No, Let’s Not Start War in Iran Quite Yet

Norman Podhoretz and the architects of the Iraq War are back with another bad idea.

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In all but the most optimistic scenarios, a war to keep nuclear arms out of Iran’s hands would be a very costly endeavor. Literally, in some cases: The price of oil would probably spike far beyond the wallet tolerances of most American families; the world economy would suffer greatly as a result. The violence would probably spill beyond Iran’s borders and throw a deadly, turmoil-filled region into, well, more deadly turmoil — enough to make the wars in Iran and Afghanistan look like cake walks. What’s more, it probably wouldn’t even work that well, delaying instead of ending Iran’s attempts to obtain a bomb. And the consequences — for America, and the world — are pretty much the same whether America joins such a war, or lets Israel attack Iran on its own.

Naturally, such a war should start right away.

Such is the view of Norman Podhoretz, offered this week in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. Podhoretz, one of the godfathers of neoconservatism, was last seen lustily cheering the idea that the War in Iraq might be expanded into an Islam-crushing World War IV and begging then-President Bush to start bombing Teheran immediately. He’s … still at it.

Podhoretz’s thesis is two-fold:

• Despite a recent agreement with the United States to slow its program, Iran’s leaders will eventually obtain a nuclear weapon — and because they greatly desire a fiery apocalypse to bring about the end of the world (or, at least, Israel) that those same leaders will most certainly use a nuclear weapon against America or one of its allies almost as soon as they can.

• Better to suffer the consequences of such a war now than later.

He writes: “The destruction would be far worse than any imaginable consequences of an Israeli conventional strike today when there is still a chance to put at least a temporary halt, and conceivably even a permanent one, to the relentless Iranian quest for the bomb.”

Just a couple of problems with Mr. Podhoretz’s diagnosis.

• It assumes that the Iran’s leaders are crazy and hopeful for nuclear-fueled martyrdom. “As Bernard Lewis, the leading contemporary authority on Islam, put it in 2007, to these fanatics ‘mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent, it is an inducement. We know already [from the Iran-Iraq war] that they do not give a damn about killing their own people in great numbers. … They are giving them a quick free pass to heaven and all its delights.’”

That’s probably not true, as Matt Duss noted in a 2011 article for Foreign Policy: “In a 2009 article for the Brown Journal of World Affairs, national security analyst Andrew Grotto probed the question “Is Iran a Martyr State?” and found that such claims are unsupported by anything like evidence, but rather have achieved the status of conventional wisdom simply by repetition.”The martyr state view rests on bold, even radical claims about Iran’s goals and behavior that defy conventional expectations of states’ actions,” wrote Grotto, “but no government in recorded history has willfully pursued policies it knows will proximately cause its own destruction.”

In other words: Don’t believe the martyrdom hype, kids — especially when it comes from the same people who once told you that we should go to war in Iraq because that country couldn’t be contained, either. We did learn some lessons in Iraq, yes?

• It assumes war is inevitable no matter what. It’s either conventional rubble now or nuclear rubble later, Podhoretz asserts. The problem for that view is that America and/or Israel have seemingly been months or even weeks from war with Iran for most of the last decade. A 2010 article in The Atlantic made it seem likely the war would occur within a year. Three years later, still no war.

That’s a lot of war that hasn’t been fought. A lot of lives that haven’t been lost. It may be that we’re simply lucky not to have gone to war with Iran yet, but lordy: Given the likely consequences of a war, why not ride that string of luck as far as we can?

• It probably won’t be that effective. Among those who have studied the consequences of an attack on Iran, there’s one consistent prediction: It delays obtaining a nuke by about a year. A war is a high, deadly price to pay for so little benefit.

The future is ambiguous and always in flux: We don’t know with any certainty what happens if Iran finally completes a nuclear bomb. Maybe the hawks are right and the worst-case scenario is right; but maybe they’re wrong. Podhoretz and his ilk would have us trade ambiguity about the future for the certainty of death and suffering now. I’d rather take a chance, and wait. Hopefully the Israelis, for all their bluster, feel the same way too.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.