at the end of a rifle) and letting these people sort through their own grievances.

    If Iraq has taught us nothing else, it is that we cannot remake the ME in our own image. The Iranians are not just like us, many want a theocracy, and resent the intrusion of Western culture. The tribal and religious differences are too deep for us to try to fix with a constitution or an election. We will never be able to win a ground war over there- because we are not willing to turn ourselves into suicide bombers or hack people into pieces.

    We lost in Vietnam because the Vietcong were capable of living in hot, filthy tunnels for years, and even had operating rooms set up in them. They would have kept on fighting forever, until the last man. Thats similar to what we face in the Muslim world. Iran may actually unite against us in a spirit of nationalism. In any case few will call us liberators.

  • mikkel

    cosmoetica I tend to agree with you about the domino effect but then again look at Africa for numerous cases of localized conflict leading to a war that engulfs half a continent (and they don’t even have as strong of an impetus to have the war). The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the Domino Theories we’ve been exposed to rely on an established order sequentially unfolding while this is talking about anarchy spreading. Not to take a Hobbesian point of view, but this may not be all that unlikely given the right situation.

    I still don’t think that this situation would cause all this, but as jdledell said — if only 25% of it did then it’d be a catastrophe. Plus I really like Brij’s point about prior conflicts taking place within the confines of nation-states while this would be much more of a mess.

  • Marlowecan

    I must agree that a Domino effect strikes me as far-fetched as well. In Africa the spillage is usually over a single border, as a result of refugee crisis or ethnic cleansing. The Domino effect noted here would require an extraordinary series of factors to coincide.

    OT: Kritter, I phrased myself badly in the comment on executive powers in Shaun’s post earlier, as I noted. I meant to say that any increase in executive authority, under whatever president, is disturbing. (Hmmm…given the focus of this post on the Iran situation, perhaps not so Off Topic).

  • kritter

    OK, Marlowe- thanks for letting me know, and I agree totally. Even if you think the present president is the greatest thing since sliced bread, at least 50% of your countrymen may have just the opposite view. In such a polarized society, where Congress has so often failed to act as a separate branch, we need those separation of powers in the Constitution more than ever. The way you would feel about an empowered Hillary, many of us have felt for years about Bush gone wild, lol! I think I’d rather have had a do-nothing like Millard Fillmore.

  • nicrivera

    Aw, come on, Brij!

    Just give us four years! Just four years, and if we haven’t managed to overthrow the Iranian goverment and install an America-friendly democracy in that amount of times, we’ll simply move onto the next Middle Eastern country!

    Cheer up, everyone! We’re only seven years into the New American Century! We still have 93 years to invade–I mean–liberate the rest of the world!

  • kritter

    Even if the outcome is not as dire as Brij is predicting, it is still too risky. After all, no one was thinking when we took out Saddam that we’d be mired down trying to keep the country from dissolving into all out civil war 4 years later. I’d rather not take any action that would get Shiite and Sunni nations to unite against us as a common enemy either.

    Another post discussed the Saudis’ backdoor diplomacy with Iran, that is worth a shot, since our CIC can’t bring himself to negotiate directly.

  • Rudi

    Nic – Thanks for that link to PNAC. Reading their assesements on Iraq for 2004 was quite insightful. This groups thoughts on Iraq in2004 are priceless. Why aren’t more Americans reading up on the sound policies about the ME, Jeffersonian Democracy is in the future for the ME – PNAC tells us so :-p.

  • Marlowecan

    Kritter said: “I think I’d rather have had a do-nothing like Millard Fillmore.”

    Thanks Kritter. Okay, I had to look up President Millard Fillmore.

    Did you know he was the candidate of the “Know Nothing Party”…a movement that was eventually absorbed into — I swear I am not making this up — the Republican Party?!!!

    Look it up yourselves if you don’t believe me. The roots of the Republican party lie in a group whose motto…when asked by anyone…was “I know nothing”.


    What a place is the TMV. I learn something new everyday here!! :)

  • domajot

    “we cannot remake the ME”

    …and its way past time to accept this.

    It’s inevitable that Iran will emerge as a major power influence in Iraq, and it’s a waste of time to go against that tide. Unfortunately, I think there will be a Hezbollah-like arm to the Shiite powers in government.
    Since we can’t stop the Iranian influence, I think it’s a shame that our attention is consumed by it instead of focusing on the rising Al Qaeda strength there. Isn’t that our main reason for being thereand the overall war on terror – to fight Al Qaeda?
    This war has so many bad aftereffects, it’s hard to even think of them all at one go, but a major one is that we have a made a gift of another area of influence to Iran.
    What’s done is done. We should be focusing on AlQaeda in Iraq and on Afghanistan, where the future still holds hope for some measure of success.
    To even think of war with Iran is suicidal, in my opinion, not only militarily, but economically and spiritually. It would tear apart whatever slender threads still hold this country together to be recognizable as the country it was just a few years ago.

  • C Stanley

    kritter: Another post discussed the Saudis’ backdoor diplomacy with Iran, that is worth a shot, since our CIC can’t bring himself to negotiate directly.

