Ultima Ratio Regum Latin for “[War,] the last argument of kings,” this quote summed up the classical approach to warfare, that it was the method of achieving a specific strategic goal of the realm when other methods had failed. In modern times though, it seems that war is often the result of a chain of political miscalculations by heads of state. Such is the situation with Iran and the United States, where armed conflict seems more and more likely the eventual outcome of our current diplomatic standoff.
Last week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, once again reiterated that the United States “would not allow” Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. The United States is currently involved in a global exercise of diplomatic arm-twisting in an attempt to build support for a total economic boycott of Iran's chief export, oil. The European Union is on-board with the proposed enhanced sanctions regime, but Iran's other chief customers are skeptical: Japan and South Korea have publicly discussed requesting a waiver from the sanctions; China – the top consumer of Iranian oil – is refusing to join on the grounds that such sanction regimes are seldom effective; while India and Turkey have stated flatly that they will ignore the American sanctions on the grounds that they are not backed by the United Nations and thus have no standing in international law.
For their part, the Iranians have said that they will consider even these porous sanctions as an outright act of war on the part of the United States and have threatened to respond by closing the strategic chokepoint of the Straits of Hormuz – the place where a finger of land from the Arabian peninsula juts up into the flank of Iran, narrowing the mouth of the Persian Gulf to a mere 35 miles. Roughly 20% of the world's oil supply is carried by tanker through this narrow passage; any disruption in this routine would send a massive oil price shock rippling 'round the globe. The United States has declared this as another red line the Iranians cannot cross, and has promised to use military force to reopen the Straits should Tehran make good on their threats.
The rhetoric from both sides has become increasingly heated in the past few months, to the point where both have now laid down definitive markers – the United States has insisted that Iran end its nuclear research program and is in the process of trying to impose crippling sanctions to compel them to do so; Iran has said that it has an inherent right to pursue a nuclear research program, will view the American sanctions as an act of war and will respond with a blockade of Persian Gulf oil. Their positions today provide few shades of gray and little opportunity to dial back the tensions. And this stubbornness is being backstopped by politics in both countries.
Now locked in an election battle for much of the remainder of 2012, President Obama cannot back down on the bellicose language pushed by his administration without opening himself up to a series of withering attacks from the Republicans that he is “soft” when it comes to international relations, or that he is leaving Americans vulnerable to attacks from still-fictitious Iranian nuclear weapons. If the sanctions are as porous as it seems that they will be, this could play into the Republican's meta-narrative that Barack Obama is not respected by other world leaders, also hurting him in the November elections. On the Iranian side, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has tied much of his personal credibility to Iran's burgeoning nuclear program; to give it up would mean giving up the core of his presidency. Meanwhile, Iran is scheduled to have their own parliamentary elections in March. Iran's Revolutionary Council has already banned a number of opposition political parties from the ballot, raising the possibility of a new round of protests like the aborted “Green Revolution” that resulted from the suspicious reelection of Ahmadinejad in 2009. Given that prospect, a conflict, or the imminent potential of a conflict with the “Great Satan,” could provide a much needed hit of “rally round the flag” nationalism for the Iranian regime – not spark the popular uprising some within the US administration have convinced themselves will happen if the US strikes militarily against Iran.
So we are left with a tense situation where the actions of both sides will be constrained by their own rhetoric and national political mood. A wild card in this potential conflict is Israel, which has spent the past few years building the idea of an Iranian nuclear program into an existential threat to Israel. Last week Major-General Amir Eshel, head of strategic planning for Israel's armed forces, upped the ante further by saying that Iran's construction of a nuclear weapon would embolden Iranian proxies Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, while constraining Israel's ability to retaliate against them. Twice, the Israelis have used airstrikes to destroy embryonic nuclear research programs in Iraq and Syria, unfortunately for the Israelis, the Iranians were paying attention – learning the lesson from Iraq and Syria, which both had their research programs in centralized, poorly-defended, above-ground facilities. In response, the Iranians have disbursed their research program to sites around the country, some of which, like the facility at Fordo outside the city of Qom, are buried deep underground. Given the number of sites, their level of fortification and the distances involved, it is highly unlikely that the Israeli Air Force could deal a knock-out blow to the Iranian nuclear program like they previously have to the Iraqi and Syrian programs. Yet, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces the same problem as Obama and Ahmadinejad; he has built up an external threat to his country and set down a marker that they will not be allowed to cross without threat of retaliation, a marker that the other side is rapidly approaching.
Netanyahu is further constrained by the fact that it would be almost impossible for the IAF to knock down the Iranian nuclear program as they did the Iraqi and Syrian. Furthermore, an unprovoked strike against Iran would only serve to distance Israel from their few allies in the region, like Turkey, where relations are already at a low point, while at the same time showing the Israeli military to be ineffective in action against a sworn enemy – neither are good outcomes for Israel. Yet the best move for Israel might be to go ahead with the strike on Iran anyway, hoping that this action will provoke a conflict between the Iranians and Americans, whose military assets in the Persian Gulf stand a much better chance at, if not destroying Iran's nuclear program, causing it grievous damage.
But even if the Israeli wild card isn't played, the United States and Iran are still locked into a course that seems more and more like it will end with some level of armed conflict. Leaders on both sides have allowed their rhetoric to get ahead of themselves and are now locked into a situation where they either make good on their threats or shatter their domestic credibility at a time when both are facing challenges to their leadership. Perhaps the modern twist on that old saying should be “war, the last mistake of kings.”Barack Obama, China, Iran, Nuclear Non-Proliferation, US Foreign Policy, Syria