Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has said that the Holocaust never happened and that there are no homosexuals in Iran. Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, said last week that sanctions will not curb Iranian nuclear ambitions. A day before that, Iran's deputy armed forces head, Mohammad Hejazi, said that a preemptive strike is on the table if Iran feels sufficiently threatened.
Iran's leaders, whether deemed rational or irrational by observers, find themselves in a new, favorable position to wield Iranian power, and influence events beyond Iranian borders. And they are taking full advantage.
Every other day, Iran is in the news for some act or expression of defiance. Recent news includes Iranian warships sent to Syria as a warning to the U.S.; the possibility that Iran was behind attacks against Israeli embassy officials in India and Georgia; and possible Iranian plans to execute terror attacks on U.S. soil.
With the four potential Republican presidential candidates expressing a willingness to engage in another Middle Eastern war and President Obama reiterating the always-present threat of force to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, it is important to get to the root of the new wave of Iranian international muscle flexing.
The new, dangerously ambitious Iran is a direct consequence of George W. Bush's 2003 Iraq War. Allow me to explain.
One of the first concepts a student of international relations learns is the "balance of power" theory. It is a powerful paradigm that I can even apply to making sense of my everyday life.
Here is a personal NYC example that I used to use to explain "balance of power" to my students: One night, while waiting for the D train at 125th Street, a man at the other end of the northbound platform began to warn me that if I did not get out of his way, he would beat me up and throw me onto the tracks. I stood my ground. When the man finally passed me, although still cursing loudly, he simply brushed my shoulder lightly with his. I let out the air I had been holding. As mentally unstable as the man probably was, my standing my ground made him think twice about escalating the situation.
Take that example to the international arena. During the Cold War, the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, although expensive and dangerous, contributed to the fact that neither superpower would attack the other. It would be too costly. And of course we have all heard that one of the contributing factors to World War II was the international appeasement of Hitler's initial imperial demands. Had his demands been countered by a potentially damaging entity, some balance of the European stage would have been achieved. Hitler would have been put in his place.
Essentially, potentially violent entities can be kept in check by the threat of an equally (or more) intense retaliation. Regions and the world find balance in the dynamics of these relationships. Where there are two powers, remove one and the other might run amok under the new, unbalanced system.
(Actually, this is one explanation for the U.S.'s current widespread use of its military. There is no Soviet Union to keep us in check anymore.)
Now back to Iran. While Iranian violent rhetoric and nuclear ambitions are not new, Iran's neighborhood has changed greatly. Prior to W. Bush's 2003 Iraq War, the greatest state-to-state rivalry in the Middle East was that between Iran and Iraq. The Iran-Iraq rivalry reached its zenith from 1980 to 1988, when the two countries engaged in a war that led to the loss of up to 1.5 million lives, the high end of casualty estimates. Arab-Persian, Sunni-Shiite, and secular Baathist-Islamist rivalries played a role, as did more basic geopolitics, such as control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway to the Gulf.
Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein's ambiguity regarding weapons stockpiles strengthened Iraq's position vis-à-vis its enemies, especially Iran, with which Iraq shares a 900-mile-long border. Think of the man who threatened to strike me at the train station but didn't, probably because he wasn't sure of my response -- my stance was firm but unclear. He probably wondered if I had a weapon.
As a result of the Iraq War, Saddam Hussein is no longer around to check Iran's power. Not only this, but the Sunni-Shiite dynamic has changed. Iran has great potential to influence events in Iraq now as Shiites there take the reigns of political control. Attempting to extend influence is something natural for countries to do. Iran is no exception.
But prior to the Iraq War, except for Iranian money reaching Hezbollah and similar groups, Iranian ambitions of grandeur were contained to a great extent by Iran's enemy and neighbor to the west, Saddam Hussein's Iraq. That Iraq is no more. So now Iran's other regional enemies, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia, find themselves having to calculate the best means to assume the old Iraqi role to balance Iranian power, now quite beyond Iranian borders. These calculations are difficult, and miscalculations can escalate the world's new Iran problem, or cause other problems as the region attempts to establish a new balance of power and regain its lost, relative stability.
While Middle Eastern politics should not be oversimplified, it is important to understand the application of one of the greatest concepts the study of international relations has provided geopolitical analysis. The W. Bush Administration's shortsighted, preemptive war that toppled Saddam Hussein effectively neutralized the major force that counterbalanced Iran's grandiose ambitions since its 1979 revolution. What we witness today is a textbook example of a regional power balance come undone.
With Saddam out of its way, Iran now seems to perceive the world as a playground for its deadly geopolitical ambitions.
A strike on nuclear facilities would only be a temporary setback for the new Iran. The U.S. budget and population are likely not ready for another Middle Eastern regime change adventure. Whatever path the current or a potentially new U.S. Commander in Chief elects to take to prevent a nuclear Iran, I hope that he gathers a team of knowledgeable people to brainstorm realistic long-term consequences of military action in a way the former president very likely did not.