Earlier this week, a classmate and I discussed the recent posturing by both the United States and Iran, which has caused many observers to pontificate on the possibility of a war between the two countries. I argued that such a conflict was unlikely, as it was difficult to perceive how it would benefit anyone. My classmate, however, claimed that, if pushed far enough, the Iranian government could very well start a war, even if defeat was certain. The kernel of his assertion was that Iran’s leaders – specifically the hard-line clerics and Revolutionary Guard officers – would be open to going out “guns blazing” if pressure, internal and external, became so great that their continued rule became unviable. In other words, while Iranian elites may act rationally under normal conditions, the ideology of political Islam means that irrational, self-destructive behavior is a distinct and dangerous possibility under the right circumstances.
My sole objection to this line of thinking is that it ascribes hazard only to the Iranians and their “exotic” and “inscrutable” culture and beliefs. Just because it is hard to fathom why so many Iranians, past to present, support the authoritarian theocracy that dominates their lives and curbs their freedoms, this does not mean that Iranians, even the vehement ultra-conservatives, possess alien mentalities beyond Western ken. It is just that their values are different from ours, their historical experiences vastly dissimilar. Various world powers have besieged Iran since the end of the 17th century, and while it no longer contends with Ottoman encroachment or European colonialism, Iran continues to view its relation to the world with a siege mentality. Today, the country is rightfully wary of an unchallenged, militaristic and arrogant superpower that has invaded and occupied two Middle Eastern countries and seeks to promote its imperial grand strategy of permanent world hegemony. Closer to home, Iranians still remember the 1981 Israeli airstrike that took out a nuclear reactor in Osirak, Iraq, solely on the Israeli suspicion that it would be used for nuclear weapons. Regardless of whether Saddam Hussein was planning to pursue a nuclear arsenal or attack Israel in 1981, what is relevant is that Israel launched an attack based on mere mistrust rather than hard proof.
Military action based on suspicion and hunches has become the new normal. The 1981 Israeli airstrike on Osirak and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq both serve as sterling examples of preventive strikes – not pre-emptive ones, arising from an imminent threat, but ones designed to weaken an enemy, real or imagined, for the sake of regional or international interests. As the historian and activist Arthur M. Schlesinger pointed out, the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor previously embodied preventive strikes in the American mindset, reinforcing the natural distaste for treacherous acts of unwarranted aggression. Now, preventive strikes receive praise rather than denunciation. During the 1980s, the U.S. actively supported the Contras in their insurgency against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, not because the country had become a “second Cuba,” but because it might eventually. The U.S., the wealthiest and strongest country in the world, felt compelled to intervene at the prospect of the Soviet Union, well on the decline, having not just one but two friends in all of the Americas. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, the U.S. could no longer claim its unprovoked intrusions were acts of self-defense, no matter how absurd claims like Nicaragua had been. Briefly, the U.S. and her allies promoted “humanitarian interventions” in conflict-ridden states, even though these police actions did little in the long-term to settle long-standing ethnic and religious cleavages and were geared more toward positive publicity for the continuance of NATO than truly ending genocide and civil wars. The U.S. struggled to convince either the world or its own population that it could be a global police officer, so much so that by 2000 George W. Bush actually ran as a non-interventionist skeptical of regime change. The September 11, 2001 attacks, however, provided an opportunity for the U.S. to initiate military operations as “defensive” measures. The “War on Terror” proved an even greater godsend than the Cold War, as “terror” – unlike the Soviet Union – would never fade away or surrender. Ironically, the various wars, bombing campaigns and drone attacks carried out under the “War on Terror” banner have produced far-reaching resentment against U.S. jingoism and bravado, gifting anti-Western terrorists with greater recruitment tools than they could have envisioned.
