For much of last December, Iran seemed schizophrenic. As the European Union and the United States finally seemed to agree on implementing tough new sanctions against the theocracy, Tehran threatened to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and thereby choke off 40 percent of the world’s petroleum leaving the Persian Gulf. At times, the mullahs bragged of new centrifuges coming on line; at other moments, they issued warnings to the American navy to pull one of its huge aircraft carriers out of the region—or face the consequences.
Just when some sort of international crisis seemed inevitable, once again Iran issued a clarification, denying any desire for war—only to issue more threats against the U.S. navy the next day, along with boasts of pressing ahead with its nuclear program. What are we to make of these serial, but seemingly empty threats of war, so reminiscent of North Korean bluster? Of course, there are plenty of examples in history to remind us that the constant saber rattling of failed states leads nowhere except to temporary tension and convenient rises in commodity and oil prices. But there also are enough other instances of unexpected attacks to suggest that the lunacy of lunatic regimes sometimes should be taken seriously
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For much of October 1950, Chinese communists let it be known that they would invade the Korean peninsula should the Americans keep up their victorious march northward to the Yalu River. Gen. MacArthur, the American theater commander, in response assured his superiors that these near constant threats were absurd. As he pointed out to a worried President Truman in a meeting on Wake Island on October 15, 1950, the Americans had clear conventional and nuclear air superiority, which, along with far more armor and artillery, would lead to a vast slaughter of the vulnerable Chinese Army.
Few political observers took seriously the serial threats of Mao Zedong, who was facing massive rebuilding in war-torn China and still worried about the permanence of his recently victorious communist government. And yet by mid-November the first brigades of some 500,000 “volunteers” poured into North Korea and sent American forces reeling in what would prove to be the longest retreat in U.S. military history—an attack completely unanticipated by all American and European intelligence agencies.
During the late summer of 1973, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat threatened to invade the Israeli-held Sinai peninsula, after boasting earlier that he was prepared to lose a million Egyptians, if need be, in the attempt. How crazy was that—given the Egyptians had recently kicked out their major arms supplier, the Soviet Union, and suddenly had neither a nuclear umbrella to hide under nor a steady supplier of key replacement military parts? In addition, the humiliation of the recent 1967 Six-Day War had taught the Arabs just how foolish it was to start a war with a militarily superior Israel. And there was no assurance that hated rival Syria would ever coordinate with Egypt to ensure a two-theater war against Israel. Nonetheless, the Egyptians invaded on October 6, 1973—to the shock of Israel, the United States, and the United Nations.
What are we to make of Iran's serial, but seemingly empty, threats of war?
For much of late 1981 and early 1982, the Argentine military junta—facing unprecedented domestic criticism and economic crisis—let it be known that it might annex the “Malvinas” or British Falkland Islands, convinced that a supposedly corrupt Britain would do nothing, and an even more corrupt U.S. would simply accept the verdict of the battlefield. Yet few believed Gen. Galtieri’s threats, especially given the vast imbalance of power between Britain and Argentina—until Argentina did the unimaginable and foolishly invaded the islands in early April 1982.
Through the summer of 1990 Saddam Hussein had warned foreign diplomats, the U.S. ambassador, and much of the Arab world that he might invade and annex Kuwait (Iraq’s “19th Province”)—alleging that his rich neighbor had not, as supposedly promised, forgiven Iraq’s vast debt after the war with Iran, and was cheating on agreements over oil production. Almost no one believed that Iraq, wasted by a near-decade long war with Iran, would be so foolish as to start another one with the Sunni, Arab-run Kuwait. But Saddam did just that and gobbled up Kuwait in a matter of days—convinced that the Arab world, the UN, and the U.S. would do little in retaliation.
The common theme of these modern examples of unforeseen preemptive wars is clear enough: empty, even foolhardy threats of war are not always so empty. The Korean War, the Yom Kippur War, the Falklands War, and the First Gulf War all share a variety of commonalities that are relevant to the ongoing tension with Iran—aside from the fact that these invasions eventually proved costly for the aggressors.
First lesson: fear makes all dictators unpredictable. What may seem to outsiders as a terrible choice may be merely a bad choice to a paranoid dictator, set against the far worse alternative of doing nothing and thereby losing power altogether. Mao Zedong’s communist revolution had only recently won over China, and he was convinced that at any moment American-backed Chinese forces from Formosa would invade the mainland and destroy his fragile hold on power—especially as UN forces routed North Korean client communists and neared the Manchurian border. The United States had no plans to go into Manchuria to overthrow Mao, but he was nonetheless convinced that a preemptive war might be his only insurance that they would not. In that context, war in Korea was not the worse of all possible choices for Mao.
Fear makes all dictators unpredictable.
