This Region Isn't Big Enough For The Two Of Us

Last week, Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice criticized Iran’s “emboldened foreign policy” and “hegemonic aspirations,” while asserting that the U.S. will continue to be engaged on economic, political and security issues in the Middle East. “We are there to stay,” she declared. ~Time

Some hegemonic aspirations are apparently supposed to be worse than others. Secretary Rice would like to make our hegemony in the region seem like a natural and appropriate pursuit of our interests, and cast the Iranian pursuit of regional hegemony as monstrous, when there are conceivably legitimate interests motivating both states. Set aside for the moment the obvious point that Iran’s ambitions in the Near East are basically less ambitious and less presumptuous than U.S. foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere from the 1820s on, and don’t notice, if you are able, that we are proposing to deny the obvious regional power influence over a region on the other side of the planet while simultaneously complaining about their boldness. Some people might call that hubris, but put that to the side for the present.

In cold, Realpolitik terms, the policies of an aspiring regional hegemon and the existing regional hegemon would appear to be in irreconcilable conflict. One or the other will yield, or, less likely, the two will find a modus vivendi to preserve the core interests of both powers. Failing that, war will come. This will be a war that will be likely to damage the existing hegemon’s grip and eventually lead to the deterioration of its control over the region.

It is decidedly not in the long-term interests of the existing hegemon (that would be America) to pursue a path that will lead to war with Iran. Short of full-scale war and massed invasion, which we have neither the manpower nor the public support to wage, Iran cannot meaningfully lose any such conflict. Iran can inflict enough damage on our forces and allies in the region and, potentially, on the world economy that we would have to be masochists to pursue this path.

There is a lot of talk out there about Iran’s nuclear plans being “unacceptable.” People who are no position to prevent something should not make declarations about what is and is not acceptable in another country. First of all, it reveals weakness rather than strength. Having declared something unacceptable and wrong and then failing to prevent it, you force yourself either to attack and expose yourself to great risk or you are compelled to climb down from your earlier, unrealistic declaration. I won’t bother with appeals to justice or morality, since those have no purchase with the advocates of bombing Iran. I appeal to raw self-interest: American power, reputation and influence in the world will all suffer significantly if the government attacks Iran.

As James has noted in passing, Iran is a great deal more internally stable than Pakistan. We have thus far tolerated and actually rewarded a nuclear Pakistan. At the very least, we might refrain from attacking a nuclearising Iran.