If President Trump’s recent pronouncements on Iran are to be believed, it’s all but certain that he will not recertify the Iran nuclear deal the next time around. He is expected to accuse Iran of advancing its missile technology and supporting terrorism, which in his view would be a violation of the spirit of the Iran deal, formally known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Trump and his Iranophobe supporters are itching for a war with Iran, without any consideration of the disastrous consequences that will ensue.
It’s as if they have not learned any lessons from the Iraq invasion, nearly a decade and a half ago.
If the United States were to wage another misguided war against yet another Muslim country, plunging our country into another open-ended Middle East conflict in response to pressures from Saudi Arabia, Israel, and American weapons manufacturers, it would make Iraq look like child’s play. Such a misguided attack will unleash disastrous unintended consequences, including the possible toppling of tribal Sunni rule in the Gulf.
Lessons Unlearned from Iraq
At a National Security Council meeting the week after 9/11, a senior Bush administration official was clamoring for regime change in Iraq, erroneously claiming that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I turned to him and said, “If you want to go after that son of a bitch to settle old scores, be my guest. But don’t tell us he is connected to 9/11 or to terrorism because there is no evidence to support that. You will have to have a better reason.” In recalling this story in his book At the Center of the Storm, former CIA director George Tenet also concluded that the Bush White House, especially the vice president and his advisers, had already decided to invade Iraq despite the flimsy evidence they had tying Saddam to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. After returning from one of those critical White House meetings on Iraq in late February 2003, Tenet told me, “The train has left the station. They are going to war.”
The invasion of Iraq in March of that year proceeded without a serious examination of the sectarian dynamics in Iraq and the region. Nor were the war advocates in the White House interested in looking at the future of Iraq the “morning after” Saddam’s toppling, how such action would impact the region, the very real possibility that terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda would fill the vacuum created in the wake of the war, and the conflicts that would arise between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran..
The White House ignored multiple intelligence warnings that a “perfect storm” would engulf Iraq and the region following the initial invasion. Trump administration advocates for regime change in Iran seem oblivious to the post-Saddam storm that continues to rage in the Gulf and Levant countries 14 years after invading Iraq.
Trump and his administration can learn from history’s lessons and avoid similar mistakes. First and foremost, Iran is not like Iraq. Iran, which emerged as a modern nation-state in the beginning of the 16th century, has a large population, a rich and proud culture, and a sophisticated and committed military. Iraq was cobbled together by the British after World War I as a country—consisting of a Shia majority, a Sunni Arab minority, and a Sunni Kurdish minority—to further British imperial interests in the region. The British founders of modern Iraq at the time embraced the Sunni potentates in the region and imported a Sunni Arab outsider to rule over the Shia majority in Iraq. The country was ruled in this manner nearly 80 years, from the early 1920s until Saddam’s removal in 2003.
The American invasion of Iraq was a cake walk. If Trump decides to invade Iran, the US military will not have such luxury. The Iraqi military was forced to fight for Saddam and his Ba’athist regime, not necessarily for Iraq. The Iranian military and people will fight for Iran, regardless of the nature of their regime.
Several Shia groups outside Iraq, including the Iraqi National Congress and its leader Ahmed Chalabi, were clamoring for regime change in Iraq. The Bush administration at the time embraced Chalabi and was duped by his claims about Saddam’s fabricated nuclear WMD program. Furthermore, several regional states were directly and indirectly involved in the effort to topple Saddam.
Iran is in a totally different situation. No serious outside groups or self-proclaimed exiled leaders are calling for regime change in Iran. Unlike former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s dramatic speech before the UN Security Council in February 2003 showing “evidence” of Iraq’s nuclear program, Iran is not being subjected to such “facts” at the UN today. Those who favor invading Iran, including Saudi Arabia and Israel, are driven by their opposition to the nuclear deal and by Iran’s regional resurgence.
The Bush administration tried to sell the United Nations on the bogus claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and that it was a matter of time before a Hiroshima-type Iraqi “mushroom cloud” threatened the United States. By contrast, Iran has signed a nuclear deal to limit its nuclear program for nearly 15 years and has accepted an unprecedented intrusive inspections regime to make sure it lives up to the international agreement. By all metrics, Iran has complied with the conditions of the nuclear deal, Trump’s shrill protestations notwithstanding.
Saddam ruled by fiat through cooptation and the brutality of his massive security state apparatus. A decade and a half after the invasion and the demise of Saddam, Iraq remains a failed state mired in corruption, political uncertainty, and poor public services. Personal and public security is elusive, and Sunni terrorism is still prevalent across the country.
President Hassan Rouhani, by comparison, came to power as a second-term president through relatively fair and free national elections. Despite the regime’s theocratic moorings, Iran’s global trade and relations encompass many countries and regions. As a nation-state, Iran continues to pursue its interests and enhance its influence in the region, from Turkey to Afghanistan, which is not dissimilar to activities by other neighboring states. In fact, Iran’s Saudi and UAE neighbors are equally and perhaps even more aggressive in pursuing their perceived security interests against their Sunni Arab neighbors. The Trump administration should settle any disagreements it has with Iran through diplomacy, not war.
There are two other lessons that the Bush administration refused to learn during its determined push to invade Iraq. My analysts and I tried to highlight those lessons to President Bush and his vice president, but to no avail. First, Iraqis’ dislike for Saddam was not synonymous with liking a foreign invader. Iraqis told the US government repeatedly before and right after the invasion that they appreciated Washington’s help in removing Saddam, but that once the task was completed, US forces should leave Iraq.
Second, despite Vice President Dick Cheney’s claim that US forces were “liberators,” he refused to believe that “liberation” would quickly morph into “occupation” or that a prolonged occupation, regardless of the original intent and mission, would soon antagonize the local population and turn them against the occupying forces. When I persisted in my briefings on the need to consider the critical “morning after” questions before going to war, Cheney accused the CIA of undermining the administration’s policy, which of course was ludicrous. It’s ironic that it took Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld almost six months before conceding that his twin policies of de-Ba’athification and dissolution of the Iraqi military produced two unwelcome consequences—an insurgency and a civil war.
A war on Iran will most certainly disrupt the global oil markets and shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, Bab al-Mandab, and the Suez Canal. Aside from the inevitable destruction and human casualties, such an attack would result in Iran striking Saudi Arabia, inflicting serious damage to the Kingdom’s oil and water facilities.
More ominously for the Sunni regimes in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, a war against Iran would inflame the Shia populations in these countries against their Sunni regimes. Shia uprisings across the region could easily destabilize these countries, further escalate the Saudi war in Yemen, stir up the Shia majority in Iraq, and open a new Shia insurgency against American forces in that country. A war on Iran will also upend the fight against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups.
Not all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council will support a military aggression against Iran. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain would be the most enthusiastic cheerleaders while Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman would be more neutral. That will certainly be the death knell for the GCC. Nor will Qatar and Kuwait allow the US military to use their bases in those countries in the war effort. Turkey will most likely take a similar stand.
The Trump administration would do well to learn these lessons and consider the dire unintended consequences before withdrawing from the P5+1 nuclear deal and embarking on a war against Iran.