Let us be clear: the invasion of Iraq has been a massive military and strategic success. Militarily, the Americans and British have managed to overthrow the Ba’athist regime and occupy Iraq for three years with minimal loss of coalition life. Strategically they have secured a new foothold in a crucial region, gaining control of the world’s second largest proven oil reserves and establishing their military dominance. And yet despite these triumphs, the growing orthodoxy is that the adventure in Iraq has been a disaster.
The view that the Iraqi invasion has been a success is seldom heard and is unfashionable to the point of ridicule. Daily images of bomb blast and blood bath combined with the assertions from respected opinion formers on the Left and the Right have led to a popular consensus that the US and British strategy in Iraq has failed. The arguments for this are seemingly beyond dispute, from the flawed intelligence that led us to war to the abject mishandling of the occupation. By misjudging the strength of the insurgency, the invasion has unleashed religious and extremist forces and fanned the flames of terrorism rather than creating a peaceful democratic Iraq. And yet to argue that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has been ‘a disaster’ is to fundamentally misunderstand the thinking of those who took us to war and has led to complacency among those who would oppose further Western military expansionism in the Middle East. Debate has focused on the divisive question of when coalition troops should be pulled out rather than the likelihood of further military action. The conventional wisdom urges us to believe that an invasion of Iran has become untenable after the ‘failure in Iraq’. This could not be further from the truth.
Disaster in Iraq
A central irony of the invasion of Iraq is that, whilst it has achieved virtually all its goals, it is widely regarded as a disaster. The reason for the seemingly contradictory nature of this ‘reality’ and ‘perception’ lies in the gulf between the professed reasons for the invasion and the real reasons that lay beneath. Of the reasons for war set out by Bush and Blair only one, namely the removal of Saddam Hussein, has so far been achieved. The other professed reasons have either failed or have been shown to be phantoms. The real goals of the invasion, namely gaining oil and strategic influence, have been met. Whilst the ferocity of the insurgency may not have been envisioned, the violence in Iraq cannot be too much of a surprise to the military planners in London and Washington. Although the creation of a liberal democracy, sympathetic to the West would clearly have been preferable, there is little doubt that an Iraq riven by sectarian bitterness and violence offers its own form of stability. To suggest that the Bush and Blair administrations deliberately unleashed the insurgency in Iraq is ridiculous, but equally ridiculous is to suggest that advisors and experts did not see its possibility. Whilst it cannot be said that they did not care about creating a genuine peaceful democracy, it is accurate to say that they cared about other things more.
The discrediting of the case for war put during the run up to the 2003 invasion combined with the chaos that has erupted in Iraq since the occupation has resulted in an on going analysis of legitimacy and wisdom of the venture. It has been within this framework that the success of the invasion has been measured and within this framework increasingly been judged to have failed. When the likes of Bush, Blair and Cheney try to proclaim the successes of the invasion they must also do so within the same framework. It is for this reason that they struggle. They are unable to herald their successes without exposing their real motives for the invasion. Whilst this must be frustrating for them, it does have the advantage of drawing much of the debate away from the real reasons for the invasion, allowing their wider vision to go largely unexamined. The growing feeling that further military action such as an invasion of neighbouring Iran, has become politically impossible may ironically make such an invasion more rather than less likely.
The arguments put by Bush and Blair for the invasion of Iraq have been toppling one by one. The argument about Iraq’s WDM capability started to unravel soon after the invasion whilst the idea that an invasion would quash terrorism has been also been roundly demolished. The promise of peace, human rights and stability has proved hollow and the new Iraqi democracy that was meant to act as a beacon across the Middle East has not materialised. Rather than create a tolerant unified unitary state, the new Iraq is increasingly controlled by hardline Muslim clerics supported by their own militias. The country is split by sectarian rivalries and, under the new Constitution, is likely to be broken up into three antagonistic autonomous regions. This might not seem like a recipe for a stable nation but paradoxically for Britain and America, an Iraq split between warring Shia, Sunnis and Kurds offers a stability of its own. A country divided by internecine fighting can offer little threat to its neighbours nor any genuine opposition to Western power.
