In November 2002, an article was published in the New York Times with the headline: “An Iraq War Won’t Destabilize the Middle East”. This article was one of many produced in the years preceding the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which helped to support the narrative that this would be an acceptable or just war with little to no effect on the Middle East. Over the following decade, this narrative was thoroughly discredited. The war in Iraq, anticipated to be completed within a month, saw foreign forces deployed in the area until 2011. When a new Islamic terrorist cell, Islamic State, later emerged, the collapse of the Iraqi nation and its heavily damaged infrastructure meant that the terrorists were able to claim control over a vast swathe of the nation. As we stand on the precipice of yet another war in the Middle East, it seems the lessons learned from Iraq, Afghanistan, and U.S. involvement in Syria have gone unheeded. On 16th June, an article was published in the Wall Street Journal, promoting the current American strategy for its ability to ensure regime change. This article’s title? “America Can Face Down A Fragile Iran”.
A war with Iran would not be as simple as ‘Iraq 2.0’. It would be much more devastating. On the eve of war in 2003, Iraq was the 58th largest country in the world by area, and had a population of approximately 25 million people. The nation had an annual GDP of approximately US$20 billion per year; a mere drop in the global economic bucket. The justification for invasion was similar to what the Trump administration today is citing for a war with Iran; concerns over weapons of mass destruction. Most importantly, Iraq lacked any allies who would be willing to assist them in the case of a U.S. invasion. Saddam Hussein’s treatment of Kurdish minorities, as well as the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, had ensured Iraq’s status as an international pariah. The Iraqi military had been decimated following the Gulf War in 1991, and due to sanctions imposed by the United Nations it was later completely outmatched by the military technology of the coalition forces. When war finally came, initial fighting was over within a month. The remainder of time spent in the nation by foreign forces was spent on counterinsurgency and training the new Iraqi military. If there was one positive event that came from this war, it was that the regime of Saddam Hussein was finally toppled, and in its place a new democratic republic was established.
The situation in Iran is incredibly different. The nation itself has a population three to four times greater than that of Iraq, with over 82 million people at the last count. There is also a significantly greater area over which a U.S. or coalition invasion would have to exert control. Iran’s economy reflects its wider influence in the global economy: in 2017, the nation’s GDP was worth 439.5 billion USD. Reuters has reported on multiple occasions that recent events in the Gulf have increased tension between the U.S. and Iran and caused oil prices to rise; an invasion of Iran would likely see these prices spike. War with Iran would not only have a massive impact on the global economy, but could also lead to a huge refugee crisis, further complicated by the fact that Iran’s dominant religious sect is Shia Islam, as opposed to the Sunni Islam of other nations in the region. There have been claims that military action will help accelerate the process of regime change in Iran, whether it be due to domestic strife or to the foreign deposition of the current government. However, if regime change is to occur in Iran, it must come from within.
The current regime in Iran has a history of violent oppression. While the nation has regular elections, the position of Supreme Leader is dominated by an Ayatollah (a high-ranking Shia cleric), who rules in this position for life. Insulting the Supreme Leader can be met with lashings and prison time. While the nation may have elections, this is not a liberal democracy. Regime change, or a liberalisation of the nation’s democratic processes, would be a welcome development, but military force is not the path to doing so. Changing regime in Iran should not be seen as a military challenge, but instead a political one. The military change of regimes in both Afghanistan and Iraq have led to decades of counter-insurgency, and continued terrorist attacks which threaten civilian life on a daily basis. There are children growing up in Afghanistan today who have only known a world of conflict. This must not be allowed to emerge anywhere else in the world.
To achieve this, the United States must begin to tone down its rhetoric and its actions. The current policy of ‘maximum pressure’ does not have an end, but its focus should remain on economic and political pressure. The deployment of more military materiel and personnel to the region has not helped to ease Iranian fears of attack; instead, it has heightened their distrust of the United States. This should be followed by both parties returning to the negotiation table. The dominant issue at hand has been Iran’s supposed refusal to adhere to the terms of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. While international bodies, and Iran itself, have all claimed that the deal is being followed, the Trump administration remains antagonistic towards it. To solve this, both parties should return to the negotiation table with open minds. In doing so, they must attempt to find a deal to which all parties can happily agree. Following this, sanctions against Iran should be stopped. While they may help to bring the nation to the bargaining table in the short term, continued sanctions will only serve to increase tensions. They could instead be replaced with foreign aid and investment; a reward for moderate Iranian governments which seek greater engagement with the world. The current political leadership, under President Hassan Rouhani, has shown itself to be much more moderate than previous administrations. Whilst President, Rouhani has strived to make greater connections with the West and bring Iran back into the international fold. If his government can continue to make progress in this field, it may enable Iran to change its own political culture without foreign military intervention.
If war does break out, it is the people of Iran who will suffer the most. This cannot be allowed to happen. While the current regime may be oppressive, the people are still able to live in a state of relative peace; if regime change is to occur, it must be done by Iranians, in a peaceful and democratic manner. Military intervention in Iraq saw a decade of conflict; in Afghanistan, an entire generation. Western involvement in Middle Eastern affairs has caused more pain than relief. Peace is the way forward, but if war is unavoidable, intervention must be international in nature, and it must protect the people.