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Columnists Daniel McCarthy US Politics

Does the end of the Iran deal mean war?

America has a long history of almost getting dragged into other people’s wars. Soon after the founding of the country, partisans of revolutionary France and counter-revolutionary Britain urged the US to intervene in Europe. A generation later, British liberals tried to enlist America in a partnership against the reactionary powers that rose in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat—this was the context of John Quincy Adams’s famous July 4, 1821 speech declaring that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

By the standards of our founding and early republic, an “American exceptionalism” that means “promoting democracy” by waging covert or overt war in the name of “regime change” is as un-American as Benedict Arnold. But in the long run, the creed of revolutionary France and British liberal imperialism merged into a counterfeit idea of America’s mission in the world. So now we get dragged into everybody’s wars, including those of Middle Eastern states deeply hostile to Christianity. (Try converting in Saudi Arabia. You might as well cut off your own head.)

Some wars we have to fight: the Civil War, World War II, the Cold War in Europe. Most we do not—what price would we have paid for not getting involved in World War I? You know something is wrong when it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose. Our country didn’t pay a strategic price for losing the Vietnam War, and we didn’t gain anything for winning in Iraq. On the other hand, leaving Europe to be overrun by Nazis or Communists, or both, would have ushered in a world order that America could not have lived with.

All this is worth keeping in mind when thinking about the end of the Iran deal, an agreement that in itself meant little but was fraught with symbolism. The arguments for the deal were always paradoxical: it was supposed to postpone, if not avert, Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. But this took for granted the notion that it would be America’s business if Iran did get nukes; indeed, the implication, usually unspoken, was that an Iranian nuclear program might be legitimate grounds for war. Hence there’s a lot of talk now about how the end of the deal makes war more likely—from some of the overheated laments, you might even think that bombing had already begun.

But here’s the reality: an Iranian nuclear weapon is no more menacing to the US than Pakistan’s nukes are, and would be less menacing than China’s or Russia’s weapons, none of which are seen as requiring the US to go to war. Nuclear arms have only been used offensively in a single conflict—by the US against Japan—and notably that offensive use occurred against a power with no means of retaliation, in a world in which no one else had nukes. Even the US might not have nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki if there had been other nuclear powers to worry about.

Nuclear weapons are, however, extremely effective as insurance against regime change imposed by outside powers. They are regime insurance, raising the cost of intervention against a nuclear state so high that even superpowers prefer not to risk it. (Significantly, nukes are not insurance against authentic home-grown regime change, as the fate of the USSR showed.) The consequence of an Iranian nuke is to take forcible regime change off the table, not only for the US but for Israel and other regional powers. For Israel and Saudi Arabia that’s a problem because it means Iran would be unconstrained, at least by the threat of outright war, in its ability to support for groups like Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Hezbollah are tough customers, but Israel can handle them. As for the Islamic civil war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, does the cause of liberal democracy really require supporting one pack of blood-splattered theocrats over another? The Middle East is not Europe, and he who controls the Middle East does not, as in the case of Europe in the 20th century, have a shot at controlling the world. Not that anyone can control the Middle East, whose repressive states and splintered sects and tribes will only continue to fracture. If the theorists of post-state “Fourth Generation” warfare are correct, Israel and Saudi Arabia might come to regret the end of Iran, if the anarchy that is unleashed touches them, too. The chaos created by the Iraq War certainly did not remain confined to that country’s borders.

The Iran deal had a flawed premise. Yes, nuclear proliferation is undesirable, but anarchy and war are even more undesirable. To the extent that the deal was seen as a symbol of peace, it was encouraging but misleading—Iran was still engaged in mischief, and the foreign and domestic interests clamoring for US intervention in the region were not quelled. On the contrary, the deal gave them a practical goal around which to organize. Now the mirage is dispelled and the reality laid bare. America faces a choice between diving deeper into the Middle East’s endless conflicts or heeding the counsel of John Quincy Adams and George Washington—by staying out of other people’s wars and revolutions.

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