Political memory in the United States can be remarkably short. At the end of the Bush administration and throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, it became clear that the majority of Americans wanted U.S. domestic and foreign policies to change for the better. Weary from two wars and a near economic collapse, America’s call for change culminated with the 2008 presidential election. 52.9% of voting Americans opted for a president who openly supported an Iran policy centered on “diplomacy without preconditions” to resolve the outstanding issues that have long fueled U.S.-Iran tensions. Nearly two years after taking office, direct U.S. negotiations with Iran have been limited to four days, and a (eerily familiar and unconvincing) campaign for war has begun. How we got here is predictable: the same special interests and partisan politics that influence many U.S. foreign policies. How to avoid another unnecessary war in the Middle East requires a sober understanding of the inevitable costs to America. Three key issues stand out:
1) Our nation has learned the hard way in Iraq that after war comes the responsibility of reconstruction. The approximately $58 billion per year that America spends on foreign assistance does not include the total costs for reconstruction and stabilization efforts in Iraq. According to the Congressional Research Service, if the Fiscal Year 2011 war request is fully approved, total war-related funding for Iraq will reach $802 billion — an average of approximately $100 billion per year. Despite these staggering numbers — and at a time of nearly 10% unemployment and unprecedented government bailouts — those who publicly and privately push for war with Iran consistently fail to answer an important yet basic question: How will we pay for it? It is no coincidence that many of the same politicians and pundits who led us into the Iraq war are now recycling their disproven arguments to make a case for war with Iran. As America continues to pull itself back from the brink of an economic collapse, making the case for another war on borrowed money is morally, fiscally and politically irresponsible.
2) We have also learned the hard way in Iraq that maintaining a strong military to defend the U.S. against foreign aggression is very different than attempting to act as policeman for the world. America’s top military brass has repeatedly said that war is a last resort to defend the U.S. from foreign aggression. And while it is prudent for all nations to plan for all potential scenarios, it is irresponsible to consider or advocate for the last resort before exhausting other options and resources at America’s disposal. Diplomacy is a powerful and effective alternative to political, economic and military conflict — and in the case of Iran, diplomacy has not been exhausted. Ninety-six hours of face-to-face negotiations cannot realistically be expected to untangle 31 years of institutionalized enmity. To address American concerns regarding any potential future aggression from Iran’s nuclear program, we cannot act as the world police and alleviate concerns through the use of force. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was unequivocal on this point: “The only long-term solution in avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is for the Iranians to decide it’s not in their interest. Everything else is a short-term solution.” If given time to succeed, tough-minded diplomacy can achieve U.S. strategic objectives vis-à-vis Iran at a fraction of the cost of another war in the Middle East that could irreparably break the back of our military and economy.
3) Perhaps most importantly, there is near-unanimous consent among Iranian human rights activists in Iran and abroad that military threats from the U.S. (or elsewhere) are harmful to their efforts to challenge the Iranian government internally. As prominent Iranian Nobel Peace Prize recipient Shirin Ebadi plainly stated: “The military option will not benefit the U.S. interest or the Iranian interest. It is the worst option. You should not think about it. The Iranian people — including myself — will resist any military action.” Minimizing government repression and maximizing freedom in Iran requires an America that seeks peace and avoids unnecessary foreign entanglements. Intellectually honest policymakers and pundits acknowledge that military conflict with Iran will strengthen the current government and provide it with an excuse to kill its political opponents — the courageous, diverse Green Movement — as was done during and after the Iran-Iraq war. In turn, this will set back the development of an Iran most all of us want to see: democratic, pluralistic, respectful of international human rights best practices, and fully integrated into the international market economy system of free trade.
War with Iran is by no means a foregone conclusion, but America shouldn’t kid itself — diplomacy with Iran is hard, and it’s going to get harder. This is largely due to the actions of the Iranian government, including the recent election fraud and long-standing human rights abuses committed by Tehran. However, dismissing war outright as implausible allows the discredited practitioners of our recent past to re-energize, re-group, and re-fashion themselves as U.S. foreign policy heavyweights rather than the authors and proponents of a disastrous war that continues to damage America’s political, economic and security interests. Preventing a wholly-avoidable repeat of an unnecessary war in the Middle East will require very hard decisions to be made in Washington’s halls of power. Given the poisonous history and politics surrounding the past three decades of U.S.-Iran relations, the situation can very easily spiral out of control. It is the responsibility of policymakers and pundits alike to guide America away from the illogical costs of war with Iran.
Reza Marashi is Director of Research at the National Iranian American Council and a former Iran Desk Officer at the U.S. State Department.