Back in August 2010, I wrote a post warning about the possibility that war with Iran was being "mainstreamed." My concern was the likelihood that incessant talk of war would gradually accustom people to the idea and harden perceptions to the point that eventually even former skeptics would be convinced that war was inevitable and that we might as well get it over with. As I put it back then:
If you talk about going to war often enough and for long enough, people get used to the idea and some will even begin to think if it is bound to happen sooner or later, than "'twere better to be done quickly." In an inside-the-Beltway culture where being "tough" is especially prized, it is easy for those who oppose "decisive" action to get worn down and marginalized. If war with Iran comes to be seen as a "default" condition, then it will be increasingly difficult for cooler heads (including President Obama himself) to say no.
I now wonder if my concerns were understated, and the danger a bit more subtle. It appears that we have gone beyond just talking about military action to actually engaging in it, albeit at a low level. In addition to waging cyberwar via Stuxnet, the United States and/or Israel appear to be engaged in covert efforts to blow up Iranian facilities and murder Iranian scientists. Earlier this week, the CIA lost a reconnaissance drone over Iranian territory (whether Iran shot it down or not is disputed). And just as I'd feared, this situation has led smart and normally sober people like Andrew Sullivan and Roger Cohen to endorse this shadowy campaign, on the grounds that it is preferable to all-out war.
I certainly agree that what the United States is doing is better than launching an all-out attack, but I question this approach on three grounds. First, as I've already argued elsewhere, our preoccupation with Iran vastly overstates its capabilities and the actual threat it poses to U.S. interests. Iran is a minor military power at present, and it has no meaningful power projection capabilities. It has been pursuing some sort of nuclear capability for decades without getting there, which makes one wonder whether Iran intends to ever cross the nuclear weapons threshold. Even if it did, it could not use a bomb against us or against Israel without triggering its own destruction, and there is no sign that Iran's leadership is suicidal. Quite the contrary, in fact: the clerics seem more concerned with staying alive and staying in power than anything else. Iran's "revolutionary" ideology is old and tired and inspires no one. The "Arab Spring" has underscored Iran's irrelevance as a political force, Iran's Syrian ally is under siege and may yet fall, and the ongoing U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will remove a key source of Iranian-Iraqi solidarity and encourage Arab-Persian differences to reemerge once again. Iran is a problem but a relatively minor one, and it is a sign of our collective strategic myopia that U.S. leaders either cannot figure this out or cannot say so openly.
Second, waging a covert, low-level war is not without risks, including the risk of undesirable escalation. No matter how carefully we try to control the level of force, there's always the danger that matters spiral out of control. Iran can't do much to us militarily, but it can cause trouble in limited ways and it could certainly take steps that would jack up oil prices and possibly derail the fragile global economic recovery. Moreover, if some U.S. operation misfired and a couple of hundred Iranians died, wouldn't the revolutionary government feel compelled to respond? If U.S. or Israeli operatives are captured on Iranian soil, will pressure mount on us to do more? (Just imagine what all the GOP candidates would start saying!) Such developments may not be likely, of course, but it would be foolhardy to ignore such possibilities entirely. Nor should we ignore the possibility that others will learn from this sort of "unconventional" campaign and one day use similar tactics against U.S. allies or the United States itself.
Third, a semi-secret war of this kind raises the inevitable risk of "blowback." The late Chalmers Johnson defined blowback as the unintended consequences of U.S. action abroad, and especially those actions of which the public is largely unaware. When we conduct semi-secret, not-quite wars in other countries, the targets sometime try to hit us back. When they do, many people back home will see their actions as unjustified aggression, and as evidence that our enemies are irrevocably hostile and unremittingly evil.
A case in point is the alleged Iranian plot to get Mexican drug lords to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington. Americans immediately concluded that this scheme was a sign of dastardly Iranian perfidy, when it might just as easily have been a harebrained Iranian riposte to what we were already doing. This is not to say that Iran was justified in trying to blow up a building in our nation's capital, but by what logic is peace-loving America justified in doing something similar over in Iran? In short: If the American people don't quite know what their government is up to, they cannot understand or interpret what other states are doing either. We may have good reasons not to like what others are doing, but the bigger danger is that we simply won't understand it, and won't understand our own role in helping bring such actions about.
Lastly, ratcheting up military pressure -- even if done covertly and at a relatively low level -- can only reaffirm deeply rooted Iranian suspicions of the United States and prolong U.S.-Iranian animosity. (The same is true in reverse, of course). I'm under no illusions about the depths of this animosity and the degree of skill, imagination, and patience it would take to unravel it, but doing more of the same is not going to make it any easier. Yes, many Iranians loathe the regime and would like it to go, but that doesn't mean they welcome U.S. or Israeli attacks on Iranian soil. And that is especially true of attacks on the nuclear program, which Iranians of many political persuasions view as an important symbol of national pride.
In short, the "silent campaign" against Iran is not without its own risks and costs. It is preferable to all-out attack, but a silent war and an all-out war are not the only options. The third option is a sustained and patient effort to reengage with Iran, in order to convince Iranian leaders that they are better off not going nuclear and that both sides will be better off if we can gradually work out some of our differences. Such an approach does not require the United States to sacrifice any core interests, nor would it preclude continuing to press Iran on its human rights record and on other matters that trouble us. And maybe it won't work. But as Trita Parsi shows in his new book A Single Roll of the Dice, that alternative approach has never really been tried.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.