By 1972, Anwar Sadat was facing an economic disaster in Egypt. Worse still, he was under terrible pressure from the Arab world after the humiliating defeat of 1967. He also had just rid his country of the Soviet advisors who had both armed Egypt and helped to prop up his ruined economy. He needed to do something dramatic to win back public opinion and to prove that Egypt could make needed reforms and free itself from the Soviet Union. Sadat also needed to prove that he really was as magnetic as the late Nasser. Again, most thought Sadat had plenty of choices other than invasion; Sadat, however, thought he had few or none.
Public furor over the dirty war in Argentina and the crumbling economy were beginning to doom the military junta in Buenos Aires, as protests and open defiance were now commonplace occurrences for the first time in a decade. General Galtieri concluded that something desperate was needed to unite the country and turn public attention away from the dismal economy and growing reports of massive executions in Argentina’s recent ‘dirty war.’ For Galtieri, reclaiming the Malvinas seemed as smart a move as it did stupid to most others.
By 1990, Iraq was broke. A devastating eight-year war with Iran had cost a half-trillion dollars and 500,000 casualties—with almost nothing gained in return. Civil unrest was on the rise. Saddam Hussein—like Mao, General Galtieri, and Anwar Sadat—was once again looking for enemies to win back public opinion. And Kuwait possessed neither the manpower nor armaments of Iran. For Saddam, a short war could win back what a long war had recently lost.
These ostensibly stupid invasions have another shared feature—the attackers felt there was nothing immediately stopping their aggression. The Chinese communists were not convinced that the Americans were fully committed to Korea. They had studied carefully the earlier astounding North Korean successes against the Americans, at least from June to the Incheon landings of September that only recently had turned around the war. But even then, Gen. MacArthur had bragged that he would get most Americans home by Christmas. Mao felt the Americans would put up little resistance and simply flee southward and then home.
Is Iran foolhardy enough to attack the U.S. Navy?
By 1973, Israel was suffering from the “victory disease.” It chose to forego a preemptive strike on the eve of the Egyptian invasion, and did not fully mobilize its reserves until the war was raging. During the Nixon administration, a rift had grown with Israel over its supposed intransigence about ceding back the spoils of 1967, a source of general unrest that the Soviets were capitalizing on with their Arab clients. Moreover, Sadat’s new stockpile of Soviet anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles had convinced him that the vaunted Israeli air forces were suddenly vulnerable—and he was proved right on that count for the first few days of the war. In short, Sadat believed, wrongly as it later turned out, that the Israel of 1973 was not the same Israel of 1967.
Why would Argentina conclude that it could get away with attacking the maritime island power of Britain? In the trivial sense, some backbenchers in Britain’s Parliament had begun talking about negotiating over the “Malvinas,” while the British government, as a goodwill gesture, had redeployed a tiny minesweeper from the Falklands. More importantly, the Argentines were convinced that the new British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, did not have the proverbial cojones to fight a distant war against macho generals in Argentina. All that sounds as crazy now as it was seen to be profound in 1982.
In the summer of 1990, the American Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie, offhandedly remarked to Saddam Hussein that Americans did not have an interest in the border disputes of Arab nations. She thought that was an obvious, matter-of-fact statement of the reality that the United States was too busy to adjudicate a few miles here and there of murky post-colonial Arab borders. But to Saddam, it signaled a green light that he could go into Kuwait without the retaliation of U.S. bombs. And he was further convinced that his battle-hardened Iran-Iraq War veterans would make mincemeat of the soft soldiers of the rich and pampered Gulf sheikdoms.
There was a final consideration: none of these aggressors believed that if they were to lose, Western powers would invade and remove them, or use their overwhelming nuclear and conventional forces to destroy their regimes. They were right on that count too: Mao eventually lost over a million Chinese, but was never bombed by the U.S. air force. The United States called off Israel’s pincer movement into Egypt and its planned destruction of the trapped Egyptian Third Army. Britain never sent missiles into Buenos Aires, and the UN coalition pushed Saddam out of Kuwait, but not out of power.
Does all this mean that Iran may be foolhardy enough to attack the U.S. Navy or its weak Arab allies—given its possible assessment that either there would be no American response, or at least not enough to endanger the survival of its regime? The new embargo may, after all, strangle its economy and rising domestic unrest might soon put an end to the regime. Meanwhile, provoking Persian Gulf tensions could make Iranian oil both expensive and essential. And does the theocracy interpret the Obama administration’s exit from Iraq, its current negotiations with the Taliban, and its failed serial efforts at reset diplomacy with Tehran as a sort of weakness that might presage a tepid U.S. response?
An Iranian attack on a U.S. vessel would be an insane act that would ensure that Iran paid a heavy price for its folly—or so we think. But to Iran, there are other considerations, with ample historical precedent, that make what we consider to be unthinkable perhaps not all that unthinkable at all.