Iran hysterics

Whether Iran chooses to act constructively remains to be seen, but the US can no longer pretend Iran doesn’t exist.

Some Iranians celebrate the framework agreement on nuclear program
The outreach to Tehran creates a possible alternative to endlessly plugging leaks, writes Bacevich [Getty]

What is it about a nuclear deal with Iran that induces hysteria in certain quarters of the West? In recent weeks, editors at both The New York Times and The Washington Post saw fit to run op-eds calling for pre-emptively bombing Iran, apparently under the impression that preventive war has not yet received a fair shake. Sure, Iraq didn’t work out, but why quit now?

By ensuring that the American people and their leaders do not overlook the possibility of giving war one more chance in Iran, these newspapers were presumably performing a public service. 

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In the Times, John Bolton, Dr Strangelove with an unkempt moustache, described a situation on “the brink of catastrophe”, entirely attributable to US President Barack Obama’s folly. Absent prompt, decisive action, an “uncontrollable nuclear arms race” beckons.

With an Iran negotiating in good faith an impossibility and economic sanctions doomed to fail, only a single alternative remains: “Military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor.”

As envisioned by Bolton, such an attack whether by the US or Israel – either would be fine – “could set back [Iran’s] programme by three to five years”. 

In the meantime, “vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran” would provide a definitive solution to the problem. On the one hand, Iran poses an existential threat; on the other hand, it’s a threat that a few well-placed PGMs can easily deal with.

“Time is terribly short,” Bolton emphasised, “but a strike can still succeed”.

War only option

Bolton did not speculate on whether US or Israeli bombardment might elicit an Iranian response. Writing in the Post, Joshua Muravchik, whose views mesh ever so neatly with the neoconservative bent of that paper’s editorial page, did just that – only to discount that prospect as of little consequence. 

Muravchik characterised the Islamic Republic as “akin to communist, fascist and Nazi regimes that set out to transform the world“, intent even today on extending “its Islamic revolution across the Middle East and beyond”.

Delegitimising Iran benefited putative US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. For a time, it also seemed to benefit of the US itself, which pursuant to the Carter Doctrine was seeking to position itself as the region's self-appointed protector and stabiliser.


It’s not a nuclear arms race that worries him but the prospect that such weapons “even if it is only brandished” will “vastly enhance Iran’s power to achieve that goal”. The Lausanne talks ought to have convened in Munich. Negotiating with Tehran implies appeasement and puts Iran on the path to global dominion.

“Does this mean that our only option is war?” Muravchik asked rhetorically. Yes, indeed, it does. That a strike damaging Iran’s nuclear programme might not fully destroy it is no excuse for inaction since “we can strike as often as necessary”. In contrast to Bolton’s campaign plan, his is not a one-and-done war. 

Iranian retaliation

Nor is Muravchik deterred by the possibility of Iranian retaliation. Sure, “we might absorb some strikes”, he wrote. But this he dismissed as “the price of averting the heavier losses” should an Iran emboldened by its possession of nuclear weapons “overreach, kindling bigger wars”, inevitably involving the United States.

To preclude being drawn into such future wars, in other words, it is incumbent upon the US itself to initiate war now – indeed, the sooner the better. 

Like Bolton, Muravchik writes with absolute assurance about matters regarding which neither he nor anyone else apart from God can know with certainty.

Past errors in judgement – both enthusiastically supported the Iraq war – leave them unfazed and their standing as pundits undiminished. When it comes to pronouncing Iran beyond the pale, they just know what they know.

Yet, without suggesting that those governing the Islamic Republic are well-disposed towards the West or keen to embrace liberal values, it seems fair to say that those warning of incipient Persian global hegemony just might be engaging in a wee bit of threat inflation.

What gives? 

Answering that question requires first understanding that the Iranian nuclear negotiations are only incidentally about nuclear weapons. Their true subject is the political landscape of the Gulf and its environs. And their true aim is to transform that landscape by bringing Iran in from the cold.

Since the overthrow of the shah and the subsequent hostage crisis of 1979-1981, the US has (with the brief, bizarre exception of the Iran-Contra episode) systematically excluded Iran from participating in the politics of the region.

Since the shah's overthrow, the US has excluded Iran from the politics of the region [AFP/Getty Images]
Since the shah’s overthrow, the US has excluded Iran from the politics of the region [AFP/Getty Images]

Delegitimising Iran benefited putative US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. For a time, it also seemed to the benefit of the US itself, which pursuant to the Carter Doctrine was seeking to position itself as the region’s self-appointed protector and stabiliser. 

The Iraq war that the George W Bush administration so recklessly launched in 2003 marked the high-water mark of this US bid for regional dominion. The failure of that war, culminating in the withdrawal of US troops in 2011, left US pretensions to hegemony in shambles.

Worse, the Iraq war contributed mightily to a broader destabilisation of the Arab world and its environs, today evident everywhere from Libya and Yemen to Syria and, of course, Iraq itself. 

Damage repair

Efforts by Bush’s successor to repair the damage have gone nowhere apart from demonstrating the limitations of drone strikes and special operations forces as instruments of policy. In a fundamental sense, the US has not had a Middle East policy for the last several years – unless you count vainly trying to plug a dike beset by a multitude of leaks.

The outreach to Tehran creates a possible alternative to endlessly plugging leaks. It signifies a tacit acknowledgement by the US and its allies that restoring even a semblance of regional stability becomes possible only if Iran plays a role congruent with its historical stature.

Whether those governing the Islamic Republic will choose to embrace that opportunity and act constructively remains to be seen, but Obama – like Nixon regarding China – has evidently concluded that there’s no further value in pretending Iran doesn’t exist.

Assuming that negotiators succeed in working out the details of the recently announced deal and assuming that the Republican-controlled Congress refrains from suborning the final agreement – neither assumption should be taken for granted – Bolton and Muravchik won’t be seeing US forces attack Iran anytime soon. Nor will Israeli forces do so unless the Netanyahu government actively seeks to rupture the US-Israeli relationship. 

What is likely to ensue instead is a recalibration of power relationships, not seen in this part of the world since the Suez Crisis of 1956. As part of that recalibration, the US will abandon any further aspirations of hegemony. Regional problems will increasingly entail regional solutions. Nor longer able to count on US deference to its requirements, Israel will either find ways to accommodate itself to this reality or risk further isolation.

Above all, neither the US nor Israel will be able to rely on brute force to have its way – which just may be the prospect that Americans like Bolton and Muravchik find most objectionable.

Andrew J Bacevich is professor of history and international relations emeritus at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.