Paul Pillar has a great piece up at The National Interest that illuminates just how nutty the present debate about war with Iran really is. And it got me thinking.
If a sensible Martian came down to Earth and looked at the sabre-rattling about Iran, I suspect he/she/it would be completely flummoxed. For our Martian visitor would observe two very capable states -- the United States and Israel -- threatening to attack a country that hardly seems worth the effort. The U.S. and Israel together spend more than $700 billion each year on their national security establishments; Iran spends about $10 billion. The U.S. and Israel have the most advanced military hardware in the world; Iran's weapons are mostly outdated and lack spare parts. The U.S. and Israeli militaries are well-educated and very well-trained; not true of Iran. The United States has thousands of nuclear weapons and Israel has several hundred, while Iran has a vast arsenal of … zero. Iran does have a nuclear enrichment program (which is the reason for all the war talk), but the most recent National Intelligence Estimates have concluded that Iran does not presently have an active nuclear weapons program. The United States has several dozen military bases in Iran's immediate vicinity; Iran has exactly none in the Western hemisphere. The United States has powerful allies in every corner of the world; Iran's friends include a handful of minor nonstate actors like Hezbollah or minor-league potentates like Bashar al Assad (who's not looking like an asset these days) or Hugo Chávez.
Moreover, the United States has fought four wars since 1990. It has bombed, invaded or occupied a half dozen countries in that period, leading to the deaths of thousands of people. Israel has been colonizing the West Bank since 1967, it invaded and occupied much of Lebanon from 1982 to 1999, and its armed forces pummeled Lebanon again in 2006 and Gaza in 2008-09. Prominent U.S. politicians have repeatedly called for "regime change" in Iran, and U.S. government officials now report that Israel has been murdering civilian scientists in Iran, in cahoots with the MEK, a terrorist organization that is still on the State Department's terrorist "watchlist." Iran's past conduct is far from pure, but it has done nothing remotely similar in recent years.
In fact, given the various threats now facing Tehran, our Martian friend might have trouble explaining why Iran's leaders hadn't gone all-out to get themselves some sort of WMD, merely as a deterrent. And yet it is the United States and Israel that profess themselves to be terribly, terribly worried about the supposed "threat" from Iran, and who are contemplating a preventive war that most observers realize would strengthen Iran's nuclear ambitions and could only delay its program for a couple of years.
Let's be clear: There's nothing to like about the current Iranian regime -- to include its clerical rulers, its buffoonish president, and the various thugs that keep the regime in power -- and I for one am very glad I live here and not there. Nonetheless, our Martian observer might have a lot of trouble figuring out why politicians in Washington and Jerusalem were so scared. In fact, he might very reasonably conclude that both states were losing all sense of perspective, and allowing the worst sort of worst-case analysis to cloud their thinking and cut off useful avenues of diplomatic engagement. And given that the United States likes to think of itself as the "leader of the free world" and is normally expected to exercise sound judgment on a host of complex issues, that possibility is not reassuring.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.