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War with Iran would be a grave error

Iran has extensive military resources and a well-trained army. Credit: Getty

January 3, 2024 - 4:00pm

“Iran is a terror octopus,” wrote Naftali Bennett, Israel’s former prime minister, on X last week while sharing an article he had written for the Wall Street Journal. “It’s time for the US and its allies to target its head, Tehran, and bring down its regime.”

That same day John Bolton, previously a national security advisor to Donald Trump, made essentially the same argument in the Telegraph. “It has been clear for years that overthrowing the mullahs, [and] replacing them with some other form of government that enjoys the support of Iran’s citizenry, is central to decreasing insecurity throughout the Middle East,” he wrote. 

The accusation, that a large part of Iranian foreign policy operates through regional proxies, is entirely fair. Tehran has strong relationships with all the groups mentioned, as well as politically powerful militias in Iraq and Syria. There is also no doubt that groups supported by Iran are creating political volatility across the Middle East and beyond. But would war with Iran really solve these problems and make the region “less insecure”, as Bolton claims?

Events have clearly escalated. On Tuesday, senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri was killed by an alleged Israeli attack in Lebanon, suggesting that the Gaza conflict is set to spread further. Earlier today, over 100 people were killed as a result of two explosions in Kerman on the fourth anniversary of the American assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. In addition, according to US Central Command, the Houthis are now responsible for 23 attempted strikes on commercial shipping in the Red Sea since mid-November. Meanwhile, US troops stationed in Iraq and Syria have been attacked more than 100 times since the start of October.

These incidents are directly connected to what is occurring in Gaza, with Abu Alaa al-Walaei, head of the Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada group in Iraq, declaring they would not end without a ceasefire there. Similar sentiments exist across much of the Muslim world, with or without Iranian assistance, but what Tehran brings is military intelligence and hardware capabilities such as drones and precision-guided missiles

It is beyond doubt that Iran is a major thorn in the side of both the US and Israel, but the benefits of a confrontation appear dubious. Just as the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the catalyst for Iranian influence in its western neighbour, Saudi Arabia’s war with Yemen did the same for the Arabian peninsula after 2015. War, like so much else, can succumb to the law of unintended consequences. Even after the debacles of the last 20 years, that is something too few decision-makers in the West seem able to grasp.

A failed state with a population of 90 million people is an attractive proposition to very few outside neoconservative circles in Washington. Further, it is rarely mentioned how the successor to the present regime in Tehran would likely be some form of military autocracy. This was, after all, the milieu from which Reza Shah emerged a century ago when he overthrew the Qajar dynasty. Among the swollen ranks of the country’s Revolutionary Guard there are many figures who would excel in the vacuum of an Iraq-style war. There is also no guarantee that a post-theocratic Iran — led by military men and ultra-nationalists — would be more stable, or friendly to its neighbours, than at present. 

The potential downsides of a botched war with Iran, a nation three times the size of Iraq, are hard to exaggerate. The country’s landmass is the size of Germany, France and Ukraine combined, while decades of sanctions have made it an industrial autarky which produces more steel than any EU country except Germany. 

Iran has the capacity to feed itself, enjoys an abundance of fossil fuels (whose sale, as with Russia, has blunted the effectiveness of US sanctions), and has an impressive military-industrial complex. The Mohajer-6 is comparable to the much-vaunted Bayraktar drones produced by Turkey, and the Quds Force is among the most feared extraterritorial services in the region. The country claims to have developed a hypersonic missile — although the veracity of this remains to be seen

This is all before touching on the fact that retaliation via proxies would be a disaster. A blockade of the Strait of Hormuz — central to Iranian self-defence doctrine — would send energy prices far higher than last year. But to America, that is perhaps not a major concern: high energy prices aren’t all bad for a net exporter like the US. While millions of displaced Iranians might head west as refugees displaced by war, few would cross the Atlantic — so it’s easy to see why the likes of John Bolton are calling for war. Insulated by two giant oceans, America sees few of the downsides when things go wrong. 

