It’s hard to follow the news on Iran these days without experiencing a bit of déjà vu. 10 years is a long time, particularly for those in college, yet perceptive students will remember the sense of inevitability in the media coverage surrounding Iraq in early 2002. So much remained uncertain: Hans Blix was still inspecting Iraqi weapon sites and Colin Powell had yet to make the administration’s case for invasion at the UN.
Nevertheless, the frequent prognostications of military experts and diplomats, the hysterical threats and demands from the embattled Hussein regime and the indelible images of ships and planes bristling with weapons and readying for war gave many the feeling that our country was riding the rails toward a confrontation with Iraq.
Our confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program appears to be a grim echo of the events that unfolded 10 years before. Granted, the situations vary in a myriad of ways, especially when one considers the role played by an increasingly impatient Israel. But the ongoing assessments of Israeli and American strike capabilities, the threats from Tehran to attack shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, and the pictures of Iranian attack boats and American carriers menacing each other in the Arabian Gulf all point to an inexorable advance into open warfare against the budding nuclear power in the Middle East.
The story has yet to reach its climax, but the plot thickened last Wednesday when Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced considerable advances in his nation’s nuclear technology. A new generation of centrifuges and a professed “mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle” will not immediately lead to nuclear weapons, but the announcement was more about thumbing their nose at the West than enumerating any advances in technology.
It could increase Israel’s suspicions that sanctions against the Iranian regime are proving ineffective and hasten an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Indeed, like many of their actions on the international scene, the announcement seems specifically designed to goad the West, and particularly Israel, into an attack on the Islamic Republic.
What inspires this apparently suicidal course of action? Israel might be unable to affect any large-scale damage on the military, political or even nuclear infrastructure of Iran, but a confrontation with the United States would certainly lead to the wholesale destruction of the Iranian navy and a significant degradation of their remaining military capabilities. Even with America’s weakening stature in the international arena, the regime risks self-destruction with such blatant and belligerent provocations. Ahmadinejad and his mullah overlords must be aware of this simple truth, and yet they persist.
Perhaps they believe they are effectively powerless to take any other course of action. Despite simmering discontent with the theocratic regime, the majority of Iranians feel positively about their country’s nuclear program and consider it a matter of national pride. These feelings were deliberately inculcated by the regime for years and cannot simply be smothered should they become inconvenient. Should the regime concede to the West’s “arrogant” demands, they could lose the last vestiges of legitimacy they currently enjoy.
In fact, legitimacy may be the ultimate goal of the Iranian regime in this whole dangerous endeavor. Iranians may have little love for their bearded bourgeois, but this animosity pales in comparison to the genuine loathing many feel toward the “Zionists.” Should Israeli bombs start falling on Persian soil, domestic political disputes will fall by the wayside and all good Iranians will line up behind their government. An attack would likely deprive the battered Green Movement of any remaining support, consolidating power behind the theocracy.
If this is the reason behind the mullahs’ nuclear program, however, it is a serious gamble. The Iranian people will clamor for a violent response to Israel’s violation of their sovereignty, which in practical terms means an attack on Israel through its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. Even if the United States is not targeted for retaliation, the ferocity of the assault on Israel may force the Obama Administration to respond. If the Iranian leadership survived a concerted assault by American and Israeli forces, their political survival would be assured for decades to come. But that’s a big if. In their pursuit of legitimacy and, undoubtedly, greater regional influence, the Iranian regime risks total destruction at the hands of foreign forces.
Regardless of the rationale and the ultimate outcome, one thing that seems unavoidable is the onset of the conflict itself. It is not yet clear when the shooting will start, but it has been made inescapably clear that Israel will not allow the deliberate provocations of the mullahs to go unchallenged much longer. Before the year is out they will strike. The war drums beating ever-louder in the American media bring the uneasy feeling that our young men and women will soon be sucked into another intractable Middle Eastern mess.