Stop the Russians from spreading south. This was a primary objective of the Great Game of the 19th century that centered on Central Asia and particularly Afghanistan. The empires of the time – British, Russian, French, Chinese, Ottoman – expended much wealth and endured considerable human suffering during the course of the game. No empire ultimately got the upper hand, and they all collapsed in due course, as empires inevitably do.
Much later, in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and appeared to be within reach of achieving that chimerical goal of a warm-water port a little further south. Of course, by the late 1970s, the Kremlin had other, more pressing reasons for launching its foolhardy intervention. Whatever the motivation, though, the Russians lost badly. And it spelled the beginning of the end for the Soviet empire. Game over. At least until Washington picked up the fumble and started to run with it – in the wrong direction.
Afghanistan remains a contested battlefield. But a much higher-stakes “great game” has emerged in the Eurasian heartland. The geopolitical playmakers are back at the blackboard, plotting positions and drawing arrows all over the place. And unfortunately, at least one team is seriously considering the Hail Mary play – a long bomb deep into enemy territory.
This current game, of course, centers on Iran and the efforts particularly of the United States and Israel to prevent the country from going nuclear. The 19th-century battle over turf and influence in Central Asia lasted decades and sent armies slogging their way across high mountains and unforgiving plains. The current standoff, by contrast, could escalate in a matter of hours, if Israel launches a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities and Iran retaliates directly or through proxies.
Aside from wild card Ron Paul, the Republican candidates for president are united in supporting the use of force against Iran. Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich all fault President Obama for appeasing the country, even though the president has said repeatedly, and most recently in his State of the Union address, that he “will take no option off the table.” Gingrich and Santorum also like the ghastly idea of assassinating Iran’s nuclear scientists. Foreign Affairs recently gave space to Council on Foreign Relations “nuclear security fellow” Matthew Kroenig to argue that containment isn’t working with Iran, so the Pentagon should go ahead and take out the uranium-conversion plant at Isfahan, the reactor at Arak, and centrifuge manufacturing sites around Natanz and Tehran. It’s conventional conflict now, he argues, or nuclear war later. With “nuclear security” fellows like these, who needs Dr. Strangelove?
Niall Ferguson, the economic historian who never met an empire he didn’t like, has also jumped into the fray with a plea for “some creative destruction.” He dismisses all the arguments against an Israeli attack and concludes that “sometimes a preventive war can be a lesser evil than a policy of appeasement. The people who don’t yet know that are the ones still in denial about what a nuclear-armed Iran would end up costing us all.” Sounds like Iraq 2003 all over again.
Before presenting the counter-arguments, I want to take a closer look at Iran’s nuclear program. Of course, a lot of people would like to take a closer look at Iran’s nuclear program, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has been monitoring the facilities for many years. In 2003, the IAEA accused Iran of hiding nuclear activities from its inspectors for 18 years (though the program is even older than that, stretching back to the days of the Shah and explicit U.S. assistance). The nature of these activities is at the heart of the dispute between Iran and its accusers. The Iranian government says it is simply enriching uranium for its civilian nuclear power plants, an activity permitted under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Israeli government, on the other hand, has argued that Iran is on the fast track to joining the nuclear club (and, they might well add sotto voce, it takes one to know one).
The United States is somewhere in the middle between Iran and Israel. According to the last two National Intelligence Estimates, the collective wisdom of the U.S. intelligence community, Iran hasn’t made any effort to build a nuclear weapon since 2003. An IAEA report back in November seemed to contradict these intelligence estimates by suggesting that Iran has tested components of a nuclear device, but a former IAEA inspector has challenged this conclusion. The Obama administration, meanwhile, seems to be playing the middleman’s meta-game: leaking information about Israel’s war-gaming plans in an effort to put pressure on Iran to make concessions.
The problem resides not in the level of enrichment or the number of centrifuges or whether Iranian nuclear scientists possess the right blueprints. The problem resides in the perceptions – that Iran is on an irrevocable path toward the Bomb and that the United States and Israel are on an irrevocable path toward regime change in Tehran. The putative middle position that has emerged has been the application of economic sanctions to prod Iran toward greater transparency. Unfortunately, these sanctions have been a substitute for negotiations rather than a means toward that end.
“The United States has shown no interest in negotiating with Iran, and that will probably not change in this political season as the Obama administration seeks to outflank the right in pressuring Iran,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor David Cortright in Failed Sanctions on Iran. “Some in the administration no doubt believe that tougher sanctions will stay the hand of those urging military strikes. This is a dangerous game, for it maintains and deepens the isolation of Iran and increases the risk of miscalculation.”
