In Thursday’s Washington Post David Ignatius discusses the results of a war game simulation conducted at the Brookings Institution. He observes that “the scariest aspect of a U.S.-Iran war game…was the way each side miscalculated the other’s responses – and moved toward war even as the players thought they were choosing restrained options.”
In reading Jeffrey Record's “A War It Was Always Going to Lose: Why Japan Attacked American in 1941” (2011) I was struck that the enduring historical lessons he draws in examining this case also underscore the relative ease with which the US and Iran could now easily drift toward war with dire consequences for both sides. For those interested, a shorter version of Record’s book was published in 2009 as a U.S. Army War College publication available here.
Allow me to briefly extend the ‘Top Five’ of Record’s historical lessons (within quotation marks below) to the situation with Iran today:
1. “Fear and honor, ‘rational’ or not, can motivate as much as interest”: A war between the US and Iran is almost certainly not in the objective rational interest of either party. Iran’s relatively anemic military forces could not hope to stop the inevitable onslaught from a massive, sustained, and technologically superior US air and naval campaign. Iranian nuclear, military, and any associated facilities (both economic and political) would lay in absolute ruins.
As a recently released report by national security experts entitled “Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran” makes clear, the U.S. will also bear substantial costs in the event of military strikes. These costs include: direct and indirect retaliation by Iran against US forces deployed throughout the region; strikes against Israel; a fractured international coalition concerned about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran; the “increased likelihood of Iran becoming a nuclear state"; “global political and economic instability….costing the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars yearly”; breathing new life into “anti-American extremist groups” globally; and unifying the Iranian public behind the hard line government in Tehran. All these costs are to be weighed against the most likely outcome of such military action which is to secure a four year “delay [in] Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon.”
Such a purely rational strategic calculus should compel policymakers in Washington, Tel Aviv, and Tehran to take any and all necessary steps to avoid military conflict while securing essential national interests (I’d suggest for the US: a non-nuclear armed Iran; and for Iran: a guaranteed right to civilian nuclear enrichment under international supervision). Yet, Iranians, Israelis, and Americans are fiercely proud and nationalistic peoples. Record reminds us that such nationalist pride, an exaggerated or wounded sense of honor, and the fear of being dominated by the other can overcome rationalist calculations of national interests and propel nations into unnecessarily costly wars.
2. “There is no substitute for knowledge of a potential adversary’s history and culture”: Iranians and Americans remain largely ignorant of each other’s history and culture. Since the 1979 Iranian revolution the historical narratives of both parties have been written in the language of distrust, confrontation, and hatred. Iranian leaders decry America as the Great Satan. Meanwhile, American policies have sought to overthrow Iran’s popularly elected leaders (Mossadeq in 1953) and currently aim at isolating, sanctioning, and punishing Iran rather than engaging it as an emerging regional power. Commercial and cultural exchanges in this hostile atmosphere have been reduced to a trickle, if not eliminated all together. This is the narrative of enemies fueled by a mutual lack of understanding and empathy.
3. “Economic sanctioning can be tantamount to an act of war”: Economic sanctions have proliferated as a tool of American foreign policy. They are frequently billed as a relatively ‘cost-free’ alternative to military conflict as they signal seriousness of purpose short of committing the nation to war. Of course, this ignores the obvious loss of commercial job opportunities for American companies. Moreover, the failure of sanctions to achieve their intended purposes can provide the impetus for a subsequent military strike as decisionmakers come to feel that all other options have been tried and exhausted. However, we often forget that the nation on the receiving end of these sanctions may well view these sanctions as a casus belli justifying their own military retaliation as did the Japanese in responding to US economic sanctions in advance of the Pearl Harbor attack. Thus rather the compelling certain Iranian behaviors (suspending uranium enrichment), US sanctions could impel a threatened Iranian leadership to take their own aggressive actions (military or not) in retaliation and retribution (threats to close the Hormuz & strengthening military and political support for Asad’s regime in Syria, for instance).
4. “The presumption of moral or spiritual superiority can fatally discount the consequences of an enemy’s material superiority”: Here again, leaders in Tehran and Washington are at great risk of overestimating the prospect of eventual ‘victory’ however defined. American politicians adhere rigorously (at least in public) to the doctrine of “American exceptionalism” -- the belief that America serves a unique (and divinely-inspired) role in the role promoting liberty, democracy, human rights, and justice throughout the world. Meanwhile, the Iranian doctrine of velayet-e-faqih gives religious leaders in Tehran a special role in both domestic politics and foreign affairs. Practical compromise on any issue of significance becomes virtually impossible when the participants themselves believe their policies and actions to be morally superior and therefore certain to triumph in the end despite the visible obstacles.
5. “ ‘Inevitable’ war easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy”: If American and Israeli leaders believe that Iran is engaged on relentless quest for nuclear weapons (despite the lack of concrete evidence and official US intelligence assessments to the contrary)….if Iranian leaders believe that Washington will never accept the legitimacy of their self-proclaimed Islamic government and will forever seek to curtail their rise as a regional power….then conflict indeed acquires the air of ‘inevitability’ that will lead both sides to conclude that armed conflict is required to forestall these ‘inevitable’ and ‘unacceptable’ outcomes.
Of course, none of this means that military conflict with Iran is a certainty. It does, however, suggest that policymakers in Washington, Tehran, and Tel Aviv will need to take steps that consciously avoid the path of least resistance which in this case could all too easily lead to war.
The author is a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the U.S. government.