Dire Straits

During America’s last and largely forgotten war with Iran, in 1987 and 1988, music meant a lot to those of us in the middle of the action. American warships had deployed in force to the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Ostensibly they were there to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers from marauding Iranian frigates and speedboats, but in fact they were backing Saddam Hussein in the seemingly endless Iran-Iraq war. “Somebody’s gonna hurt someone, before the night is through,” The Eagles had sung in “Heartache Tonight,” which became a kind of anthem to reporters covering the war. “Somebody’s gonna come undone, there’s nothin’ we can do.”

Then, as now, there was a vaguely surreal quality to the looming confrontation. Then, as now, the Americans were looking to reestablish their credibility in the Middle East after successive blunders and humiliations. As more frigates and cruisers moved into the area, the Iranians started laying mines—or letting them float free—up and down the Gulf and around the Strait of Hormuz. (Journalists, cynics that they are, made up T-shirts for the DIRE STRAITS GULF TOUR ’87, listing several damaged ships on the back as GREATEST HITS.)

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Then, as now, there were fears Iran could shut down the narrow channel of water through which some 20 percent of the world’s oil is shipped. Washington responded by attacking the Iranian navy and Iranian oil platforms. Then, accidentally, it was said, the Americans shot a regularly scheduled commercial airliner out of the clear blue sky above the gulf. There were 290 people on board that Iran Air flight, 66 of them children. All died. A few weeks later, the Ayatollah Khomeini decided he would end the war with Iraq at last, drinking from a “chalice of poison,” he said, by accepting a stalemate truce instead of outright victory over Saddam.

Today, with two and soon three U.S. carrier battle groups due to converge on the Arabian Sea (the gulf itself being too shallow for them to maneuver), the sense that somebody’s gonna hurt someone is growing stronger by the minute. And the Bush administration clearly is orchestrating tensions, creating a wall of sound that common sense finds increasingly difficult to penetrate.

Just yesterday an intelligence briefing in Baghdad played up the question of Iranian arms and training supposedly given to “rogue” Shiite militias no longer linked to the democratically elected Shiite fundamentalists who run the Iraqi government with U.S. support. A new generation of roadside bombs now called “explosively formed penetrators” or EFPs , which may well come from Iran, have killed more than 170 U.S. soldiers since the summer of 2004, according to the anonymous briefers in Baghdad. But take note: during that same period more than 2,000 Americans were killed in Iraq by other groups using other weapons and with no apparent connections to Tehran. That’s one reason the latest National Intelligence Estimate concludes Iran is not “a major driver of violence” in Iraq.

Theoretically at least, the Bush administration could use the deaths of the 170 as a reason to attack Iran without even looking for U.N. approval. The war wouldn’t be “preemptive”; it could be portrayed, in essence, as self-defense. And what sort of war? Even a die-hard hawk like Joshua Muravchik at the American Enterprise Institute told The Guardian last week, “I do not think anyone in the U.S. is talking about invasion.” So the most likely scenario would be a bombing campaign. It would not only punish the Iranian government—and, of course, the Iranian people—for the actions of their covert agents inside Iraq, it could also target Iran’s nuclear program.

Here, though, we run up against a conundrum. If you think that the Iranians have a secret atomic weapons program that you really haven't been able to find after years of inspections, surveillance and spying—then how do you bomb this invisible threat? You can’t, of course. Instead, you attack the known nuclear program, which Iran insists is peaceful and therefore completely legal under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made that point once again before enormous crowds in Tehran just yesterday.)

But such a bombing campaign would quickly change the known into the unknown. Right now we have abundant details about what is going on in Iraq’s declared facilities, thanks to about 150 U.N. inspectors on the ground. After a U.S. attack, the inspectors would be gone, and with them whatever window we had into Iranian operations. This would be such a stupid and self-defeating move that it’s hard to imagine even this administration embracing it.

So what does Washington actually have in mind? According to repeated statements from administration officials, we’re looking at a policy of diplomacy backed by force, with a steady ratcheting up of pressure on the Iranian regime through carefully designed but limited sanctions. Next week, the U.N. Security Council will take up the issue of Iran’s nuclear program once again. Thus far Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (with considerable help from Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory diatribes) has been successful in isolating Tehran. If diplomacy continues (and if the administration is not lying the way it was before its ineluctable invasion of Iraq), Rice’s approach can help weaken the crazies in Iran while strengthening those who’ll eventually cut deals with the West.

The great danger will come if diplomacy stalls, and our ever-impatient American president feels he’s compelled to use force. But even then, I don’t think we’re looking at a full-scale conflagration. More likely we’ll see a repeat of the kind of war waged by the U.S. against Iran in the 1980s: a collection of skirmishes that constantly risk escalating into something bigger and more difficult to control—but don’t, or, at least, don’t have to. "The enemy knows well that any invasion would be followed by a comprehensive reaction to the invaders and their interests all over the world,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned last week. But something short of an invasion? Khamenei didn’t say. Iran’s leaders have lived with American military attacks before, and shown they have better sense than to be suckered into a final, fatal fight.

Of course, in 1988 Iran was exhausted from its war with Iraq. This time around, it’s the United States that’s tiring from its war in Iraq, and with no end in sight. Who’ll be the more rational player? All that seems sure is that somebody’s gonna hurt someone, before the night is through.