While war with Iran might not be good from Washington’s perspective — particularly if large sums of money are spent and casualties suffered — for Europe it would be an unadulterated disaster. Given the key foreign policy decisions made by the US in recent decades, we are entering very dangerous waters.


Aaron Bastani is the co-founder of Novara Media, and the author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism. 

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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
6 months ago

The problem is Americans are just no good at foreign policy. We haven’t had a successful foreign policy since 1846. I think that part of the reason is that, deep down at a subconscious level, Americans don’t really believe the rest of the world exists. America is so vast, both geographically and culturally, that it forms a world in itself, and navigating that world demands all our mental energy with none left over for everybody else who’s not an American. So we don’t take our foreign policy as seriously as, say, a Croatian or an Eritrean or an Israeli. We say we do, but secretly we assume that our missiles and our money and our movies and our Coca-Cola and our Americanness will be more than adequate to meet any challenge, and so you have people like John Bolton blithely tossing off the idea that we should attack a would-be regional hegemon, because anything bad that happens will happen over there, where the countries’ fundamental purpose is as tourist destinations and the people are extras from a Cecil B. DeMille picture.
That’s one of the reasons 9/11 was so traumatic to America–it was the sort of thing that happens over there, but it happened over here, and things like that just don’t happen over here. It’s also why the reflex of the managerial elite in America was to ask, “What did we do?” As if those cardboard cut-outs who live overseas and provide a quaint and picturesque backdrop for American adventures had any agency of their own.
Of course, America is one nation among many–a larger, wealthier, and more powerful nation, to be sure–which we forget at our peril. Other nations and other peoples have their own histories, often much richer and longer and deeper than our own, and they have their own interests and their own agency, which quite frequently have nothing at all to do with us. I’m not saying anything original here, but as Samuel Johnson pointed out, people more often need to be reminded than instructed.

T Bone
T Bone
6 months ago

You made alot of really good points. I’m not sure America has ever had a consistent foreign policy outside of the Monroe Doctrine…which protected its sovereignty and now seems irrelevant due to the continuous border caravans that’s made national security impossible.

I don’t claim to be a foreign policy expert but we seem to be taking nothing but foreign policy half-measures that satisfy nobody. I don’t buy into absolute Isolationism but its a more coherent strategy than what we’re currently doing.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Thanks to the US we Europeans got rid of Hitler, they kept the Soviets out, and they saved the furniture in ex-Yugoslavia. I am still grateful for that.

j watson
j watson
6 months ago

Strange you think US foreign policy been a catalogue of failure since 1846 yet in the intervening period they became the World’s strongest nation helping win two World Wars, the second against murderous Totalitarians, and then by 1990 emerge successfully from the Cold War. The Dollar remains the World’s reserve currency and western capitalism spread around the Globe lifting billions out of poverty.
Now there is a catalogue of mistakes and some major failures too. Some hard lessons have needed re-learning – Vietnam and Iraq being obvious example – but you also live in v peaceful times in the West (the longest peace ever) and much of that is because the US became the country it did. You’ve never been conscripted, and I suspect never had to go and fight. It is only recent generations in the West that have experienced that and we often forget it. Of course it’s a fair partial criticism that some conflict has been exported, but still weighed in the balance the hegemony of the US has been a good thing for the World. Now for that to have happened the foreign policy cannot have been a catalogue of failure, or you have a v narrow view of such policy.

R Wright
R Wright
6 months ago
Reply to  j watson

America became a hyperpower by cannibalising the bankrupted European empires. It didn’t take any farsighted intelligence.

David Giles
David Giles
6 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

Nonsense, just nonsense.

Jim Haggerty
Jim Haggerty
6 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

Could you provide a few examples of that? Thanks

R Wright
R Wright
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Haggerty

Gulf states
UAE
Greece
India
Saudi Arabia
Iran
Suez

Those are just the British examples I can think off the top of my head. The U.S bankrupted Britain, essentially annexed its influence in the east and used the United Nations as a tool to demolish what was left. France was much better at blocking this noxious neo-imperialism with liberal characteristics, but they have their own problems.

