Thursday, October 11, 2007

We rush to war in Iran at our own peril

The beat of war drums along the Potomac — from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., to Capitol Hill, and from Neo-Con Central at the headquarters of the Weekly Standard to the halls of the Pentagon — is growing in intensity just as it did five years ago in the months leading to the invasion of Iraq. This time, however, the target over which the war hawks are sharpening their spears is not a relatively small and ill-prepared country in the Middle East, but a country larger in land mass than the state of Alaska and with a population nearly four times as large as Iraq's.

Despite the fact that many Americans would probably confuse Iraq with Iran on a map, lumping both together as "Arab" countries, the two countries are more dissimilar than alike. For starters, only about 3 percent of Iran's population is Arab, compared to nearly 80 percent in Iraq. Historically, the predominantly Persian Iran and its Arab neighbor to the west have been at odds more than they've enjoyed cordial relations.

Geographically, Iran presents a much more complex set of logistical concerns than did Iraq. Iran has significantly longer land and maritime borders than does Iraq. Iran borders three bodies of water — the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman; Iraq possesses but a tiny sliver of a sea coast. Iran's much larger land mass and population base, including potential armed forces strength of 15 million to 30 million, and its more homogenous citizenry, work to complicate military planning considerably — if properly done.

The economic muscle Iran wields, while weakened by corruption and inefficiency (as in Iraq), far exceeds that of its Arab neighbor — more than $600 billion compared to Iraq's anemic $88 billion. Iran's international trade, like Iraq's, is predominantly based on petroleum exports, and is about twice Iraq's. However, Iran's list of trading partners is much more diverse than Iraq's, which relies on exports to a single country — the United States — for nearly half its exports. Many U.S. allies, including Japan and Germany, are major trading partners with Iran. China figures just as significantly in Tehran's international trade. Further complicating the picture is the fact that recent intelligence establishes that China is supplying military arms and equipment to Iran.

By most other indices of economic development, Iran far outpaces Iraq (under either Saddam Hussein or the U.S.-backed Maliki government), including such indices as the numbers of telephones, radios and televisions, which provide the means by which the governing authority communicates with the population and its supporters.

While many in the United States delight in ridiculing Iran's president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad — a task made easy by some of the unusual positions espoused by the Iranian leader — such practice can beguile leaders into potentially serious miscalculations about the support the leadership in Tehran enjoys, and would enjoy, if the U.S. were to attack or to be perceived as attacking through surrogates.

Should Washington simply sit back and leave Iran alone — free to support terrorist groups and regimes in other countries, including Iraq, and to develop a nuclear capability? Of course not. Even considering that our lengthy and continuing occupation of Iraq has greatly strengthened Ahmadinejad, the United States has a clear and legitimate stake in what happens in Iran and with regard to matters in which that regime is involved elsewhere.

What is important, however, should be to quell the simplistic blustering by the White House and by many presidential candidates designed to prove each will be tougher on Iran than the others. Also helpful would be putting a lid on unnecessary and repetitive insults and threats directed at the Ahmadinejad administration — a pastime that simply strengthens the regime in Tehran and does nothing to build support for legitimate efforts to weaken the regime.

Positive steps could include strengthening economic and political pressure on Iran, and increased efforts to quietly but actively build on the deep base of political understanding that already exists among a large segment of the Iranian population (and including the more than one million Iranian-Americans).

Unlike the Iraqi population before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which had never enjoyed a participatory political system, millions of Iran's citizens have tasted and understand the benefits of such freedom. It would be a shame if, in a rush to prove something politically at home or abroad, the U.S. were to initiate a military confrontation that would not only destroy that base of support, but lead to a conflict vastly more costly and lengthy than the invasion of Iraq has turned out to be.— Former congressman and U.S. Attorney Bob Barr practices law in Atlanta.


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