Are Washington and Tehran headed for a showdown?
For much of the past decade, conventional wisdom has held that Iran's dogged pursuit of a nuclear capability – carried out in spite of mounting pressure from the international community – will ultimately become a casus belli for Washington. Early on in his tenure, President George W. Bush even went so far as to declare that the U.S. "will not tolerate" Iran arming itself with nuclear weapons, and to indicate that he was prepared to use force to prevent it. Despite its more dulcet diplomatic tones toward Iran, the administration of Barack Obama has grudgingly repeated much the same thing since taking office: that all options, including the use of force, remain on the table for dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions. Still, some eight years into the international standoff over Iran's atomic program, it has become clear that a military option for dealing with an Iranian bomb, if not out of the question entirely, is an exceedingly remote possibility.
That does not mean, however, that Tehran and Washington won't soon find themselves embroiled in a war. Indeed, Iran's escalating activity on the territory of its western neighbor, Iraq, could end up becoming the real catalyst for a U.S.-Iranian conflict.
That was the message conveyed by General Martin Dempsey, the incoming Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at his July 26th confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. In recent weeks, numerous U.S. officials have warned that – after a lull in activity in recent years – Iran has begun ramping up its provision of weapons and training to Iraq's various Shi'a militias anew, seeking to shape the country's evolving political environment as America withdraws. These activities, according to the general, " are intended to produce some kind of Beirut-like moment … and then in so doing to send a message that they have expelled us from Iraq."
That Iran is engaged in an extensive irregular campaign on the territory of its western neighbor is hardly news. Last summer, Jim Jeffrey, the Obama administration's newly-minted envoy to Iraq, made headlines when he publicly estimated that Iran was either directly or indirectly responsible for "up to a quarter" of American casualties since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. And Robert Gates, in one of his last interviews as Secretary of Defense this June, offered what is perhaps an even more striking assessment when he told reporters that about 40 percent of American servicemen killed since the end of U.S. combat operations last fall had taken place in recent weeks as a result of attacks by Shi'ite militias that had been armed, trained and funded by Iran.
That the U.S. government is responding, however, certainly is. After all, Iran has been allowed to wage irregular warfare against the United States and its Coalition allies for years with virtual impunity. Policymakers in Washington and European capitals, fearful of a drift into even greater regional conflict, have chosen largely to ignore Iran's provocations and keep the peace with the Islamic Republic. And as a result, Iran's leaders have become convinced that their extensive interference in Iraq is by and large a cost-free exercise.
But all this could soon change. "[T]here is a high potential that Iran will make a serious miscalculation of US resolve," Gen. Dempsey told lawmakers in Congress. "As long as we've got those soldiers there, we're going to do whatever we have to do to protect them."
Doing so could lead inexorably to conflict with the Islamic Republic. Reviewing the extent of Iran's activities in Iraq over the past half-decade or more, it's hard not to come away with the conclusion that the Islamic Republic is waging a covert war on the United States, and has been for some time. Nor is it possible to ignore the mounting evidence that today, as America stands down in Iraq, Iran and its proxies are standing up, with the fate of the country hanging largely in the balance.
The operative question, then, is whether the United States is finally prepared to do something about it—and just what that something might be. Iran's leaders must be wondering much the same thing.