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Europe has fought two Thirty Years’ Wars. The first destroyed nearly half the population of German-speaking Europe between 1618 and 1648, and the second claimed 10 million casualties in its first phase (World War I) and 55 million lives in its second (World War II). In both cases, a century of well-meaning efforts to preserve peace ensured that war, when it came, would last until two generations of soldiers and civilians had been slaughtered. Washington wants to avoid a small war in the Middle East today, and instead may set in motion yet another Thirty Years’ War in the region.
Iran cannot be persuaded to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Its peasants and urban poor gave an overwhelming electoral mandate to a government with imperial ambitions. The government cannot be overthrown, and cannot be derailed. But it can be beaten handily. A few hundred, or at worst a few thousand, sorties by US aircraft at this juncture could put an end to the matter now.
Why is Washington unwilling to take expeditious action? Iran’s influence in Iraq is sufficient to throw the latter country into civil war should the United States attack the Islamic Republic. On October 25 (A Syriajevo in the making?), I warned that Iran kept Iraqi Shi’ite militias under its control in readiness to blackmail the United States. US intelligence, I observed, has accused Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, of sponsoring the Shi’ite radical leader Muqtada al-Sadr. “If Washington believes that Muqtada is Khamenei’s dog, then Khamenei can credibly promise to muzzle him,” I wrote them.
US National Intelligence Director John Negroponte spelled out in essence the same scenario before the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 1. Negroponte accused Tehran of arming Shi’ite militants in Iraq, warning that Iran has the capacity to broaden the conflict into a wider regional war.
The peace camp, meanwhile, hails Muqtada al-Sadr as the arbiter of civil peace in Iraq. Juan Cole, whose website (juancole.com) offers a running denunciation of the administration of US President George W. Bush, reported on February 12 that the al-Sadr bloc in the Iraqi parliament determined the choice of Ibrahim Jaafari as Iraq’s new prime minister.
Writing in salon.com on February 3, Nir Rosen called Muqtada “America’s unlike savior,” explaining:
On the crucial issues that divide Shi’ite and Sunni, Muqtada sides with the Sunnis. He opposes federalism, which he believes will lead to the breakup of Iraq, and supports amending the constitution. SCIRI [the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq] and the other main Shi’ite party, Dawa, support federalism and refuse to amend the constitution. For Sunnis, federalism means the loss not just of the old Iraq, which they dominated, but also of oil revenue, and they are determined to resist it. Muqtada is their only Shi’ite ally. Inexperienced in foreign affairs and barely experienced in politics, Muqtada may nonetheless be the only figure capable of halting Iraq’s steady descent into a civil war that could ignite the entire region.
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah received the Shi’ite militant Muqtada in Riyadh last month, an extraordinary gesture from the Saudi monarchy that preceded another extraordinary gesture to Saudi Arabia’s own Shi’ite population. For the first time in a generation they were permitted to observe in public the mourning day of Ashura on February 8 (see The blood is the life, Mr Rumsfeld!, October 12, 2005). On Ashura, Shi’ites whip and cut themselves to express in streams of blood their grief over the death of Mohammed’s grandson Hussein in AD 680.
Both the concession to the Saudi Shi’ites and the reception of Muqtada represent Saudi gestures to Iran, which is emerging as the arbiter of power in the region. Muqtada already has warned that if the United States attacks Iran, his militias will rise in Iraq. That is not the only warning. “Iran is prepared to launch attacks using long-range missiles, secret commando units, and terrorist allies planted around the globe in retaliation for any strike on the country’s nuclear facilities, according to new US intelligence assessments and military specialists,” wrote the Boston Globe on February 12.
Much as Washington complains about Iran’s efforts to arm militant Shi’ites in Iraq, it cannot do anything to hinder this except to deliver and execute a military ultimatum. The longer Washington dallies, the more resources Tehran can put in place, including:Upgrading Hezbollah’s offensive-weapon capabilities in Lebanon.Integrating Hamas into its sphere of influence and military operations.Putting in place terrorist capability against the West.Preparing its Shi’ite auxiliaries in Iraq for insurrection.
The problem with postponing war is that the belligerents gain more time to prepare for war. Russia could not abandon the Central European Slavs without losing faith in its own mission, and Austria-Hungary could not accommodate the Slavs without destroying a multi-ethnic empire. Germany could not permit Russia to walk over Austria, for it might not be able to defeat Russia a generation later; France could not let Germany defeat Russia, for it would lose its last chance to prevent German domination of the continent. War might have broken out a half-dozen times prior to August 1914. Postponing war allowed France to cement its alliance with Russia, and France and Russia to ensure Britain’s support in the event of hostilities with Germany. A perfect balance of power gives each armed camp assurance if there is no ultimate motivation for war, but in the event of war, it ensures that war will be prolonged and thoroughly destructive.
The 30 Years’ War of 1618-48, by the same token, culminated a century of efforts to establish a balance of power between Catholic and Protestant powers in Europe. The 1555 Peace of Augsburg responded to episodic fighting between Protestant princes and the Catholic Empire, agreeing that each prince would establish the religion in his own domain. That did not prevent France from massacring its Huguenots in 1572, or the Spanish from suppressing Protestantism in the Netherlands. As Europe formed into two great and equally balanced camps, a revolt by Bohemian Protestants against the Austrian Empire precipitated the most terrible war in European history.
Today’s Shi’ites are the Serbs of the Middle East. Emerging from a millennium of oppression into majority power in Mesopotamia and Persia, the Shi’ites have their first and only opportunity to exact compensation for the humiliation of centuries. They have the misfortune to enter modern history at a point of maximum disadvantage for the peoples of the Middle East, who have few means to compete with the economic powers of East Asia. In Iran, as I have shown elsewhere (Demographics and Iran’s imperial design, September 13, 2005), they face a devastating economic and demographic decline one generation from now. That is why these choose leaders such as Mahmud Ahmedinejad in Tehran and Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad.
Washington does not wish to fight but will if necessary. The Europeans, and even the Saudis, will fight rather than allow Iran to become a nuclear power, although they wish to fight much less than Washington.
If Washington were to deliver a military ultimatum to Iran tomorrow, the results would be a painful jump in oil prices, civil violence in Iraq, low-intensity war on Israel’s northern border, and a wave of anti-Americanism in the Arab world – not an inviting picture.
But if Washington waits another year to deliver an ultimatum to Iran, the results will be civil war to the death in Iraq, the direct engagement of Israel in a regional war through Hezbollah and Hamas, and extensive terrorist action throughout the West, with extensive loss of American life. There are no good outcomes, only less terrible ones. The West will attack Iran, but only when such an attack will do the least good and the most harm.