War-making is a bit like doing drugs: most people who start doing drugs just want to try a little, but many find themselves unable to stop.
When governments initiate wars, they also expect to do so in small doses, but once started, most wars are hard to wind down. And this matters today, because an American invasion of Iran could easily spiral into World War III.
If Americans wish to invade Iran, they should be prepared to fight a much larger, more unified, and wealthier population than that of Iraq in 2003. Iran’s per capita GDP is significantly higher than that of Iraq when the U.S. invaded, for they had already been crippled by over a decade of sanctions. And the Iranian population is well over twice as large. That population is also ethnically and religiously homogeneous, unlike that of the ethnically divided Iraq. While its citizens are split between liberals and conservative regime supporters, most analysts expect Iranian liberals to either remain quiet or support the regime in case of war.
Iran is a distinctive civilization lying at the core of the ancient Persian empire. The vast majority of its population is Shia Muslim and ethnically Persian, and they have been living within stable borders for hundreds of years now. Iran is a partial democracy, in which citizens vote for their Prime Minister and Parliament, whose powers are limited and overseen by religious authorities. Hence, Iranians have a strong enough stake in their government, and are identified enough with their civilization, to be expected to band together in times of war. Add to that the binding power of religion, and the Iranian population might present an unusually formidable fighting force.
Meanwhile, Iraq did not become a state until after World War I, and its population is highly divided. Iraq’s Kurds make up about 20 percent of the population and live in what is basically an autonomous and relatively prosperous democratic state. Shia make up about 60 percent of the population and run the official state. And the remaining 20 percent of the countries’ Sunnis, who ran the state from its founding until Saddam was deposed in 2003, are mostly tied to the so-called Islamic State. If this smaller, poorer, and more divided population could tie up the U.S. military for over a decade, one can only imagine the damage Iran might wreak.
Numerous Iranian friends of mine, who are mostly liberal graduate students in engineering and elites in their own society, do not even believe their government is seeking nuclear weapons. Rather, they believe, along with most of the rest of their fellow compatriots, that their leaders want nuclear power and are mostly in an ego battle with American leaders over their right to its attainment. While they may not have seen the intelligence reports, whose answers on this question vary, what they believe is nonetheless relevant: ordinary Iranians do not seem to care much about the bomb. If Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, though, most analysts suggest it would not even be possible for the U.S. or Israel to take out all of its reactors.
If the American military does try to take out Iranian nuclear reactors, Iran might mine the Persian Gulf, which is the outlet for Saudi, Kuwaiti, Iraqi, Bahraini, and United Arab Emirates oil. This action alone could devastate the global economy by decreasing the supply of oil and thus ratcheting up its price. Yet, Iran might also go after Israel through Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and Hamas, in Gaza. This would only be fair, given the efforts Israeli leaders have gone through to push America into a war with Iran. Both groups are local resistance forces, closely tied to the populations they are pledged to defend, and they sprang up in order to end Israeli occupations of their respective lands. But Iran provides massive military assistance to Hezbollah and has done so in the past for Hamas. An attack on Iran could literally explode in Israel.
Were Israel attacked in a two-front war by a better armed Hamas to the south and a highly proficient Hezbollah to the north, it is anyone’s guess how their right-wing government would react. But the devastation recently visited upon Gaza suggests their response would involve a long series of war crimes. Israeli Defense Force soldiers reported through Breaking the Silence, an Israeli human-rights organization run by former soldiers, that they were ordered in many places to kill everything that moved and to bomb hospitals, schools, and residential buildings. Repeating such a performance on two-fronts might easily provoke a third Intifada, or uprising, in the Palestinian West Bank. It is easy to imagine under such a scenario, with Hezbollah already fighting in Syria, and the Syrian Assad regime seeking legitimacy in the Islamic world, that the Syrian Civil War would spill over into Israel.
Iran shares borders with both Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which brought Iraq’s majority Shia to power, Iran has exercised significant influence there. If America went to war with Iran, we should expect that influence to increase, and for America’s Iraqi client state to break with its benefactor. The sort of all-out-war that might occur in the Middle East should the U.S. attack Iran would likely draw Iraq more closely into the Iranian orbit.
The Middle East of today is a maelstrom of conflicts. The Syrian state is starving its cities. The so-called Islamic State has taken over vast portions of Syria and Iraq. The Lebanese Hezbollah has entered Syria to support the Assad regime, which has been one of its primary benefactors, while Lebanon and Jordan are on the verge of instability due to a massive influx of refugees. Saudi Arabia has attacked Yemen, which is mostly a failed state, and is fighting Iranian-backed militias there, along with a coalition of Sunni states. Libya has been taken over by an array of militias. And Israel has become increasingly aggressive toward its captive Palestinian population. Add to this an American war with Iran, which would probably be backed by a large Western and perhaps Sunni coalition, and the maelstrom begins to look a lot like World War III.
Under such conditions, Iran will be searching for allies, and perhaps the most natural would be the increasingly isolated Russia, which borders it to the north. Russia is currently weary of a nuclear armed Iran, but politics makes strange bedfellows, especially in times of war. And Iran and Russia are already allied in their support for the Assad regime. Iran may find many ready partners under such circumstances, because America is likely to be blamed for everything that happens in the Middle East thereafter, and it could get astonishingly ugly.
All of this is possible, much of it probable if America or Israel decide to attack Iran. But America’s Republican hawks and Israel-first Democrats appear to have given little consideration to any of it. Most wars could be said to be a result of either or both sides failing to fully think through the consequences of their actions. Few are prepared for the human and infrastructural damages stemming from war; few can imagine, during the opening salvos, the dissolution of a country like Syria or Libya, for instance. It is hard to imagine the extent to which war shreds the social fabric. War tears away the mask of our worst hidden impulses and unleashes the human id.
Those advocating the sort of engagement that would lead to a war with Iran would do well to consider what this might look like and what would happen in such an environment should Iran actually step up its nuclear program. It is quite possible that an American attack on Iran, now more tightly bonded to Russia, would actually make it more likely to acquire nuclear weapons. But much as in the case of Iraq in 2003, Republican leaders do not seem to be thinking much about consequences. And it is in just such moments that the consequences can turn out most disastrous.
Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Travis May