Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

The Absurdity of the Iran Obsession | The American Conservative

Posted by M. C. on October 21, 2019

By Daniel Larison

Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon have written an excellent article on our government’s Iran obsession over the last forty years. They begin by observing that the fixation on Iran makes no sense when we consider the huge disparity in power between the U.S. and its clients on one side and Iran on the other:

In balance-of-power terms, Washington’s obsession with Tehran is absurd. Iran’s population is one-fourth the size of the United States’, and its economy is barely two percent as large. The United States and its closest allies in the Middle East—Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—together spend at least $750 billion annually on their armed forces, about 50 times as much as what Iran spends.

Iran poses no real threat to the U.S. itself, and its ability to threaten other countries in the region is limited. Their government cannot possibly dominate the region, and there is not much to suggest that they want to try. A policy focused on “containing” Iran is unnecessary and a waste of resources. “Containing” Iran has become a catchall excuse for everything the U.S. does in the region, but this effort at “containment” is doing nothing to advance real U.S. interests and it has often contributed to regional instability. The U.S. has been stuck holding an unusually strong grudge against Iran that is out of all proportion to the harm that their government has done to us over the years. As Benjamin and Simon note, the U.S. has buried the hatchet with far more despicable governments responsible for tens of thousands of American deaths, but it remains trapped in a fruitless standoff with Iran almost half a century since the revolution in Iran began.

Despite the constant warnings we hear about Iran’s non-existent “expansionism,” Iranian power projection is not very great. Even Iran’s sponsorship of terrorist groups is not what it was:

It is true that Iran has committed more than its share of atrocities. Yet it is no longer the same country that it was in the 1980s, when its revolutionary Islamist government really was bent on remaking the regional order. Iran’s support for terrorism, for example, has diminished substantially in the last 20 years.

Compared to Sunni jihadist groups, Iran-backed terrorism is a much smaller problem. The oft-repeated label of “leading state sponsor of terrorism” that Iran hawks apply to the Iranian government is outdated and inaccurate. There are far greater threats to international security than Iran, but the U.S. insists on putting Iran in a different category from other states that engage in destabilizing behavior:

Iran’s activities are less damaging to global stability than, say, Pakistan’s support for terrorist groups that target India or Russia’s annexation of Crimea, yet Washington treats Tehran as a pariah while preserving relations with Islamabad and Moscow. There is clearly something going on that transcends strategic interest.

The Trump administration regularly demands that Iran become a “normal nation” at the same time that the U.S. has good relations and sometimes even close military cooperation with some of the worst and most destabilizing governments in the world. Iran is expected to meet a standard of being “normal” that the U.S. does not apply to many of its clients or to itself. Part of the problem is that Iran hawks remain stuck in a time warp and can’t recognize how Iran has changed over the last 40 years. They continue to explain Iranian foreign policy through the distorting lens of ideology, which keeps them from seeing that Iran has been acting defensively and opportunistically for decades. Benjamin and Simon write:

The archrealist Henry Kissinger famously said that Iran must “decide whether it is a country or a cause.” The phrase has been invoked by much lazier strategists to justify a permanent hard line against Iran. After all, if your adversary is motivated primarily by ideology, then it is less likely to be open to compromise or accommodation. The problem is that this framing has blinded many American analysts to Iran’s real motivations: maximizing its security interests in a deeply hostile environment.

Arron Merat made a similar observation in his interesting profile of Qasim Soleimani last week:…

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