By Charles Gray
The question is not what happens the next day, but what happens in the month, year, or decade after. An attack on Iran, no matter how often we are assured that it will be self-contained, will set into motion powerful forces that we can neither foresee nor control.
This is especially true when we consider other recent conflicts. The military might of the coalition shattered Iraq’s military and Afghanistan’s Taliban with negligible casualties, and yet nearly 10 years later, the claims of “mission accomplished” ring hollow in the face of never-ending bombings and an Afghan quagmire.
Yet in both cases, legitimate concerns about the aftermath were shouted down by those convinced the conflicts would be brought to a fast and successful resolution.
But should a conflict with Iran erupt, the question is not whether the US will secure a short-term military victory, but what the long-term outcome will be.
Any attack would be an unambiguous act of war. More importantly, there is no legal grounding for pre-emptive wars based on the mere possibility that a nation may one day choose to build nuclear weapons.
Not simply Iran, but many otherwise neutral nations would consider an attack to be an unjustified example of aggressive action, rather than legitimate self-defense.
If Saudi Arabia or Kuwait provided active or passive assistance to any nation attacking Iran, they would certainly be seen as cobelligerents against Iran, and their oil industry would become a legitimate target, which would have dramatic long-term implications for the global economy.
Even a defeated Iran would retain many conventional and unconventional avenues to interdict oil in the gulf, driving up world oil prices.
Equally, it is unlikely that an attack would harm the Iranian government’s domestic position.
In fact, the opposite is likely. The majority of the Iranian people, whatever their position on the current government, feel that Iran has a right to pursue the development of nuclear energy. They would see an attack not as an attack on their government, but an attack on the nation of Iran.
More importantly, such an attack would likely discredit pro-Western moderates within Iran’s government and society alike. The first response of a nation that has been attacked, after all, is to reject compromise.
If Iran responded to an attack by explicitly seeking a nuclear deterrent, would the US continue to launch air strikes, and if so, would they be expanded to dual use targets to further degrade Iran’s capability to develop nuclear technology? Would an already savage financial blockade be enhanced, hoping that economic pressure would bludgeon the people of Iran into submission? That tactic has seldom worked in the past, and in general has created more in the way of defiance than surrender.
However, the US would have few other tools in such a case. Nobody considers a ground invasion possible due to the size and nature of Iran. After any attack on Iran, the hawks in the US and Israel would have eliminated any chance of returning to effective negotiations, for the simple reason that neither side could afford to be seen as “surrendering” to the other.
The most likely consequences would be long-term international instability, resulting in a drastic increase in oil prices and subsequent damage to the fragile economic recovery.
Confronted by an Iran explicitly seeking nuclear weapons, other regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia, might very well seek their own deterrent, adding to the regional instability.
We should remember the prophetic quotation by Irish writer Robert Lynd (1879-1949), “The belief in the possibility of a short decisive war appears to be one of the most ancient and dangerous of human illusions.”