War with Iran? Consult history.

It sounds like war drums. Tehran says it will execute an alleged US spy and threatens to block the Strait of Hormuz. GOP presidential candidates talk of regime change and military strikes, and Obama is not cowed by Iran. But wars do not often turn out as envisioned.

AP Photo/US Navy, Petty Officer 3rd Class Kenneth Abbate/File
The aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis transits the Strait of Hormuz Nov. 12, 2011. The Pentagon answered an Iranian warning to keep US aircraft carriers out of the Persian Gulf by declaring that American warships will continue regularly scheduled deployments to the strategic waterway.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that wars do not always end in the fashion that those who launch them expect.

The leaders of Israel and the United States urgently need to factor this historical reality into their plans on whether to risk war over Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. And Iran must step back from an overreaction to sanctions that may well provoke a military conflict.

The war drums are sounding louder. Iran threatens to block the critical oil gateway, the Strait of Hormuz, over stepped-up sanctions. It has sentenced a former US Marine to death for alleged spying and cranked up the level of uranium enrichment at an underground bunker.

Republican candidates such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum push regime change and military strikes. And the Obama administration and Israel leave all options on the table, even as they step up covert action and promise to stop a nuclear Iran.

Examples of military miscalculation are all too numerous. Hitler was so sure the Nazis would take Leningrad that he had invitations printed up for a victory banquet at a hotel there. Recall, too, the promised light at the end of the tunnel for the American victory in Vietnam.

And consider the Soviets’ shock at seeing their entire country collapse three years after they pulled out of Afghanistan – a costly humiliation that greatly contributed to the demise of the USSR.

Opportunities for miscalculation in an Iranian conflict are huge, including the risk that the US or Israel might fail to erase a nuclear program because it’s so well hidden. Sabotage, cyber war, and conflict could easily spread from Iran to the region and to US and Israeli installations around the world.

Tehran has the least room to maneuver, which may explain its audacity, with bluster substituting for action. Its anxiety after a steep fall in its currency value only makes Iran’s situation more desperate and perhaps dangerous.

Iranian threats to close the strait are probably disingenuous, certainly illegal, and most likely counter-productive. Their consequence may turn potential allies like China – which relies on Iranian oil – against them.

Iran’s warnings to a US Navy nuclear aircraft carrier not to return to the Gulf are foolish. The US is not cowed, and for a period of time – extendable if desired – the US will have three aircraft carriers in the Fifth Fleet area near Iran. Surely the Iranians know this is an election year and, were they to provoke the president to military action, that might do much to assure President Obama’s reelection.

Iranians are neither crazy nor stupid, although they often have a grossly inflated view of their place in the world, seeing themselves as heirs of the once proud Persian Empire. There is method in what Israelis like to portray as the mullah’s madness.

Ali Alfoneh, a leading scholar of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, believes Tehran’s growling is for domestic consumption. Iran has been acutely weakened by economic sanctions. Its leaders want to convince their public that despite cyber attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities, mysterious assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, and what is believed to have been an attack on an Iranian missile factory, the country is still strong and capable of acting against its perceived enemies.

Iran’s strategic thinkers need to hit the reset button. They have to warn their ruling councils, religious and military, that there already exists a constituency for war with Iran in conservative political quarters in the US.

Worse for Tehran, for a decade Washington’s ally Israel has been pressuring US presidents to go to war with Iran. On the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, in a private conversation with me, said, “We are pleased you [the United States] are eager for war with Iraq, but we would prefer instead you attack Iran.”

Today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also eager for an American assist in taking out Iran’s nuclear installations. As Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute notes, Mr. Netanyahu may soon find himself in the position where he must decide if he is to become the Israeli leader who allows Iranians to get the bomb.

But Netanyahu would do well to recall Menachem Begin’s and Ariel Sharon’s 1982 “Operation Peace for Galilee,” a war to crush the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Lebanon.

Israel’s military victory became an international black eye after Israeli troops enabled Christian Lebanese Phalangist to massacre Palestinian and Lebanese refugees in Sabra and Shatila. Ultimately, the Palestinians were the real political winners.

More recently, during Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon to teach Iran’s proxy Hezbollah guerrillas a lesson, it was the Israelis who were surprised by Hezbollah’s professional soldiers equipped with the newest Russian, Chinese, and Iranian weapons. The Israeli superpower eventually won, but it was a “shaky military performance,” according to President George W. Bush.

Now, as Mr. Obama faces an escalation in tension with Iran, he would do well to recall the mistake of his predecessor. In Iraq, Mr. Bush forgot that there must be one overarching, compelling reason to go to war.

The longer the list of excuses, (possible weapons of mass destruction, phony Iraqi ties to the 9/11 terror attacks, the bestial nature of the regime, and building democracy etc.), the shakier is the casus belli.

Conservative warmongers criticize Obama for his quiet reaction to Iranian jingoism. But the president has behaved in the finest tradition of one of the best Republican presidents, Theodore Roosevelt. Obama has spoken softly but carried a big stick. His stick is the US Navy’s 5th Fleet in the Persian Gulf.
Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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