Over the past month or so, there appears to have been a subtle shift in the focus of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East from Iraq to Iran. There are ample reasons for this: the continuing Iranian uranium enrichment program in defiance of the United Nations, stepped up militarization including the development of longer range ballistic missiles, a budding Iranian space launch development program, and—probably the most troubling of all—provision of advanced munitions to Shia militias in Iraq. The United States has accused Iran of supplying “explosively formed penetrators,” a devastating anti-armor weapon employed in roadside bombs, to its Shia allies.
The Iranian-American relationship has been a key factor in our relations in the Persian Gulf for decades. Our assistance to Iraq during the latter years of the Iran-Iraq war was not about supporting Saddam Hussein, but about containing Iran.
Iran is currently involved in a proxy war with the United States over who will emerge as the power broker in the region. That proxy war is being fought in Iraq. An American defeat there will certainly embolden Iran even more.
For all their rhetoric, the Iranians fear the United States. When I served as a military attaché at various embassies in the region, I engaged my Iranian counterparts in conversation whenever possible. A consistent theme was that they feared we would bring our military might to bear on the Islamic Republic. One officer insisted that the mistaken downing of an Iranian airliner by the USS Vincennes in 1988 was a warning to Tehran that we would not tolerate an Iranian victory over Iraq. No matter how much I tried to convince him that we would not have taken such action, his mantra remained, “We got the message.”
It is perhaps good that the Iranians fear us, at least on the military level. They realize that we are not likely to conduct a ground invasion of Iran; it is a totally different situation than Iraq. They are afraid, however, of American air and naval power, especially given the increased reporting of American planning to attack key elements of the Iranian nuclear program. They learned about the U.S. Navy the hard way in 1988 when they challenged American warships in the Persian Gulf. The Economist described the resulting Iranian losses as “how to waste a navy.”
The Iraq Study Group report recommends that the United States enter into a direct dialogue with Iran. It is one of the few recommendations with which I agree. I believe Iran to be part of the problem in Iraq, not part of the solution. Therefore, our dialogue should be clear and compelling—cease your support of the Shia militias in Iraq or pay a price.
Only when the Iranian leadership believes that the United States is willing and able to back up the dialogue with force will they ameliorate their behavior. They know we can, they’re betting we won’t.