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 â€“ all of which are weak and unstable nations â€“ 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 allianceâ€™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 Pandoraâ€™s Box would be impossible to close without enormous sacrifice.