Risks of a Conflict with Iran

Shireen Hunter

The Associated Press has reported that last weekend’s talks between Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani and the EU foreign Minister Javier Solana were constructive and that Iran indicated that it could accept a voluntary and temporary suspension of its uranium enrichment activities while negotiations continue with Europe over its incentive package.

At the same time, however, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, during his tour of the Middle East, stated that any compromise with Iran would be “a historic mistake” because of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s statements regarding Israel. Nobody in Iran, even Iranian hardliners, now has any doubt that Ahmadinejad’s statements regarding Israel and the Holocaust were both morally wrong and damaging to Iran’s interests, although not everyone is willing to say so openly. Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad‘s other statements that Iran is no threat to any country, including Israel, have been dismissed as mere propaganda and camouflage. He did implicitly retract his statements regarding Israel; but he should have done so more clearly and forcefully than he did.

Yet despite legitimate objections to these statements and some aspects of Iran’s behavior the question remains: do they justify a military attack? That question would inevitably be raised once sanctions failed to achieve the US desired goals of ending Iran’s nuclear ambitions, changing its regime, and replacing it with a democratic and pro-Western government.

Based on the reality that the Iranian nation is likely strongly to oppose any military action against it, along with military experience in other places, notably the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – war on Iran, at least in the immediate future, does not seem very likely. Moreover, even if the US and Western goals could be achieved, what would be the human and material cost for the US and its allies?

First, it would be a great mistake to believe that mere air attacks, even if massive, would either lead to the collapse of the government in Iran or to massive ethnic uprisings that would produce the same outcome. What is more, if the latter scenario were to be realized, ethnic uprising would not remain limited to Iran. A Kurdish Revolt in Iran would worsen Turkey’s Kurdish dilemma. Ethnic unrest in Iranian Azerbaijan would negatively affect the Republic of Azerbaijan, unleashing separatist revolts among its Tallish and Lezgin minorities that have been restive since the USSR’s collapse. Furthermore, some Azerbaijani Shias might very well side with Iran, thus further destabilizing the Republic. 
In addition, troubles in Iran’s Baluchistan would exacerbate an already unstable situation in Pakistan, and, finally, unrest in Khuzestan would worsen security conditions on the Arab part of the Persian Gulf.

Indeed, if there were massive ethnic unrest in Iran, the most likely result would be a kind of civil war with regional repercussions which would make Iraq and Afghanistan look peaceful and stable.

Under these circumstances, in all likelihood the Iranian military, especially the Revolutionary Guards, would gain the upper hand and any hopes of democratization would disappear. Faced with national annihilation, most Iranians would unite and the widespread good will toward America which exists in Iran, despite its government’s anti-American tirades, would dissipate and be replaced with animosity. At the same time, given the disconnect between official and popular views in the Arab world regarding Iran, the US image would further suffer in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The cost to the US and allies of military action in Iran would also be high. As it is unlikely that air attacks along would be sufficient to cripple the Iranian nuclear industry, the US and its allies would have to occupy at least southern Iran. If even a fraction of assumptions about Iran’s desire to be a hegemon in the region proved to be true, the Iranians would retaliate by one means or another, hence the high risk of human loss and damage to other US interests in the Middle East. The material cost of occupying Iran would also be very high, if Iraq is any indication.

Last but not least is the potential impact of military action against Iran on oil prices and in turn the latter’s consequences for the US and global economies. Iran sits astride the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf and has the clear ability to disrupt the flow of a major share of the world’s exportable oil. Furthermore, instability in Iran could also affect the flow of Azerbaijani oil through the Baku–Jeyhan pipeline.

This analysis is not intended as advocacy for a particular line of action. It is rather a warning that, before starting on the road to confrontation with Iran, the US and its allies not be guided by wishful thinking or by the analysis and assessments of those who have their own objectives in Iran and in the region and that are not necessarily those of the US and the West. The US and its allies succumbed to the siren call of overly-optimistic opposition figures and foreign policy analysts regarding Iraq. It would be tragic to make the same mistake twice.

Shireen Hunter is a Visiting Professor at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.