Should we attack Iran to preempt their achieving nuclear weapons capabilities? Some argue it is imperative for our security, for Israel’s security, for the security of the oil supply. Others, though, warn not to make the same mistake we made in deposing Saddam Hussein. It was easy to take out the leader, but not wanting another failed state out there, we needed to stabilize the country and spent years and billions, maybe trillions, doing so. It’s “Iraq redux,” or “we’re doing this terrible thing all over again,” something we’ve done since at least Vietnam: march off to an unanalyzed war. Some engage in self-serving analyses, looking at the worst case scenarios with inaction but seeing only the best outcome of dropping bombs (see Stephen Walt on this).
Of course, emphasizing caution and sober preliminary discussion of the case for war is important, and the Iraq War is a useful lens, helping us avoid our usual, obscene pitfalls. But another war might provide a useful frame: the Iran-Iraq War, which began with a Saddam Hussein-led Iraqi invasion of Iran on September 22, 1980, lasting until August of 1988.
Much like today, the Middle East was in the midst of ideological and political upheaval. Iran was in the throes of revolution, unsettled politically, economically, and socially. Egypt and Israel had signed the Camp David Accords, ending three decades of tension and violence between the two countries, but also stripping Egypt of its role as ideological leader in the Arab world, and signaling the failures of Pan-Arabism.
Into this void stepped Political Islam, and in Iran it had a state to promote it. Iran wanted to export its revolution, and in the process rejected the dominant Persian Gulf government styles: the monarchies which now comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the secular Baathist regime of Iraq. Iran actively attempted to undermine the governments of surrounding states through propaganda as well as more violent forms of subversion.
While Iran challenged the foundations of the Iraqi regime’s legitimacy, it also presented a unique opportunity. Because the Iranian government was so intent on exporting the revolution, Saddam Hussein saw an opportunity to extend some power over the smaller Gulf states in exchange for protecting them from Iran (the Saudis looked to do similarly). He also saw an unstable Iran with drastically lowered oil sales and overall economic malaise–with political factions involved in (at times violent) battles for power. This was a country that looked ripe for invasion. Even better: Saddam thought some Iranian Arabs might welcome his forces as liberators, rising up to fight the revolutionary regime as Iraq crossed its borders.
Fast forward to today. The Iranian currency has plummeted in value, causing import costs to increase for Iranians. At the same time, tighter and tighter sanction pressure seems likely to damage Iranian oil sales and exert further pressure on an already faltering economy. The regime is still viewed with suspicion after it rigged the 2009 elections. Its neighbors are afraid of it, and at least the Saudis and Israelis would like someone to take care of the problem for them.
Seems like the perfect time to drop some bombs on nuclear facilities. But that doesn’t really seem like enough, does it? We can do so much more! We can overthrow the regime, without even a ground invasion, because, “thanks to internal political developments and sanctions, the regime is at its weakest point in decades.”
Well, not so fast. What happened when Saddam invaded in 1980? The most authoritarian elements ensnared their hold on power, and
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini managed to deeply integrate Islam and Iranian nationalism. There was no room for internal dissent when the country was under attack, an attack that was really part of a conspiracy in the eyes of the attacked. So great was the consolidating power in Iran of Saddam’s attack that a significant part of a cash strapped Iran’s war strategy involved human wave assaults. The war ended up a brutal war of attrition, only ending in a stalemate after devastating both sides immensely.
Of course, today is not 1980. The revolutionary fervor is mostly gone, and maybe the Iranian people will not see an attack on the regime as an attack on themselves.
But that seems unlikely. You can see nationalism’s relentless appeal in the waxing poetic of “national greatness” liberals like Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow, not to mention the post-9/11 patriotic outpouring. And as Cool Ship readers may know, humans crave meaning through stories, and national stories are among the most resilient, connecting the living with each other and generations before them. If we attack the regime, we attack the people.
An Iranian defector recently acknowledged this on a visit to Israel: “We want to make the message very clear that a military attack will not help the opposition get rid of the mullahs.” While creating economic pains can undermine the regime’s legitimacy, pushing it further, bombing the country, violating its sovereignty, is a sure way to ensure the devil’s survival (whether it’s the regime you know or the insurgency you’ve yet to meet).