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
6 months ago
Reply to  j watson

I would argue that there is a difference between being successful on the international stage and having a successful foreign policy. That is, I would say that America has been successful in spite of its foreign policy, not because of it. America was triumphant in World War I and World War II, but America’s foreign policy, right up until the Zimmerman Telegram and Pearl Harbor, had been isolationist, and it was only after we had been attacked that we devoted ourselves to defeating the Germans and the Japanese. Had we had a more adroit foreign policy prior to the world wars, our involvement–and indeed, the wars themselves–might have been avoided. By way of a supporting example, both France and Britain were on the winning side of World War II, but both countries were committed to an anti-war stance throughout the 1930s; their foreign policy, to avoid a war with Germany, was an abysmal failure, and the fact that they were ultimately the victors does not mitigate that.

j watson
j watson
6 months ago

US foreign policy in lead up to Dec 41 moved from complete isolationism to active support for Britain and it’s Allies. Roosevelt was treading a careful line and Churchill at his v best in wooing, but the US had aligned itself with a democracy before formal declaration of War post Pearl Harbour. It could have been different if Lindbergh had won the Presidency. It’s a pretty fundamental shift that happened and it wasn’t just reactive.
More broadly I think our difference is you may tend to focus on the more explicitly stated elements of Policy and miss the bedrock underlying Policy. The US, despite many mistakes, has not invaded and sought to conquer others. It doesn’t have imperial colonies in the old sense nor seeks that. If it’s invaded it’s been to try and protect a western liberal order more often, sometimes mistakenly, but with good intent. The UN would not exist without the US either. So I think we miss there is something about western values that have percolated around the Globe that US policy has fundamentally assisted, and despite many mistakes as I’ve noted, thank goodness for it. You’d be living in a v different world otherwise.

herbertira.goldman@gmail.com goldman
herbertira.goldman@gmail.com goldman
6 months ago
Reply to  j watson

Ithought the US had invaded or engineered regime change in other countries 80 times sinceWW2 ) though usually not to its national interests.Killing Mosadegh led to to the rise of the clergy and fierce hatred toward theUS in Iran. Iraq post US invasion is drifting into the Iranian sphere. When Sadam Husein was “doing it to his own people” we were aiding him to fight his war with Iran. The betrayal of Ho Chi Minh who was our ally in WW2 in favor of colonial France and killing 3million Vietnamese to make SE Asia safe for coca-cola was despicable. But let’s not forget that most of these acts occurred in our hemisphere. Dozens of invasions in Hispaniola. Half of what once was Mexico is now US. All this to defend capitalism and corporate interests.

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
6 months ago

Membership of the BRICS doubled on Monday, and one of the new members is the United Arab Emirates, which will soon own the Telegraph Group. In its present form, the flagship of that is so delirious with demob happiness and with the death rattle that it is publishing John Bolton, who as much as anything else would certainly not be reprising his role in a Trump Administration. Even by Keir Starmer’s usual standards, how ridiculous he looks for having tried to cosy up to the Telegraph as we have known it. Its last days should also be his, in these days when topdrawer Arabism may be returning to the Foreign Office to protect us from his jumped-up oikishness and from Tony Blair’s.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
6 months ago

