Marc Lynch

Why put an attack on Iran back on the table?

Why put an attack on Iran back on the table?

There’s been a mini-boomlet of late in arguments to put a military strike against Iran back on the table. Joe Klein had a solid article in Time last week arguing that the U.S. is reconsidering a military strike on Iran. There’s a marginal poll showing 56% support for an Israeli strike on Iran (actually quite a low number, given the general enthusiasm of Americans for bombing things). There are Israeli reports that it has convinced the U.S. of the viability of a military option. There’s Reuel Gerecht’s long brief for military action in the Weekly Standard. There’s yet another Washington Post op-ed arguing for brandishing a military threat. This is odd. The argument for a military strike is no stronger now than it has been in the past — and in many ways it is considerably weaker.

Why is the argument weaker? Mainly because Iran is weaker. If you set aside the hype, it is pretty obvious that for all of the flaws in President Obama’s strategy, Iran today is considerably weaker than it was when he took office. Go back to 2005-07, when the Bush administration was supposedly taking the Iranian threat seriously, with a regional diplomacy focused upon polarizing the region against Iran. In that period, Iranian "soft power" throughout the region rose rapidly, as it seized the mantle of the leader of the "resistance" camp which the U.S. eagerly granted it. Hezbollah and Hamas, viewed in Washington at least as Iranian proxies, were riding high both in their own arenas and in the broader Arab public arena. Iranian allies were in the driver’s seat in Iraq. Arab leaders certainly feared and hated this rising Iranian power, whispering darkly to Bush officials about how badly they wanted the U.S. to confront it and flooding their state-backed media with anti-Iranian propaganda. But this did not translate to the popular level and did little to reverse Iran’s strategic gains. The Bush administration’s polarization strategy was very good to Iran.

Compare that to today, 18 months into the Obama administration. While I’ve been critical of parts of the administration’s approach to Iran, overall Tehran has become considerably weaker in the Middle East under Obama’s watch. Much of the air has gone out of Iran’s claim to head a broad "resistance" camp, with Obama’s Cairo outreach temporarily shifting the regional debate and then with Turkey emerging as a much more attractive leader of that trend. The botched Iranian election badly harmed Tehran’s image among those Arabs who prioritize democratic reforms, and has produced a flood of highly critical scrutiny of Iran across the Arab media. Arab leaders continue to be suspicious and hostile towards Iran. The steady U.S. moves to draw down in Iraq have reduced the salience of that long-bleeding wound. Hezbollah has been ground down by the contentious quicksand of Lebanese politics, and while still strong has lost some of the broad appeal it captured after the 2006 war. Public opinion surveys and Arab media commentary alike now reveal little sympathy for the Iranian regime, compared to previous years. And while the sanctions are unlikely to change Iran’s behavior (even if there is intriguing evidence that highly targeted sanctions are fueling intra-regime infighting), they do signal significant Iranian failures to game the UN process or to generate international support. In short, while Iran may continue to doggedly pursue its nuclear program (as far as we know), this has not translated into steadily increasing popular appeal or regional power. Quite the contrary.

So why the latest round of commentary about an attack on Iran? It isn’t because there are new arguments out there. Gerecht’s long Weekly Standard piece is typical of the genre, and could have been written any time in the last decade (and in the case of the Weekly Standard has been, repeatedly): we must bomb Iran because there are no other policy options which guarantee success; the risks of an attack are exaggerated; the benefits of an attack are great; and Iranians and Arabs secretly want us to do it. Nor have the rebuttals changed: other policy options are available, which at least slow down Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapon even if they do not provide the kind of epistemic certainty which hawks crave; the risks of an attack are many and real; the benefits of an attack are likely to be less than advertised; and it is exceedingly doubtful that Arabs or Iranians will in fact rally to support an Israeli or American attack. These arguments are now as familiar as wallpaper, from the arguments over Iraq from the 1990s-2003 through the long years of arguments about Iran.

I suspect that the real reason for the new flood of commentary calling for attacks on Iran is simply that hawks hope to pocket their winnings from the long argument over sanctions, such as they are, and now push to the next stage in the confrontation they’ve long demanded. Hopefully, this pressure will not gain immediate traction. Congress can proudly demonstrate their sanctions-passingness, so the artificial Washington timeline should recede for a while. The Pentagon is now working closely with Israel, it’s said, in order to reassure them and prevent their making a unilateral strike, which should hopefully push back another artificial clock. That should buy some time for the administration’s strategy to unfold, for better or for worse. An attack on Iran would still be a disaster, unnecessary and counterproductive, and the White House knows that, and it’s exceedingly unlikely that it will happen anytime soon. But the real risk is that the public discourse about an attack on Iran normalizes the idea and makes it seem plausible, if not inevitable, and that the administration talks itself into a political corner. That shouldn’t be allowed to happen.