“An Iran mobilized and empowered, and unchecked by the United States, will force on the whole Eastern hemisphere confrontations and decision points that are only latent today.”
But there’s another point that is almost never discussed, and it can be summarized thus: geopolitics abhors a vacuum. Iran is not a great enough power, even with nuclear weapons, to step into America’s shoes in the region. Someone else will try to, and we don’t have to guess who. It will be a competition between Russia and China, with Russia holding the lead at the starting line. Turkey, seeing herself under Erdogan’s leadership as a resurgent regional hegemon, will seek to broker it. Those four nations – Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey – will offer all the patronage they can to line up the other nations in their corner and block the advances of the other three. They’ll cultivate each other as necessary to establish advantage. They will have far less compunction than the US in their dealings with smaller nations and vulnerable peoples, as we have seen with Russia in the Caucasus, China in Tibet, and Turkey with the Kurds. But the nations of the region will have no choice but to seek accommodation and alignment with them. US power will be increasingly inert.
And borders will be breached at some point. Can Iraq’s fledgling democracy survive in these circumstances? Do Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen stand a chance? Whom will Libya and Algeria throw in with? How will all this affect Europe, and the tradeways snaking through its junction with Asia and Africa? And what will happen to Israel?
With the reactor being fueled at Bushehr, and assuming – with Moscow and Tehran – that Obama does nothing about it, we are moving beyond the static assumptions on which Jeff Goldberg’s piece was based. The symbolism of Obama not stopping this event is far more important, politically, than the reactor itself. Casting the issue as an Iran-Israel dyad is already outdated, but so is thinking only in terms of Iran acting against US interests in the context of current conditions. Everything is about to change.
Sadly, it’s in this kind of situation that the cavalier approach of America’s leftists to using national power can be the most dangerous. Obama’s apparent tendency to do “something, but not quite enough” – so much like Lyndon Johnson’s and Jimmy Carter’s – could put the US in painful, untenable, and bloody positions, if he seeks to take military action on the 1960s-era, limited-war principle of “demonstrating our determination.”
From the US perspective, it has always been the case that merely hitting Iran’s nuclear sites would provoke such a backlash that it wasn’t worth hitting only the nuke sites. If the hornet’s nest was to be stirred up anyway, the cost demanded a higher payoff: hitting the whole Revolutionary Guard infrastructure and crippling the national leadership. The political hurdle that objective represents has been an enduring show-stopper – as, frankly, it should be, at least up to a point.
Obama and his senior advisors, however, are fond of taking clever intermediate actions, which they characterize, regardless of their likely effectiveness, as “using all the tools of smart power.” If any president is going to use not-enough military force against Iran – if any president is going to decide to pursue a “calibrated” payoff that’s not worth the cost – it will be Obama. I’m not as convinced as Caroline Glick is that Obama won’t do anything about Iran. What I do predict, however, is that he won’t wield force in a way that justifies its use with a sufficiently decisive political outcome. I suspect that whatever he does will accelerate the deterioration of security conditions in the region.
If he were to slow down Iran’s pursuit of a bomb for a few months or a year, that would not, as they say, be nothing. Certainly it would be meaningful to Israel, as well as to many of the other nations of the region. But the Middle East, and perhaps most of the world, is headed for the chaos of a major realignment – and our president, who poses no obstacle to the politically-freighted light-off of the Bushehr reactor, is the same one who will decide America’s responses as the drama intensifies. If you’re a praying citizen, now would be a really good time.
Last of three parts.
Cross-posted at Hot Air.