Every discussion about the current Middle East conflict begins with the mandatory mantra, “We don’t want war with Iran.” Why not? That question is rarely asked.
Iran has declared war on the United States — militarily, legally, diplomatically, morally and politically. They have engaged in repeated casus belli (legal causes for war) since the mullahs took Americans hostage in 1979. Since that time, they have used their surrogates to attack American targets. We are entitled to respond militarily, as we are doing. But we are also entitled to go much further and treat them as aggressors who have effectively declared war on us. We are entitled to destroy their capacity to continue to wage war against us and our allies. The policy question in not whether we have a right to wage war against Iran. It is whether it is in our interest to do so.
It would be best if we could achieve all or most of the ends we legitimately seek without employing the costly and dangerous means of all-out war. That is what the Biden administration is seeking to do by attacking some of Iran’s proxies without hitting military targets within Iran itself. But can that limited strategy work?
Iran’s strategy has long been to use primarily Arab soldiers to do its dirty work, without endangering its own non-Arab soldiers and civilians— a sort of ethno-religious colonialism. That is why critics quip that Iran is willing to fight till the last Arab!
The Biden strategy plays into their hands. We are targeting Syrian, Iraqi and Yemeni Arabs in an effort to deter the non-Arab mullahs of Iran. So far that has not worked. Perhaps the recent escalation of attacks on Iranian proxies will enhance deterrence against Iran. But many experts believe that unless we directly attack the head of the octopus, it will simply grow more tentacles and continue its predation through willing surrogates.
There are, of course, alternatives less than all-out war, and more than attacks on proxies. They involve the bombing of military targets inside Iran. These include sites used for Iran’s nuclear program, its naval bases and ships, its military drone production, its oil and gas facilities and its command centers. All of these could be accomplished from the air and sea without a ground invasion, and without the loss of American lives an invasion would risk.
Such an escalation could produce many benefits, including the postponement — perhaps even termination — of Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear arsenal. It would weaken Iran’s growing exports of sophisticated military drones. And it would hurt Iran’s economy, which is used to export terrorism.
It is impossible to know for certain whether such a multifaceted attack inside of Iran would weaken or strengthen the mullahs’s undemocratic hold over the largely secular Iranian people, many of whom would welcome regime change — as would some of Iran’s Arab neighbors. One conclusion is clear: in the short term, a US attack on Iran itself would contribute to destabilization in the region. But in the longer term, it might well contribute to stability by reducing the power and influence of the most destabilizing entity in the Middle East, namely Iran.
Israel, too, is at war with Iran. Iranian operatives have targeted Israeli civilians and Jews around the world. Iran has effectively called Israel a “one bomb state” and has threatened to destroy it with nuclear weapons. Israel, too, has a perfect right to respond to these acts of war. Indeed, it may have no choice but to do so, to prevent Iran from carrying out its threats of nuclear annihilation.
The Middle East and the world would be a safer place without the current Iranian regime. It would be a far more dangerous place with a nuclear-weaponized Iran that could protect its surrogates under a nuclear umbrella.
If Iran can be effectively deterred from pushing its belligerent agenda without an attack within its borders, that would be the best outcome. So, Biden’s strategy should be given a chance to work. But if it fails — as history suggests it may— all options must be kept on the table. These include attacks within Iran, even if that means war. That may be the least worst among the many available options.