War with Iran would be a grave error
Possibly – though it was UNDENIABLY a grave error for Joe Biden to appease Iran.
It was significant that Biden, in his statements towards Israel and condemnation of Hamas, never once mentioned Iran. Why? Was it from a sense of guilt?
Dare I say it but the charge sheet against him is pretty damning:
If you wanted to be uncharitable, you could easily make the case that Biden had both armed and financed the terrorists that attacked Israel.
Iran has recieved $39.5 billion since Biden took office – thanks to his relaxing of sanctions. That buys a whole lotta terror. Possibly the risk of losing such largesse is what has kept Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies out of the war, thus far.
Military analysts have suggested the M4 rifles Hamas terrorists were toting are from the $7billion cache of materiel left for the Taliban after the panicked withdrawal from Kabul. Another unintended but woefully predictable consequence of Biden’s foreign policy.
It seems clear the timing of the attack was to sabotage chances of Sunni states like Saudi Arabia normalising relations with Israel. Biden’s actions (and inactions) are undermining the best chances for Middle East peace we’d seen in a generation. Another notable foreign policy failure.
Biden’s public utterances on his trip to Israel were cringe-inducing. Describing the murderous thugs of Hamas as “the other team”. Then talking about the rocket fired from Gaza that landed on their own hospital, suggesting that Hamas “gotta learn to shoot straight”. Who, in their right mind, could say such a thing days after Hamas had murdered 1400 Israelis?
In an increasingly dangerous world, we need strong leaders who project strength, resolve and good judgement. Biden’s obvious weakness emboldens all the enemies of the West. Military power, now we are beyond the era of empire building, is mainly about deterrence. Nothing about Biden’s presidency would deter anyone. Weakness merely invites attack.
We want to avoid escalation into a full-blown multi-front war in the middle east – but although it might be a grave error to provoke Iran into war, in time it might become inevitable.

D Walsh
D Walsh
6 months ago

War with Iran would be a total disaster, its a terrible idea. So I’m pretty sure it will happen. The neocon are insane, and Americans are idiots to fight their wars

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
6 months ago

I believe that the writer, Mr Bastani, is half-Iranian so his views have to be important.
I agree with him on one important thing:- for 100 years the West has been trying to sell democracy to the Arab countries and it has never been accepted. It probably never will be accepted until religion is separated from the state. So warring with the present leaders just means more of the same for the future – more strong men, more religious men – for ever and ever. Pointless.

Saffron Bun
Saffron Bun
6 months ago

Agree with this article in all spirit, but a quick factual correction:

“Earlier today, over 100 people were killed as a result of two explosions in Tehran on the fourth anniversary of the American assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.”

The outrageous attacks took place the eastern city of Kerman, not Tehran.

Niels Georg Bach Christensen
Niels Georg Bach Christensen
6 months ago
Reply to  Saffron Bun

But done by ISKP Islamic State.

Thor Albro
Thor Albro
6 months ago

Define “war”. How about surgical MOAB strikes on every suspect nuclear facility and destruction of their oil production, along with a few choice personnel facilities?

Yes, we have hopefully learned the folly of Regime Change, but neutering an aggressor’s infrastructure is not so problematic. Don’t be outraged: it’s coming, probably within the next 3 years.

Iran succeeds ONLY by hiding behind the West’s liberal sentiments.

D Walsh
D Walsh
6 months ago
Reply to  Thor Albro

I think you will get your war TA, but it will do you no good

If you start bombing Iran you can kiss the global economy goodbye. Oil prices 200 maybe 300+ a barrel, on top of that you would probably fail in destroying their nuclear infrastructure, I can only see downsides, its only something the Neocons and brainwashed fools would argue for

I bet you’re loving all the death and destruction in Gaza

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
6 months ago
Reply to  D Walsh

If Iran is attacked, I don’t think any other country in the Middle East will come to help them! A surgical strike to get rid of the mullahs, however, will definitely be appreciated by the younger Iranian population.

martin cole
martin cole
6 months ago
Reply to  Thor Albro

Exactly right. That’s the paradox of western democracy, simultaneously the most powerful ( for now at least) and also the most vulnerable to its own relative transparency. Long may it continue!

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
6 months ago

US policy in the Middle East leading to results opposite to those intended? Surely not…

j watson
j watson
6 months ago

I doubt even the most hawkish US NeoCons, far right Israeli’s or Saudi Sunni’s hoping the former two will do the job for them, seek a full blown war with Iran. The debate will be more about the degree it’s proxies will be hit, and whether at some point a strike on nuclear facilities necessary. So the Article a bit of classic clickbait.
Containment will remain the strategy. The Iranian regime is not as secure as we sometimes think either. Like Xi and the CCP the issue is more whether they ratchet up the provocation because they need the distraction. Thus far they seem to be as worried about their own position as they are about helping Hamas. They have internal enemies too who are more likely to be behind the bombing yesterday.