One danger to this stability, however, is the growing Iranian Shia influence in Southern Iraq. Concerns about Iran’s influence in Iraq hinder the possibility of even a partial withdrawal of coalition forces from Iraq. By removing Saddam Hussein, the coalition forces removed one of the bulwarks to Iranian expansionism. Iran is rapidly becoming a regional superpower and unless checked, the US and British fear that Iran will seriously challenge Western control of the region. With the might of the American war machine positioned in Iraq, the US and Britain are unlikely to have such an opportunity again. In 2003 it took months to transport the military forces to the Iraqi borders giving Saddam Hussein time to prepare and the anti-war movement to mobilise. This time an attack on Iran could be swift. Militarily, forces are poised. Politically and diplomatically, the ground for war is being laid.
Paving the path to war
In his State of the Union speech in February 2005 President Bush singled out Iran as “the world’s primary state sponsor of terror – pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of freedom”. In September, the US and Britain persuaded the International Atomic Energy Agency board to overrule its inspectors and declare Iran in breach of the non-proliferation treaty. Whilst they refrained from calling for an immediate referral to the UN Security Council, Iran was accused of breaching international nuclear safeguards and committing suspicious nuclear activities.
In October, newspapers were filled with stories that Iran was supplying the roadside bombs to Iraqi militants used for killing British soldiers. Tony Blair issued a warning to Iran. Later that month, following President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s call for Israel to be “wiped off the map”, Tony Blair gave Iran a stronger warning, this time stating that the West might be forced to take military action.
Whilst these warnings could be seen as mere sabre rattling, the pattern seems disturbingly familiar. Repeated speculation of the security threat posed by Iran is reminiscent of the accusations made against Saddam Hussein. As with Iraq’s WDMs, the onus has been placed on the Iranians to prove that they are not engaged in a nuclear weapons programme. By finding Iran in breach of its obligations, the IAEA have paved the way for the drafting of a Security Council Resolution affirming the breach and sanctioning military action. Failure to secure this Resolution due to veto’s by Russia and China is likely to precipitate unilateral military action by the US and the British. The fact that assurances that no decision had been made to invade Iraq were made long after the actual decision had been taken, should lead to similar assurances about military action against Iran being regarded with some credulity.
And yet remarkably, this credulity is in short supply. The media, so vigorous in their critique of the current situation in Iraq, seem content to uncritically repeat the stories about Iran trickling from White House press officers and Downing Street spin-doctors. There is little doubt that Iran is a radical militant state but there is no proof that they have broken the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, nor supplied Iraqi insurgents with weapons. Shocking as it is, President Ahmedinejad’s anti-Israeli rhetoric is nothing new. What is new is that it is making headlines. The media are helping to ‘soften up’ the public for war. They are also complicit in helping to reinforce the popular belief that the US and British administrations have had their noses so badly bloodied in Iraq that it would be both politically and militarily impossible for them to attack Iran.
Militarily action against Iran is unlikely, so the logic goes, due both to Iran’s military strength and to the fact that coalition forces are already over-stretched. Iran is almost four times as large as Iraq and has three times the population. Its army would pose a much greater challenge than Saddam’s depleted forces did. Paradoxically it is this very strength that makes Iran more rather than less likely to be targeted. For the Bush and Blair administrations, it may well be preferable to launch a pre-emptive attack sooner, whilst coalition forces are in the region, rather than later when Iran has become even stronger. Failure to act now would allow Iran to increase their influence in Iraq and the region as whole, especially if there were to be a phased withdrawal of coalition troops from Iraq.
Whilst it is true that US and British troops are heavily committed in Iraq, there is little doubt that forces could be found. The coalitions massive air power, not currently committed in Iraq, could be used to destroy Iran’s the political-military infrastructure. This could be followed by a full or partial ground war and the encouragement of uprisings by separatist Kurdish and Azeri groups in the north-west. Indeed, there have been credible reports that the Americans have already deployed National Guard units around the Caspian Sea, which might signal the intention of a full invasion.
