Four years ago, Vice President Cheney foretold what would happen if Saddam Hussein achieved unconventional-weapons capability: The Iraqi dictator "could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of a great portion of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten America's friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail."
Cheney was prophetic, but about the wrong country. Iran is well on its way to succeeding where Saddam failed. Already, even without nuclear weapons, it has emerged as the major regional power in the Middle East. Yes, nukes matter, and preventing Iran from getting them is important. But stymieing Iran's nuclear program would not stymie Iran. Tehran has already discovered a dangerous gap in America's defenses and is exploiting and widening it by the day.
To understand that gap, recall the strategic position of the United States in the 1950s. The U.S. relied on its nuclear superiority and the threat of "massive retaliation," as the catchphrase went, to keep the Soviet Union in line. The Soviets, however, found ample room to maneuver aggressively below the nuclear threshold by supporting insurgencies and igniting brushfire wars. By the late 1950s, U.S. strategists were calling for a new approach. The Kennedy administration supplied one, in the form of its "flexible response" doctrine.
In his 1962 State of the Union address, President Kennedy declared, "We have rejected any all-or-nothing posture which would leave no choice but inglorious retreat or unlimited retaliation." The administration set out to develop a battery of middle-range responses to middle-range provocations. The arsenal included counterinsurgency capacity, a buildup of conventional forces and intermediate nuclear forces, and new foreign-aid and public-relations programs (the Peace Corps, for instance).
Today, the United States enjoys overwhelming conventional superiority over Iran, a fact that Iran knows well and respects. But American strategists need to assume that even a limited conventional strike on Iran would bring an Iranian response, leading to escalation that might destabilize the region, break apart the Western alliance, and strengthen the mullahs' prestige and power. Iran knows that, too.
Like Saddam, Iran wants regional pre-eminence. "Its goal is to become the leading power in the Persian Gulf, certainly, but it also has larger aspirations in the Middle East," says Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of a forthcoming book, Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic. With Iraq weak and the United States tied down there, Takeyh says, Iran "sees itself as having an opportunity to gain the mantle of regional leadership."
Saddam was foolish enough to contest U.S. conventional power. Iran is shrewder. Pursuing a classic asymmetrical strategy, it has organized a regional network of allies that can strike at will against American interests and threaten to destabilize the region—but always at a deniable distance from Tehran. In a genuine strategic innovation, the mullahs are seeking regional domination by projecting unconventional power alone.
When the West tried to tighten a noose around Iran's nuclear program, Hezbollah attacked Israel. Iran's exact role remains unclear, but the resulting turmoil, reports The Washington Post, made many United Nations Security Council members "wary of ratcheting up pressure on Iran ... if it will mean further confrontation in the region." Translation: Message received. Hezbollah, a Shiite Islamist militia, is not quite an Iranian cat's-paw, but it is the next best thing. Iran originally organized it and today finances and arms it. Writing recently in the New York Daily News, David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, notes that Iran has given Hezbollah "at least $100 million annually, plus an estimated 11,000 missiles."
In Iraq, Iran's allies are positioned to strike American interests directly. Iran is a longtime patron of an important Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and has trained SCIRI's militia, the Badr Brigade. It has also drawn closer to the "Mahdi Army," another Shiite militia. The Mahdi Army leader, Moktada al-Sadr, sent thousands of followers into the streets of Baghdad to support Hezbollah, and (according to Time magazine) warned "that his forces would retaliate if Iran came under attack from the U.S. or Israel." The United States believes that Iran has armed Iraq's Shiites and that it recently urged them to intensify their attacks on U.S.-led forces in order to support Hezbollah's campaign against Israel.