Sunday, January 29, 2012

Are we headed for a war with Iran?

The following Op-Ed article was published in the Newark, NJ, Star-Ledger and the Newhouse Papers on January 29, 2012. It can be found at:

As Iran defies the world and works toward building nuclear arms, Washington is turning up the heat in an effort to get the Iranians to back off. President Obama last week convinced Europe to impose economic sanctions on Iran — which some have called an act of war.

The United States doesn’t buy oil from Iran, but Europe is its No. 2 market. Europe’s embargo, with a push from America, could be crippling. And Obama is trying to convince Iran’s customers in Asia — China, India, Japan, South Korea — to join in.

The attack on Iran’s already wounded economy could push its leaders to retaliate: Iran is threatening to use military force to close the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Persian Gulf, and cut off the flow of oil to the United States and its allies.

Obama has moved more U.S. warships into the gulf — just in case — while he tries to find a diplomatic solution.

Tensions with Tehran are getting worse: Did Israel assassinate an Iranian nuclear scientist? Did the United States know about it? Will Japan and South Korea join the oil embargo? Will Iran execute a U.S. spy?

In the background, meanwhile, Obama’s Republican challengers are talking tough and pushing for a show of U.S. force.

Where’s it all heading? Star-Ledger editorial writer Jim Namiotka last week spoke with Eric Davis, a political science professor at Rutgers University and an expert on Middle Eastern affairs.

Q: Let’s start here: What are the odds of a U.S. war with Iran in 2012? 2013?

A: I would say that the odds are relatively small because neither side would benefit.
Iran would find itself isolated even more internationally. A war would increase support for Iran’s isolation by increasing the number of countries willing to impose sanctions.

For the U.S., war would have a very damaging impact on foreign relations in the Middle East, where it already has a poor image and is viewed as a bully and imperialist power.

Domestically, a war would lead to a drastic increase in gas prices. There are warnings that oil prices would go up to $300 or $400 a barrel or even higher. It would undermine the already tepid economic recovery we’re seeing here now in the U.S.

Q: Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. Is that a real possibility?

A: Closing the Strait of Hormuz would be a violation of international law, which might justify action by the United Nations — paralleling the kind of action that was taken against Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War over violations of international law. The Iranian regime couldn’t predict what the outcome of closing the strait would be, but it certainly knows that the U.S. wouldn’t allow that to happen.

Q: Europe has now said it will boycott Iranian oil if Iran’s leaders don’t halt their nuclear production. How can we expect Iran to react?

A: International sanctions have already wreaked havoc on Iran’s currency and forced the government to dramatically increase interest rates. The more significant effect is that the deteriorating economic situation is going to affect the parliamentary elections this coming March. It was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has rejected calls to raise interest rates, which is necessary to protect the value of the Iranian rial.

As a result, his parliamentary candidates could suffer in the March elections.
So the sanctions are having both an economic impact and a political impact, as well.

One of the few options available to the Iranians is to try and increase their rhetoric on closing the Strait of Hormuz to force an increase in oil prices. This would have the effect of at least temporarily increasing the price of oil.

Even if Iran sold less oil, what it did sell would bring a higher price.

Iran can saber-rattle and it can threaten certain actions. But the Iranians can only go so far — they’re not about to start attacking tankers and laying mines because that would be considered an international act of war.

Q: What if other countries, such as Japan and South Korea, join in?

A: You might see perhaps — not a collapse of the Iran economy; that would be too extreme a prediction — but severe economic problems.

Q: Will sanctions convince Iran to stop developing nukes?

A: The Iranian regime might get serious about allowing international inspections, and then start playing games with the inspections while they keep working on their uranium enrichment program at underground facilities. But the regime can’t have it both ways and Iran’s leadership is going to have some real decisions to make in the very near future.

If Iran backs down in the face of U.S. and international pressure, that would constitute a real loss of status and prestige for Ahmadinejad and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

If Iran doesn’t respond to international demands for inspections of what it says is only a nuclear energy program, it’s going to continue to suffer economically.

Q: Is Iran a worrisome power? Compared with, for instance, Saddam’s Iraq?

A: No, Iran is not a major military power. But, as we saw in the Iran-Iraq war, Iranian forces have units ... such as their Revolutionary Guards that can inflict great harm if there was a land war as a result of an invasion by an international coalition, such as occurred in Kuwait in January 1991. Iran doesn’t have a powerful air force or navy. While Iran does have missiles that could reach parts of Europe, these aren’t serious military threats because Iran would not dare attack Europe.

Iran’s military power would only manifest itself if there were a land invasion of Iran, which I don’t see happening.

Iran’s greatest threat is using its rockets to attack Israel, which would result in an overwhelming Israeli response. Iran realizes such an attack would have serious consequences for the regime.

Q: Republican presidential candidates are talking tough about Iran. What are the practical results of such rhetoric?

A: Certainly, they are providing Iran’s regime tremendous grist for their propaganda mill. I don’t think any of the candidates are doing the U.S. any favors by threatening to attack Iran.

Q: Is Iran’s nuclear program a real threat?

A: I think they really want to develop nuclear weapons as part of their vision of becoming one of the main powers of the Middle East, primarily to compete with Israel and Turkey, even though they have a good relationship with Turkey. The Turks and the Persians have, historically, been enemies.

Q: What are the worldwide impacts of U.S.-Iran tensions?

A: The Saudis are threatening to start development of a nuclear program, perhaps to preclude Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

Q: Describe the changing face of the Middle East with a nuclear Iran.

A: It would be incredibly unstable. There would always be the threat of a pre-emptive attack by Israel.

Turkey sees itself as the emerging model — it’s an Islamist government, but it’s democratic and politically moderate. ... I think the Turks would have to think twice about becoming a nuclear power if Iran became a nuclear power.

It would not be very easy for Turkey to try to do that. Turkey is part of NATO, and a signatory to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. But treaties can be broken.

Q: Is there any way for the U.S. to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power?

A: There are only two ways: Either to make the cost of sanctions so high that Iran decides to allow for meaningful international inspections, which will prevent them from doing anything apart from what they say they want to do, namely use nuclear materials for power and civilian purposes … or to attack Iran and destroy its nuclear program. That would involve a ground war because a lot of their facilities are underground. You’d run into a lot of casualties by any invading army.

You could not eliminate Iran’s nuclear program simply through the use of air power.

Q: What don’t we know about Iran that we should?

A: The impression that readers will take away from this article is that Iran is kind of a radical country on the model of North Korea. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Iranian public is very much in support of democratization. For evidence of that, see the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, when thousands of Iranians demonstrated against his stealing of the presidential election. Public opinion polls and the opinions of scholars are that Iranians are very supportive of democracy. They also see a nuclear program as part of their sovereignty as a nation, but there’s no support for starting a nuclear war by attacking Israel.

One thing that doesn’t come across in the press is that there’s a lot of competition within the political elite: between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — the secular wing — and their spiritual leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who represents the clerical wing. The rhetoric we see is part of each far wing’s attempt to mobilize its base — much like the current political process we’re seeing in the U.S.

So there’s an intense political struggle going on inside Iran, which is why no one can really predict what the outcome will be in the effort to curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons program.