Applying Lessons from Iraq to Iran
Today's New York Times includes a disturbing article concerning Iran's nuclear program. Although no "smoking gun" evidence has turned up linking Iran's civilian nuclear power efforts with weapons development, a dangerous pattern is emerging. As I've suggested before, this situation contains the seeds of a catastrophic oil market disruption, and we must hope that the parties involved have learned the appropriate lessons from the buildup to the Iraq War.
For the Iranians, the key lesson relates to the hazards of engaging in a "shell game" with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Although it is understandable that they might feel threatened by US rhetoric and wish to protect their expensive equipment, drilling tunnels and shifting centrifuge parts around the country increases our uncertainty, rather than decreasing it. This is exactly the wrong this to do, unless there is indeed a clandestine weapons program that needs to be hidden.
The Europeans and other members of the IAEA, on the other hand, must remember the impossibility of proving a negative--in this case that Iran has no nuclear weapons program. In all likelihood the best solution to this potential crisis would establish conditions to render a weapons program inert, even if it existed. That would require accounting for every gram of Iranian nuclear material and keeping it under strict IAEA scrutiny.
Finally, the US has to recognize the limits of our military power. In the Iraq War we assumed that the US Army would only be engaged for a relatively short time, replaced post-victory by coalition forces, regional forces, or a reformed Iraqi army. Instead, most of the combat power of this country is committed to Iraq for years. A third of the US Army's 37 combat brigades are in Iraq or Afghanistan, a similar number have recently returned for rest and refitting, and a like number are training and equipping for deployment there within the next year. We will have to play an entirely different hand of cards with Iran than with Iraq, or risk losing Iraq--and a lot more--in the process.
Unless all three parties to this situation avoid the mistakes of the Iraq War, we could be headed for a nasty confrontation and a big oil price spike, just when global supplies are already stretched tight.