Foreign Policy

The Folly of Attacking Iran

Haven't we learned anything from the Iraq war?


War on Iran: Israel wants it. Various Arab rulers want it. The Obama administration has not ruled it out. It may be inevitable, and it could come any time.

Hello? A U.S. attack on a Middle Eastern country that has not attacked us and poses no threat to our security, out of panic over alleged weapons of mass destruction? Haven't we tried that, and didn't we learn anything about starting wars we don't know how to end?

A preemptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities has long been on the wish list of American conservatives and the government of Israel. Now we learn, thanks to WikiLeaks, that Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments have also been clicking on the "Like" button.

Officials in Bahrain, Jordan and Abu Dhabi have privately urged the United States to send bombers. The king of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly asked us, as the Saudi ambassador to Washington put it, to "cut off the head of the snake."

The administration has stressed diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions, but the military option is a live one. As a candidate, Barack Obama insisted, "The world must prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed last summer that the military has a plan for attacking Iran.

Even if the United States holds fire, Israel probably won't. Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, after interviewing dozens of past and current Israeli officials, concluded the most likely outcome is that by next spring, Israel will strike.

That possibility might induce the U.S. to do the job itself. The support in Arab capitals is another reason for Obama to go to war.

But it would be a mistake. If a snake comes after you, cutting off its head is the right response. If it's merely curled up in a distant lair, keeping its venom in reserve, staying away makes far more sense.

Some people in Washington apparently understand as much. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, according to one leaked memo, said an attack would merely delay Iran from getting nukes, "while unifying the Iranian people to be forever embittered against the attacker." A U.S. attack would embroil us in a third war, invite new waves of terrorism, possibly destabilize friendly regimes in the Middle East and send shockwaves through the world economy.

And for what? The assumption of hawks in the U.S. and Israel is that once Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will use them—that it is bent on wiping Israel off the map at any cost. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says, is at the head of "a messianic apocalyptic cult."

But even zealots and despots have a powerful instinct for self-preservation, which Iran's leaders have exhibited many times—as in the war with Iraq, which they agreed to end after Iraqi missiles started landing in Tehran. The Iranians know that any use of nuclear weapons traceable to them would be sure to accomplish one thing: their annihilation.

That prospect was sufficient to deter Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong, both of whom were once regarded as madmen bent on world domination. Even fanatical regimes don't take actions they know will be fatal.

Nor would the bomb help Iran in pushing its neighbors around. More likely, it would push them even closer together in opposition to Tehran—and even closer to the United States. We, after all, have a bigger military than Iran's and a lot more nukes.

The only real value of acquiring an atomic arsenal is to deter attack and invasion. Iran was designated part of the Axis of Evil by President George W. Bush. One other member, Iraq, lacked nukes and was invaded by the U.S. Another, North Korea, had them and wasn't. Iran didn't miss the lesson there.

In the event that sanctions fail to dissuade Tehran from going nuclear, war is no answer. A better response would be for the U.S. to inform Iran that any use of nuclear weapons against anyone will elicit a response in kind. If our nuclear guarantee protected Europe against the Soviet arsenal, it can protect our friends in the Middle East.

As long as the viper is holed up, though, we would be wise not to crawl in after it. Even if you cut off a snake's head, it may still bite.