Arguments that the invasion of Iran is a political impossibility rest on the belief that Iraq has been so politically damaging for the US and British administrations as to make further action untenable. Although both Bush and Blair managed to gain re-election, they paid a significant political price for their decision to go into Iraq. Each man has been defined by the conflict and, for each, Iraq will be his legacy. Having come this far, both Bush and Blair are committed to completing what they have started in the Middle East. ‘Finishing the job’ in Iraq might inevitably entail ‘dealing with Iran’.
Failure to get UN approval for military action proved no hindrance to the invasion of Iraq and the idea that the public would never allow action against Iran presupposes a long build up to the invasion. An attack on Iran could occur with little or no warning, the justifications coming after the fact. If the massive public opposition to the war in Iraq had so little affect on political decisions in Washington and London, there is little chance that hastily convened protests against military action in Iran will fare much better. Once war has begun it is likely that public opinion will rally behind the troops and protests will become futile.
The feeling among those who opposed the invasion of Iraq is that events have proved them right. Even many of those who were in favour of war in 2003 have subsequently changed their view. The general consensus is not necessarily that removing Saddam was a mistake, but the way in which it was done has been sorely misguided. Critics of the war have become preoccupied with dissecting the case we were given for war and arguing about when and whether coalition troops should be withdrawn. It is not uncommon to hear commentators and activists drawing comparisons between Iraq and the Vietnam war. This comparison bolsters the idea that the Iraqi action has been a failure and ignores the facts. In Vietnam, 58,000 US troops were killed. In Iraq, the 2,000 American troops killed so far represent the lowest death rate of US soldiers in any major conflict in American history, other than the revolutionary war. Regarding Iraq as “another Vietnam” has the effect of inoculating the public against the thought that an invasion of Iran is even possible let alone imminent.
Rather than being strengthened by the war and the chaos that has followed, the anti-war movement, so visible in 2003, has been emasculated. The fact that their massive protests had no effect on the decisions of their leaders robbed them of their potency whilst their claims that the invasion of Iraq has been a failure have fed the belief that action against Iran is not politically possible. Rather than arguing against future action in Iran, the anti-war movement on both sides of the Atlantic have focused their energies on examining what was said and done in the past and demanding the immediate withdrawal of troops. This call has alienated many former sympathisers who feel that such a withdrawal would be an abjuration of responsibility, leaving the Iraqi people to an uncertain fate.
The invasion of Iraq has stirred up militant nationalism across the Middle East, not least in Iran. This nationalism aided the victory of the ultra-conservative President Ahmedinejad in the June elections, and has increased the volatility of this already reactionary state. Ahmedinejad, a man whose messianic glint outshines even that of George Bush, is aggressive in his rhetoric and keen to increase Iranian influence in the region.
And yet despite the fact that Iran might be a genuine menace to it neighbours, it does not pose an imminent threat through any nuclear weapons capability. If Iran did possess nuclear weapons, a more gentle form of diplomacy would surely have been applied, as with North Korea. Some may argue that unless dealt with now, Iran will go on to develop nuclear weapons, be it in five, ten or twenty years. This argument maybe stronger than the one against Saddam Hussein and his weapons capability, but it does not avoid the fact that an invasion of Iran based on the principle of ‘anticipatory self defence’ or ‘preventive war’ would be illegal. By allowing the concept that wars can be fought on the basis of what states might do rather than what they have done or are about to do, shatters the precepts of international law. A world where international legal principles no longer apply is surely a much more dangerous place.
Despite recent experience, signals that the Americans and British may be intent on attacking Iran are being ignored. The familiar pattern that is unfolding hardly raises a comment in the media and the public sit idly by, coddled by a false belief that the Washington hawks have had their wings clipped by ‘the disaster in Iraq’. Iraq is not another Vietnam, but Iran might become another Iraq. Seldom is the loop of history so short, but as witnessed so many times, history will repeat itself if people so allow. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me”, so the saying goes. If Iran is subject to an illegal invasion by US and British forces, shame on us all.