Lessons from Iraq

U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jeremy Todd

NEW YORK- Washington seems geared towards its third war in just eleven years. War Propaganda is in no deficit on Capitol Hill, reminiscent of what we witnessed pre-March 2003 when U.S troops marched into Baghdad under the “Coalition of the willing” umbrella, toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime in just four weeks. Since then, we’ve watched Maliki’s Iraq plunge into sectarian warfare, deep corruption, and chaos.  Hardly a ‘mission accomplished’.

By characterizing Iran as an armed, existential threat, like it did with Iraq in 2003, and drawing arbitrary distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ regimes characteristic of the Bush years (think ‘Axis of Evil’ speech), Washington is leaving little wiggle room for any effective diplomacy. Former Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans rightly pointed out that “the real world is a place of gray shades, not black or white”.  The ongoing aggressive war campaign on Capitol Hill should be viewed with deep suspicion and should be subject to rigorous public scrutiny to ensure Washington does not stumble into Iraq 2.0.

Following, America’s unilateral launch of the Iraq war, under the “Coalition of the Willing” umbrella, the international community began to seriously question the precedent being set in U.S foreign policy and whether Iraq was the first in a string of pre-emptive attacks to come. The contradictions were clear from the beginning. In February 2001, Colin Powell stated that Saddam Hussein was not a threat, nor did Iraq develop any significant capabilities with respect to weapons of mass destruction. Yet only twenty-four months later, he infamously addressed the United Nations General Assembly asserting that Iraq was aggressively rebuilding its WMD program and would likely share its technology with Al-Qaeda.  Today we hear a similar argument, that is, a nuclear Iran would likely be aggressive and contribute towards destabilising the region’s relative harmony in the last two decades.  Members of the GOP itching to go to war against the Persian state claim that Iran, like Iraq (pre-2003), would transfer nuclear materials and technology to notorious terrorist groups like Hezbollah.

Washington is unlikely to muster international support for a war against Iran, given its track record in Iraq.  Further, the moral wounds and bruises of Abu Ghraib have not yet healed. Unable to muster international support for a military intervention, like Iraq in 2003, America and its staunch ally in the Middle East, Israel, are likely to stumble into a full blown war with Iran without mapping a comprehensive policy outlining the goals of the mission and a clear exit-strategy from the Persian Gulf. America would find itself embroiled in another conflict in the Muslim world marred by deep antagonism towards the West and a hostile international community, in the midst of an economic downturn at home. It would also likely deal a severe blow to the wave of democratisation movements across the region, particularly in neighbouring Syria, as Assad’s brutal regime continues to massacre its own people and seems unlikely to cede power anytime soon. Waging a war on another Muslim country in the region would likely shift momentum away from pro-democracy movements and further strengthen Arab despots who, as a result, could justify state repression as a tool to keep the West out.

Furthermore, as Colin Kahl, former U.S Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East pointed out, “any war with Iran would be a messy and extraordinarily violent affair, with significant casualties and consequences”, and unlike Iraq, Iran has developed strong proxy relationships capable of inflicting disproportionate destruction.

A more limited military approach; a surgical strike to take out several Iranian facilities as Israel did on the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981 will likely backfire as it could spur strong domestic support for an Iranian nuclear weapon at a time when the regime itself is vulnerable to the forces of the Arab Spring. The Israeli strike that took out the suspected Syrian nuclear site Al Kibar relatively successfully in 2007 cannot be used as precedent to strike the Natanz or Qom nuclear sites in Iran. In contrast to Syria, the Iranian nuclear program is far more advanced, dispersed and beneath ground, making it difficult to wipe out its program entirely through airstrikes. Should Washington consider conventional war as it did in Iraq, it would be useful to understand that, while it would likely “win” a conventional war against Iran, Tehran is unlikely to play by the rules and would most likely use tactics like guerrilla warfare and air strikes on Israel through its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah to launch a strong offensive. Moreover, any disruptions or minor conflicts on the  Strait of Hormuz, would be economically disastrous for the West given that about a fifth of the world’s oil passes through the strait.

Objectively speaking, it is highly unlikely that Iran will abandon its pursuit of developing a nuclear capability owing to a fragile geopolitical neighbourhood and  a nuclear armed Israel on its periphery. Add to that the wide belief in the U.S defence community that Israel is preparing to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iran and you have a recipe for disaster as the seeds of mistrust on both sides spiral out of control.

The Republican presidential candidates have so far condemned President Obama’s more cautionary approach in dealing with Iran, pledging a tougher approach upon ceasing the high throne. The GOP’s portrayal of the Islamic Republic as an irrational, radical Anti-west regime shifts international public debate away from smart policy options, towards the “us” versus “them” mantra Bush and Blair espoused after 9/11.

There are indeed lessons to be learnt from the Iraq experience. Firstly; intelligence to justify the Iraq invasion was skewed, highly politicized, and taken out of context. Repeated warnings from the intelligence community not to use flawed intelligence were ignored by the Bush administration, according to Paul R. Pillar, who served as National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia from 2000 to 2005. Policy makers in Washington should heed the lessons from Iraq and pay more attention to intelligence officers this time around. There is little evidence to suggest that Iran has made the decision to develop a nuclear weapon capacity. The IAEA Report on Iran released in November 2011 should not be conflated, as there is little reliable evidence to suggest definitively, that Iran has recently resumed operations at its nuclear sites, though admittedly if it was weaponizing its behaviour might be indistinguishable from its present course. Joseph Cirincione and Elise Connor at the Ploughshares Fund estimate that it would take Iran at least three to five years to weaponize. Though the real concern with Iran’s nuclear program is that it may continue to enriching uranium up to twenty percent, thereby reducing the breakout threshold, should Ayatollah Khomeini and Ahmadinejad decide to given an order to weaponize in the near future.

So far, the preferred method in dealing with Iran has been tightening sanctions on the regime. In an effort to choke the regime and force them to come to the negotiating table, the Obama administration placed an executive order to restrict Iran’s access to international financial institutions.

For now, the Obama administration is likely to tighten sanctions and continue covert operations against specific targets and sites, according to Shashank Joshi, an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Tighter sanctions will continue to place strain on Iran’s economy, given its heavy dependence on oil exports in the international market. Playing the waiting game will have two desirable effects: firstly, it gives Washington’s dual-track policy of diplomacy and sanctions enough time to work, and secondly, it gives military planners additional time to develop comprehensive policy options, should Iran pursue its nuclear weapon ambitions aggressively.

At this stage, however, Iran like Iraq in 2003, has agreed to the partial admission of IAEA inspectors. Last time however, they were not given legitimate opportunity to verify Saddam’s nuclear ambitions. We can ill-afford another Iraq, not with the knowledge we have today.

If Washington does not heed the lessons from war-torn Iraq, and decides to unilaterally attack Tehran tomorrow, history will not be too kind to America.

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About amalvarghese
Amal Varghese is a Contemporary Debate Columnist for Access at the Australian Institute of International Affairs

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