Max Price
Max Price
6 months ago

The problem is we have gotten soft. Illegal immigrants should be shot on sight. It would not only be far more effective but far more humane.
Having solved that problem I say go get them. The Iranian regime is a menace. An ultra nationalist military regime would be light years better for the Iranian people.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
6 months ago
Reply to  Max Price

If this is a joke it’s in appalling taste. And if it isn’t that’s even worse.

Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
6 months ago
Reply to  Max Price

I do agree that a military government is far better than a theocracy. Iran is the largest theocracy in the world; and by its mere existence, it gives legitimacy to politically ambitious radical mullahs around the world.

Pedro the Exile
Pedro the Exile
6 months ago

It would appear that the Mullahs have upped the frequency of capital punishment recently -as evidenced by weekly marches through Londonistan and other European multi cultural centres to protest against the crushing of human rights in Iran!!!!!!.
They remain in power via an effective terror regime and I’m not convinced that all out war is on anybody’s list of objectives for 2024,least of all the Iranian establishment.Destabilisation would be a cheaper and more effective option for the West & Israel and the occasional slap (eg orange man bads’s taking out of Qasem Soleimani) seems to do the trick.

R S Foster
R S Foster
6 months ago

…as the Author points out, Iran as it stands is a comparatively well organised and agressive theocracy, organised around it’s military/industrial complex…which hates us, wants to kill us, and does so whenever it gets the opportunity…and furthermore is systematically expanding those opportunities wherever and whenever it can…so when exactly should we confront it?
Do we wait until fleets of rusting car ferries full of well-armed, well trained, highly motivated and genocidally committed jihadis starting come ashore on the beach resorts of the Mediterranean and killing everybody they can find? Or when the Black Banners of the Prophet lead a relentless flood of “technicals” through the Iron Gates? Or perhaps we wait until the mushroom clouds of the Islamic bomb start ballooning over an obliterated Israel, the only Western Liberal Democracy anywhere on Earth outside predominantly Western/European origin states?

P Branagan
P Branagan
6 months ago
Reply to  R S Foster

Describing Israel as ‘the only Western Liberal democracy outside predominantly Western European origin states’ is like saying the Third Reich was a peace loving democracy – a self evident oxymoron.
Israel is de facto and de jure a racist state. Not only is it a racist state, it is a genocidal Apartheid state.
It is, together with it’s lapdog the United States of America, the greatest threat ever to the survival of the human race.

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
6 months ago
Reply to  P Branagan

Moronic statement

martin cole
martin cole
6 months ago
Reply to  P Branagan

You prefer Hammas perhaps?
What a ridiculously one sided assessment.

Shrunken Genepool
Shrunken Genepool
6 months ago

How about letting Iran get nuclear weapons? Grave error or just one of those things ? I guess it depends on whether you live in Tel Aviv

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
6 months ago

Cheney famously proposed invading Iran through Iraq. When he was shouted down he turned his attention to the former Soviet east of Europe.
Now such characters have given up on the Ukraine, I suppose it would be logical for them to indulge former fantasies about the Middle East.

Oilman
Oilman
6 months ago

I challenge the premise of the author that Iran is self sufficient, at least in a sustainable sense in the short to medium
term. Please refer to this paper wrt food production as an example, it models Iran as standing on a precipice of both famine and environmental implosion. https://horizon.documentation.ird.fr/exl-doc/pleins_textes/divers20-05/010079079.pdf . I have personally met and spoken with a highly connected Iranian ex-ministerial level individual who confirms this is the case. I am in the oil industry and also have first hand information regarding the Parlous state of the nations oil fields, most in steep decline and with out the benefit of modernisation due to sanctions. There seems no need to go to war with Iran as the country/regime is 10-15 years from collapse?

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
6 months ago

One day Liz Cheney will get to fulfil her father’s dream and deliver regime change in Tehran. Time is on her side as well as an overwhelmingly neocon modern Washington culture. It will be the final test of US military hegemony before the drift into multipolarity is fully realised.