Don’t make Iran the new Ukraine

American hawks are pushing for war with Tehran

This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The United States and Israel carried out a large-scale military exercise, Juniper Oak, in late January. The exercise was followed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley touring the Middle East in early March, with plans for the first ever US-Saudi exercise in mid-March.

American officials coyly denied the drills were “intended to be focused on any one single adversary”, but Israeli officials loudly proclaimed that they were building their ability to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities.

The US Ambassador, Tom Nides, declared in late February that Israel “can and should do whatever they need” to Iran, “and we’ve got their back”. The Biden administration has refused to clarify whether Nides was giving a green light for war. Like every other President since George W. Bush, Joe Biden has reserved the right to use “all options” against Iran’s nuclear programme.

The allegation is not that Iran is planning to launch an act of atomic aggression, nor that Iran is even building nuclear weapons. (In fact, CIA director William Burn said Iran hasn’t decided “to resume the weaponisation program” that was ended in 2003.) Rather, the allegation is that Iran is putting itself in a position that would allow it to build a bomb quickly.

This rhymes with Russia’s military build-up before the invasion of Ukraine. A superpower is shouting that a smaller country’s capabilities are a grave security threat, putting out ultimatums with vaguely-defined red lines, and building up its forces in the region under the pretence of defensive military exercises.

It is unclear whether the superpower even has specific demands that can be resolved, or whether it just needs to crush the smaller country for ideological reasons.

Washington does have good reason to worry about Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. It would break international non-proliferation norms, encourage other nations to follow suit, upset the balance of power in the Middle East and add a shade of nuclear menace to the conflicts Iran is already involved in, such as the Syrian civil war. 

But the US response is more radical. American leaders have issued a series of threats that are hard to back down from and have defined US security interests so broadly that they create a hair-trigger for war.

When Iran stopped its clandestine nuclear weapons programme in 2003, the demand became that Iran stop enriching uranium, full stop. When Iran agreed to US conditions on uranium enrichment in 2015, the demand became that Iran accept a “better deal”, with terms more favourable to Washington.

In early March 2023, a group of American and Israeli sources raised the alarm to Bloomberg News about Iran obtaining Russia’s S-400 air defence system. Because the anti-aircraft missiles would “narrow the window for a potential strike in Tehran’s nuclear program”, the news service reported, the prospective sale “would accelerate a decision on a possible attack”.

Even Iran’s ability to defend itself is seen as a potential threat now, because it could potentially lend cover to building offensive weapons in the future. Under this creative definition of self-defence, the United States and Israel can only satisfy their concerns by rendering Iran completely helpless. That notion cuts against international law, and paves the way to a disastrous war — as Russia is learning on the muddy fields of Ukraine.

Foreign observers often debate how to understand the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The “realist” camp believes Russia saw Ukraine’s growing closeness with the West as a security threat and tried to nip it in the bud. Others argue Russia is motivated by imperial nostalgia and disgust for Ukrainian independence.

Vladimir Putin has himself given mixed signals. One day, he lists the times it would take different types of missiles to reach Russian cities from Ukraine; another day, he rants about the “spiritual unity” of Eastern Slavic peoples.

It is fair to say Russia has legitimate security concerns in Ukraine, but its reaction has been wildly out of proportion to the threat, is a gross violation of international law, and is ultimately destructive to Russia itself. Whatever real threats Russia faces from Ukraine are magnified by the funhouse-mirror worldview of the siloviki, the military and intelligence servicemen in Putin’s inner circle.

America has its own silovik class

America has its own silovik class, think-tankers and bureaucrats who translate politicians’ violent impulses towards the Middle East into the language of “strategic interests” and “restoring deterrence”. While the hawks in Russia come from the security services, American civilian leaders tend to be the ideologues, and the uniformed US officer corps is actually a voice of reason.

An exchange reported by the New Yorker in July 2021 sums up this dynamic. When General Mark Milley asked why the outgoing Trump administration was so intent on bombing Iran, a move the military brass opposed, Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, responded: “Because they’re evil.”

Indeed, Russian and American leaders both portray their foreign policy as a re-enactment of the Second World War, with Ukraine or Iran cast as the Nazi aggressors. Ukrainian officials glorifying Nazi collaborators and Iran’s supreme leader tweeting about a “final solution” to Israeli statehood both provide ample material for such propaganda.

But although the Islamic Republic’s domestic repression and foreign intervention are concerning, they do not live up to the threat Germany once posed. Ukraine, with its Jewish president, does not even come close. Beating-up on those countries as if they were Nazi revivals is an exercise in live-action role- playing, a sad attempt to relive the struggles of a much more formidable past generation.

Putin has made it clear that the invasion of Ukraine is also a sign of malice directed at NATO. Moscow watched with concern as the Western bloc absorbed much of the former Russian sphere. Because attacking any of the new NATO members is not an option — unless Russia is planning to start a world war — little Ukraine has to bear the brunt of Russian frustrations.

Similarly, Iran is just the right size to absorb U.S. anger. American elites blame their two decades of failure in Iraq on Iranian intrigue, as the congressional debates on the killing of Qassem Soleimani reveal. While the House of Representatives voted on whether a full-on war with Iran would be authorised — the final decision was no — congressman after congressman brought up Soleimani’s support of Iraqi guerrillas.

“I knew who Soleimani was when I was in Iraq. We were targeted by rockets every single day from Iranian proxies trained in and funded by Iran, and led by Iranian commanders,” Republican congressman Don Bacon thundered. “This is justice for the 609 families who had a son or daughter murdered by this guy and those missing an arm or a leg because of his savagery.”