The risk of miscalculation is particularly high in the Persian Gulf, where the two sides are brushing up against each other in a way that could easily spark a wider conflict. “Say, for instance, that Iranian speedboats operated by the Revolutionary Guards are shadowing and harassing U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf, speeding toward them yet keeping a safe distance (a scenario that occurs regularly and was recently widely publicized),” writes FPIF contributor Navid Hassibi in Avoiding a War in the Gulf. “Say, then, that one of the speedboats malfunctions and gets too close for comfort to the U.S. warship, which fires on the boat in response. How could this accident be prevented from escalating into a wider military confrontation?”
What’s different, of course, between Iraq 2003 and Iran 2012 are the countervailing pressures within Israel and the United States. In Israel, the previous two heads of the Israeli secret service have warned against attacking Iran. Far from being doves, they simply acknowledge the overwhelming consequences of the attack. “For Israel,” writes Steve Coll in The New Yorker, “those costs would certainly include heavy retaliatory rocket and missile strikes by Hezbollah and Hamas against Israeli civilians, a wave of popular anti-Israeli upheaval in Egypt, and the prolonged inflammation of Iran’s nuclear nationalism. A regional war involving Lebanon, Syria, and oil-producing Gulf emirates would also be a possibility.”
In the United States, as Jim Lobe writes in Right Web, the key swing constituency of liberal hawks has generally viewed an attack on Iran as adventurism, a position that likely has strong currency within the administration itself. “Indeed, the confluence of threatening developments has provoked a number of influential members of the foreign policy establishment—including several prominent liberal interventionists who supported the Iraq war—to warn against further escalation by the United States or Israel.” Peter Beinart, who went public with his Iraq War mea culpa in The Icarus Syndrome, has continued along his current trajectory to appeal to American Jews to embrace caution.
Also militating against military action is Iraq, which Israel would have to fly over to attack Iranian targets. “Iraq has also emerged as a major Iranian partner in regional affairs,” writes FPIF contributor Richard Javad Heydarian in Iran and Post-Withdrawal Iraq. “Baghdad has been among the most vociferous opponents of any sort of sanctions, diplomatic censure, or military intervention against Iran. It has expressed its support for Iran’s purportedly peaceful nuclear program and continuously encouraged a diplomatic resolution to outstanding issues between Iran and the West.”
This analysis of Iran’s nuclear program and the responses to it essentially hews to the rules of this not-so-great game. During the 19th century, all the players assumed that Russian foreign policy was defined in essence by an eternal push to the south. This assumption held true into the Soviet era, even when the playing field had changed considerably and the Kremlin had other games to play. Likewise, the international community assumes that Iran will pursue a nuclear weapon no matter what, that this quest is somehow encoded in the Islamic Republic’s DNA when in fact there are good geopolitical and even theological reasons for not pursuing the Bomb.
Let’s for the moment think outside the game and assume the worst-case scenario: Iran covertly manufactures and tests a nuclear device. Then what? North Korea’s acquisition of the Bomb has not substantially altered the security situation in Northeast Asia. Japan and South Korea are not happy about the situation, but they haven’t attempted to join the nuclear club themselves. Pyongyang, meanwhile, remains as isolated as before and has discovered that an actual nuclear device is no more powerful than the much-feared aspirational one. Iran’s acquisition of a minimal nuclear deterrent would not give it any greater leverage over Israel or its neighbors, because the use of such a weapon would initiate massive retaliation.
I’m certainly not in favor of any country joining the nuclear club. Indeed, the charter members should be following through on their NPT pledge to draw down their own arsenals far more speedily and eventually abolish the nuclear club altogether. But, as was the case with Afghanistan and both the Soviet and American invasions, the ultimate attainment of the goal did not turn out as expected for the initial victors. Nuclear breakout would not suddenly improve Iran’s standing in the West; economic sanctions would grow more stifling, and even some of Iran’s friends – Russia, China, Turkey – might turn against it. Officially testing a nuclear device, Iran might find itself ahead after the first half only to collapse in the quagmire of the second.
At the end of their history of the Great Game, Karl Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac interview Harry Hodson, an elderly player from the British side. “In the light of history, I think the Game really was a game,” Hodson concludes, “with scores but no substantive prizes.” We might score points against Iran; they might score points against us. But neither a nuclear weapon nor a war with Iran constitutes anything like a substantive prize. It’s time to stop playing games with Iran and negotiate in earnest.
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