In contrast to the U.S., Israel can point to Arab invasions and acts of terrorism committed against it throughout its existence, in addition to the anti-Semitism that has plagued the Jewish people for time out of mind. Traditionally, foreign states have acknowledged Israeli appeals to its right to defend itself and provided it with exceptional leeway. Yet, in the last decade at least, that leeway has reached its breaking point. Israeli hawks have become so excessive in their fight for “national security” that they have blockaded Gaza and induced its people to tremendous suffering, and apparently fail to see how decisions – such as the 2010 lethal raid on a ship that tried to break the blockade and bring humanitarian supplies to the Gazans – might invite disgrace and condemnation. It has gotten to the point where some U.S. politicians, usually thoroughly faithful in their support for Israeli policies, have begun to question the Israeli inclination to shoot first and ask questions later. There has not been much disquiet in regards to Israeli concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, however, which is ironic, as the U.S. was notably silent about Israel’s own nuclear program dating to the late 1940s and has not, as in the case with Iran, demanded inspections and promises of peaceful purposes from the Israeli government. This is despite the fact that Israel has been ruthless in suppressing any knowledge of its nuclear weapons. When Israeli nuclear technician Mordecai Vanunu blew the whistle on Israel’s stockpile to the British press in 1986, he was soon thereafter drugged by Israeli agents, sentenced in a secret trial and imprisoned for 18 years, 11 of which he spent in solitary confinement. One would think that Tel Aviv would have softened in such brutal treatment of a prisoner of conscience, but since his release in 2004, he has been re-jailed several times, usually for talking with foreign journalists and trying to leave the country that persecutes him.
The above facts alone may be enough to understand not only why Iran has been less than submissive to Western demands, but why so many regular Iranian citizens support the actions of the government. During the Arab Spring, Western observers were usually shocked when they saw counter-demonstrations by supporters of Mubarak, Qaddafi and Assad. That so-called “rogue states” would rush into the arms of the West were they freed from their despotic rulers remains a popular trope in the U.S., most dangerously within the minds of neo-conservative thinkers. For example, the media pays little attention to the fact that Iranian reformers, including Green Movement leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, generally oppose Iran giving up its desires for nuclear technology. The popular desire in Iran to refuse dictates issued from abroad are perhaps only equaled by U.S. and Israeli rejection of abiding by international law and U.N. resolutions.
“Still,” my classmate might say, “at least Mousavi would not threaten to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and possibly cause World War III.” Wouldn’t he? What choice would he have? Rationality, it must be remembered, is defined as the proper exercise of reason and realizing what one’s reality is. For example, during the Iran-Iraq War, Iran employed the Basij, a volunteer militia comprised of young boys and old men, in human wave attacks, sending them in rows, unarmed, against Iraqi positions. Irrational on the face of it, such a tactic makes perfect sense when one side in a conflict suffers from a technological inferiority but a surplus in population. The Soviet Union used the tactic to great effect against Nazi Germany, after all. Similarly, suicide bombings – including those performed by members of Hezbollah, sponsored by Iran – are generally viewed as irrational, considering they inevitably result in casualties to your side as well as the enemy’s. Yet, when weighed against the alternative, there is no feasible way in which Hezbollah or any terrorist group can, at least on a consistent basis, fight a conventional war, guerilla or otherwise, against a highly advanced and sophisticated opponent. We should be careful to draw a distinction between suicidal tactics and a suicidal strategy.
On the face of it, threatening to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and discussing how easy it would be to do so seems self-destructive. Yet Iran knows as well as anyone else that the U.S. Fifth Fleet would respond almost immediately to restore the flow of oil from the Gulf. It also knows that its own economy would suffer from a lack of petroleum exports. It admittedly would be a lose/lose situation, but it is also the only viable situation Iran can present in which the West loses at all. Otherwise, it has no reply to the West using sanctions and other economic warfare to get Iran to do what it wants. While the West reconsiders whether it wants to pay the cost of an oil crisis to prevent Iran’s uranium enrichment, Iran in the meantime improves relations with major players outside the West, such as Russia, China and Latin American countries, to work to keep its economy functioning in the wake of closed Western markets. It may not be orthodox foreign policy, but when the choice is between audacious brinksmanship and surrendering sovereignty and losing domestic support, can we really believe Mousavi would choose the latter course?
I will not argue that the Iranian leadership will always act in a sane fashion. A person can no more predict human behavior than count the stars in the sky. Certainly, there are ample precedents where regimes, faced with almost certain downfall, have opted to take as many others with them as they collapse. I will argue, however, that there is nothing about Tehran’s words or deeds that gives credence to fears that the saber-rattling has been anything but the usual posturing. In my opinion, the greatest menace to the continued existence of humanity appears not on distant horizons but within our own country. It is the United States, with its bellicose approach to world affairs and its dismissive attitude to international laws and conventions, that has most exercised the will and the means to scorn peace and make unjust war in recent history. If we want to oppose countries engaged in “irrational, self-destructive behavior,” then the battle begins at home.