And just as Russia cannot attack NATO frontally, the United States has to tread carefully with its arch-rival, China. Think- tanks such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies have tried to make the case that targeting Iran would strike a blow at a broader Sino-Iranian axis.

The need to make an example out of a smaller country is where ideology and security concerns overlap. On the eve of the Russian invasion, the journalist Anne Applebaum argued that “Ukraine represents a country that has successfully escaped a Russian-style autocratic system, that has a democracy, that seeks to be close to the West … and that is what Putin is afraid of. In that sense, he is afraid of Ukraine becoming normal.”

American hawks also fear their enemies “becoming normal”, which may teach others that one can break out of the American sphere of influence and get away with it. Just look at what happened when Iran (and Cuba) offered to satisfy US demands.

In response to the Obama administration’s outreach, Cuba opened itself up to American business and released political prisoners. Iran, meanwhile, agreed to scale back its nuclear programme and submitted to international inspections in exchange for normalising trade relations.

One would have expected Barack Obama to receive gushing praise for his diplomatic coup de grace. After all, he got Iran to ask for its economy to be opened up to Western investment, something the U.S. often has to prise out of other countries as a concession. Instead, Washington’s chattering classes exploded with indignation. Recognising the government in Havana or setting up a channel of communication with Tehran were acts of appeasement, they claimed. The reformers gaining ground within the Cuban and Iranian systems were, in fact, wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, sneered at Iran’s reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, as “a more soft-spoken, cosmopolitan, and diplomatic” face of Iranian perfidy.

The Trump administration replaced reconciliation with “maximum pressure” on both countries. Embargoes have a poor track record of forcing peaceful political change. However, they have a great track record of turning targeted countries into dysfunctional bunker states — not only Iran and Cuba, but also Venezuela, Syria, North Korea, and Iraq before 2003.

The Foundation for Defense of Democracies began writing policy for the Trump administration and Dubowitz became more blunt in his intentions. He repeatedly wrote in 2019 that the goal of sanctions was to force Iran into the “guns versus butter” trade-off, a dilemma between funding its security policy and caring for the wellbeing of its people. As a result, Dubowitz suggested in 2020: “This regime is going to choose guns.”

Comparing the fall of the Communist bloc to the current uprisings in Iran in 2021, he said he doesn’t “see a Gorbachev” and predicted the Iranian government “will turn their guns on their own people”. In other words, his strategy would lead to the Islamic Republic being at war with its own people. (And it has.) Apparently, that is preferable to one with “soft-spoken, cosmopolitan, and diplomatic” leaders.

To allow countries who defy American power to normalise themselves would be dangerous. These states could not mellow out on their own terms, open up a bit, and offer their people a future beyond revolution and siege. They had to fully surrender or be turned into a cautionary tale for the rest of the world.

The Islamic Republic, of course, is no hapless victim

The Islamic Republic, of course, is no hapless victim. A system that was already primed to jail well-meaning reformers, to explicitly divide the population into “insiders” and “outsiders” and to shoot first and ask questions later was bound to suffer a crisis. The pressure campaign has been designed to ensure the system’s worst impulses would win out, as Dubowitz made clear, turning that crisis into an explosion.

Blowing up a society from the inside helps pave the way for war later down the line, as the Russian aggression towards Ukraine shows. Russia’s justification for invading in 2022 was that ethnic Russians in the Donbas faced a “genocide” by Ukrainian nationalists. The Donbas was at war in the first place because Moscow had pumped the region full of weapons and encouragement during Ukraine’s 2014 crisis.

No one would deny that Ukraine had serious internal tensions and problems with corruption leading up to 2014. Yet no one could seriously deny that the conflict in the Donbas would have become what it was without Russia’s barely-hidden hand.

Of course, Moscow’s claims to care for the plight of the Donbas Russians are cynical, while Western voters are earnest in their belief in human rights. That makes their conflict with Iran all the harder to back down from. Russian intelligence services can create and dispose of “separatist leaders” at will. Western politicians, after encouraging revolutionary militancy in Iran, may find it hard to ignore the real Iranian voices clamouring for intervention against real atrocities happening in the country.

“The window will not stay open forever. If the Islamic Republic goes nuclear (which it is doing), we will have to bury the desire for freedom for generations,” the British-Iranian rapper Hichkas recently tweeted in Persian. “There’s no time to play Gandhi. Acts of violence by liberation forces and foreign allies should be welcomed and supported.”

It’s worth mentioning that an Iranian bomb does not necessarily mean a funeral for Iranian democracy. The South African bomb did not stop the fall of apartheid, nor did the Soviet bomb prevent the collapse of communism. What nuclear weapons do prevent is the future of a country being decided in foreign capitals, and the most violent visions of regime change coming to pass.

Getting a country to fight itself is different from bringing it to heel from the outside, as Ukraine has taught the world. Based on his success manipulating the 2014 crisis, Putin clearly thought that the “Kyiv regime” would collapse in the face of a rapid assault. He did not bother to build a legal framework or public support for a full-scale war, instead insisting that it was nothing more than a “special military operation”.

American officials have been quite evasive about the legal basis for carrying out their threats against Iran. Perhaps they would coin a Putinism of their own, like “precision defensive strikes”, a term the US Defense Department has used to describe recent airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.

How much Iran would hold out is an open question. Iraq and Ukraine provide completely opposite examples of whether smaller states can resist a superpower. 

But US military leaders are clearly worried. General Kenneth McKenzie warned in the New Yorker in December 2021 that the Iranian missile arsenal can “overmatch” and overwhelm his troops’ defences. (At the time, McKenzie oversaw all US forces in the Middle East.) “We would be hurt very badly” by Iranian attacks, he told the magazine. “We would win in the long run. But it would take a year.”

We should be so lucky. Russia wasn’t.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover