Iran's population is more than double the size of Iraq's, and it is four times larger than Iraq in total landmass. Iran is a more homogeneous nation, less susceptible to fracturing amongst its minorities- precisely the condition that made Iraq easier to subdue (though not occupy). Iran is wealthier than Iraq- unlike the latter, Iran seems to be tapping its oil wealth with relative efficiency. Furthermore, Iran has a formidable army- and well known arms. Iraq's weapons capacity was the subject of mere speculation (and lies?). Iran, on the other hand, flaunts its capabilities openly: just yesterday it tested a Shahab 3 missile with a range of over 1000 miles. Iran has suggested willingness to strike US allies Israel and the Gulf States, and can easily sow mayhem in its fragile neighbors Iraq and Afghanistan.
Noam Chomsky claimed that this administration targeted Iraq in 2003 precisely because it knew Saddam harbored little or no WMDs, and it knew that Iraq had been internally weakened by decade long sanctions. Bush could count on easy, quick, and politically expedient victory in Iraq (again though, he ignored the cost of occupying Iraq). Chomsky's argument always seemed sensible to me because North Korea was spared US military might, although it, too, openly harbored hostility and nuclear weapons. Unlike Iraq, North Korea was no easy target.
How does Iran fit in? War with Iran is extraordinarily dangerous. Either this administration is not serious in its saber rattling, or it deems the stakes especially high- high enough to warrant huge sacrifices, which, thanks to our experience in Iraq, we can already imagine too well.
The former possibility is refuted by Seymour Hersh's latest missive from Washington's policy backrooms. In his recent article in the New Yorker, Hersh reveals how the White House is currently sponsoring covert military operations (several hundred million dollars worth)- mostly through minority and insurgent groups- inside Iran, and how the Vice President eagerly looks for opportunities to draw Iran into direct confrontation.
The Bush administration is ready for war with Iran. This readiness is even more surprising in light of the fact that our military is already stretched thin across 2 very challenging, often frustrating, battlefronts. For this very reason, as Hersh documents, the White House circumvents military leadership in spearheading Special Operations in Iran.
If the White House is serious about war with Iran in the face of tremendous odds, then, Bush and Cheney must see exceptional gains at hand. What could they be? As with all things in the Bush-Cheney foreign policy arena, there are two angles to consider: oil and US power. Note that they are interrelated.
Certainly, occupying Iran would be a boon for the US oil industry, transferring nationalized oil fields into the hands of US and European energy companies. But even something less than occupation- mere confrontation- could cripple Iran's oil production, indirectly strengthening the hand of the US oil industry, and remove any remaining danger in transporting oil through the Persian Gulf. On the other hand, seeing how oil trading has proven increasingly jumpy of late- from the slightest geopolitical reverberations- war with Iran would surely send the price of oil soaring (is $250 a barrel inconceivable?). Besides, war with Iran could harm oil interests on our side, since Tehran has the Gulf States in its sights. Of course, this administration does not have to deal long with the political costs of a $250 barrel of oil... that will be Obama's or McCain's enduring burden.
But war with Iran is not about oil- exclusively. I suspect, rather, that it is a geopolitical power play, repositioning the US on a changed global stage. Cheney is this war's most avid supporter, according to Hersh's depiction. Our vice president has always been a cold eyed Machiavellian regarding foreign policy: the US must be aggressive and expansive in securing its national interests, and if cheap oil is that interest, so be it. In taking on Iran, this White House is indirectly aiming at our ascendant competitors in the 21st century: Russia, China, perhaps also India.
China's growing power is increasingly demanding of oil. Undermining Iran, a prominent oil resource for China, frustrates Beijing's rise. If war with Iran spikes the price of oil, China and India will be gravely wounded (as will the entire developing world). As for Russia, Putin has made it abundantly clear that Moscow intends to be a global power to reckon with in the 21st century- a power underwritten by astonishing native oil wealth. In Iran, the US has a target close to Russia- and close to its oil rich former republics, potentially influencing their political affiliation. Moscow hungrily anticipates European reliance on Russian energy, furthermore. Achieving some kind of Western control over Iranian oil production could diminish that reliance. This might explain why the French leadership is suddenly amenable to military action against Iran.
Iran is no third front in the War on Terror. War with Iran is a step beyond, to a new global conflict- a new Cold War, in a way- where the US plays its cards (in this case, the largest military in the world) to frustrate its opponents indirectly. Indeed, war with Iran could do more than merely frustrate our opponents- it risks doing real damage to many nations (largely poorer ones) by undermining or hijacking a prominent part of the world's energy supply.
Now this sounds appropriately Cheneyian to me. And Machiavellian- to a point. In his characteristic amorality, Machiavelli deemed it right and proper for a nation to go to war only when it can do so effectively, and victory is assured. As is obvious to all- Tehran included- the US is not able for another battlefront at this point in time, much less one as daunting as Iran. But this does not concern Cheney- he can strike now, and bequeath another lingering military debacle to the next administration.