    I actually read that particular bit of back door diplomacy much more negatively than you do. Apparently Turki was more in favor of diplomacy with Iran, but in Dec (I think it was), he suddenly resigned his post as ambassador. This apparently took place right after Cheney’s visit to Saudi Arabia, and shortly after Bandar visited the US. That visit was ostensibly a vacation to his Aspen lodge, but he stopped over in DC to “refuel” and was said to have had meetings with administration officials during his stopover. Bandar has been a proponent of bombing Iran’s nuclear sites, even to the degree that he seems to be forming a coalition of support between SA, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. If the administration has forced Turki aside by having Bandar become more relevant than the actual SA ambassador, and if the signs are correct about what Bandar is actually doing, I find that disturbing. I have no problem with diplomatic efforts to unite the interests of Sunni nations and Israel to counter Iran’s growing influence in the region, but I hope that they’re not going in the direction of using force against Iran in order to do that.

  • kritter

    Marlowe- that’s still their motto, -they know nothing – I just wish they would do nothing, LOL. Ok, LBJ screwed up royally in Vietnam by knowing next to nothing about the enemy or even our ally. So knowing nothing but acting anyway is not just a Republican foible. But weren’t we supposed to learn from Vietnam? We knew next to nothing about the Iraqis but went in anyway, with some naive notion of a pro-Western democracy. Well, now that we know what a can of worms we opened, shouldn’t we be learning from that to avoid similar mistakes in Iran?

    I do think the Bush administration has learned from the foreign policy errors of its first term, at least in NK. Although Cheney, Bolton and the rest of the neocons disapprove, we actually saw a diplomatic solution. North Korea was not brought to its knees the way Cheney et al would have preferred, but hopefully the notion that that is how we are to exert power in the world has been discredited.The State Dept has recovered its rightful role, and the VP’s office no longer is running the show.

    CS- I wasn’t aware of all of Bandar’s machinations- good catch. If he’s uniting regional powers to use force against Iran, that is truly disturbing. Given Bandar’s close tie to the Bush family, it isn’t unreasonable to think that he is acting as a proxy for Bush/Cheney, who are sensitive to the unpopularity that an attack on Iran would create here in the US. I do think that SA, Jordan, and Egypt should be helping to stabilize the region, but obviously that type of alliance would do just the opposite.

  • C Stanley

    I do think that SA, Jordan, and Egypt should be helping to stabilize the region, but obviously that type of alliance would do just the opposite.

    I agree, Kim, although my hope is that this is more of a good cop/bad cop scene being played out. Perhaps Bandar’s mission is to create a united front in order to make Iran back down. If Tehran sees that obtaining nukes will only lead to a regional arms race that it can’t afford, maybe they’ll forego it.

    Interesting too, that these majority Sunni nations are finding common ground with Israel. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” certainly isn’t always the healthiest dynamic, but maybe a shift in the overall hostilities of the Middle East will lead to some good.

  • kritter

    Maybe, CS- But its hard to envision lasting peace in the region. Even if the Sunni nations temporarily side with Israel, wouldn’t the alliance disintegrate once Iran’s power grab was brought under control, and old hostilities resurface?

    I must be in a glum mood- but David Ignatius had a column today in WaPo that didn’t help—–
    He states that a new Zogby poll of the six “friendly” ME countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and UAE, only 12% expressed favorable attitudes towards the US. Bush ranked much higher than Israel’s Olmert or Sharon in the poll when respondents were asked which foreign leader they disliked the most. 65% doubt that Americans really want to promote democracy in the ME. The head of the Arab league claimed that Muslims are “losing confidence in the US role as peace broker”. Doesn’t bode well for our situation in Iraq, Iran or Rice’s newly resumed role in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

  • C Stanley

    Doesn’t bode well for our situation in Iraq, Iran or Rice’s newly resumed role in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

    No, but maybe all the more reason that third party talks are the way to go. Definitely sad that we have this state of affairs, but even without Bush’s well-earned unpopularity it might be better to allow other countries to broker deals and leave the US’s tarnished reputation out of it.

  • kritter

    I’d rather see us take steps to repair our tarnished reputation. Until we do we will be the number one target for all the extremist nutjobs out there, who now hate us more than they hate Israel. If we can act in less confrontational, more respectful, humanitarian ways, maybe in time we will be trusted again. All the more reason to decrease our dependency on oil imports from the ME.

    I am also more concerned about al queda/Taliban strongholds in Western Pakistan, where they have reestablished terrorist training camps, that will be used to plan attacks against new European targets. Shouldn’t that be our main concern? Yet it gets so little attention from the administration, Congress or the media.

  • C Stanley

    I’d rather see us take steps to repair our tarnished reputation.

    I think we need to do both, and I also see some inherent value in taking a backseat in many situations. I simply believe that American power itself is resented, even when our intent is to project it benevolently.

  • kritter

    CS- I’d absolutely have to agree with your last statement. Doing nothing may repair America’s tarnished reputation, lol, since any action we take will be seen as malevolent interference to further our own ambitions or interests in the region. Hey, maybe I was right about electing a do-nothing like Millard Fillmore, lol! With a couple of rare exceptions, it wasn’t until the 20th century that we were expected to play an activist role in world affairs. Many presidents simply let Congress take over.