Tom Friedman of the New York Times thinks we’re in a cold war with Iran.  He’s correct that we’re in a cold war, but he’s two Friedman units and change late coming to that conclusion, and he’s got the enemy country wrong.  We’re no more in a cold war with Iran than we were in a cold war for 50 years with Belarus.  

There are, nonetheless, a few similarities between that cold war and this one.  

How Cold Was It?

In his May 14 column, Friedman posits that “the Bush team has been so incompetent vis-à-vis Iran.”  I’m not so sure about that.  Friedman assumes the Bush team’s aim is a peaceful, stable Middle East, which in my estimation is an egregiously false assumption.  The surest sign the Bush administration wants no part of normalized relations with Iran is its insistence that Iran give up its ability to refine uranium as a precondition to direct negotiations.  The U.N. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which both Iran and the U.S. have ratified, guarantees that all parties to the treaty have an “inalienable right” to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.  Iran’s leadership is unlikely to ever agree to America’s demands; that’s why Dick Cheney’s stooges demanded them.  

The neoconservatives in the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) have apparently decided to erase much of their paper trail by neglecting to pay the rent on their website, but those familiar with their fabled letters and policy statements and their September 2000 manifesto Rebuilding America’s Defenses know of their goal to vastly expand the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East while preserving the Cold War I enclaves in Europe and the Pacific.  Saddam Hussein was their convenient excuse, and 9/11 was the “new Pearl Harbor” they needed to get the American public to support their ambitions.  

Invading Iraq was their “camel’s nose in the tent,” so to speak.  Whether the regime change went well or poorly in Iraq, though, the neocons would need a viable pretext to keep a large military presence there, and that’s where Iran came in.  The problem with Iran as the next big global boogeyman is that it just isn’t big enough to boogey globally, and as soon as the Tom Friedman’s of the nattering class get over being giddy about the possibility of a major strike on Iran, they’ll figure that out.  It may take them a while longer, though, to realize that our real opponents in the new cold war are the same ones we had in the old cold war.

Cold Shoulder

Before he got the ax as head of U.S. Central Command for trying to put Dick Cheney and his “crazies” back in their box, Admiral William Fallon aptly described Iran’s standing among the world’s powers. “These guys are ants,” he said in a March 2008 interview with Esquire magazine.  “When the time comes, you crush them.”  

In March 2006, Condoleezza Rice stated during testimony before the Senate that “We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran.”  That exact phrase found its way into the 2006 National Security Strategy.  Funny how that worked, huh?  Today, John McCain, the Bush administration’s designated crown prince, castigated his presumptive presidential opponent Barack Obama for having the temerity to say Iran is not as big a threat to us as the Soviet Union was.  

McCain has never been celebrated for his keen sense of perspective, but where exactly does Iran lie on the scale between anthill and evil empire?

Cold Light of Day

Iran’s economy is slightly more than six percent the size of America’s.  The gap between the two countries’ defense budgets is similar.  

Iran has fought one war since its establishment as a nation in 1935.  The Iran-Iraq War lasted from 1980 to 1988.  It began when Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Iran.  The U.S. backed Hussein in that war.

Iran has a potentially effective sea denial navy, but it is not capable of operating beyond the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Caspian Sea.  Iran’s army has never operated more than a few miles beyond its border, and that was two decades ago during the World War I-style trench warfare with Iraq.  The top-of-the line fighter jet in Iran’s air force is the F-14 Tomcat, built in America for the U.S. Navy.  The Navy no longer flies the Tomcat, and Iran is the only country the U.S. sold it to.  Now that we’ve finally stopped selling Iran spare parts for the Tomcat, they have nowhere else to buy them.  

Iran might–I repeat “might”–be able to coerce Iraq’s Shiite militias into action against our ground forces if we attack Iran, but the worst they can probably do to our troops is to chase them off the streets and back into our “enduring bases” for a while.  The militias aren’t likely dumb enough to throw themselves against the fence ala the Viet Cong, but if they are, they’ll be one less thing we have to worry about.  

Iran’s ballistic missiles, if they work, can reach Israel, but ballistic missiles, as we saw in our first war with Hussein, are little more than incredibly expensive mortar rounds unless they have nuclear warheads, and the Iranians don’t have any nuclear warheads to put on theirs.  If Iran ever does possess nukes, it won’t dare use them; it would not survive the retaliation.  If terrorists want someone to steal a nuclear warhead from, they don’t need to bother with Iran.  Pakistan has plenty of the little boogers, and its government is far less stable than Iran’s is ever likely to be.  Iran’s leaders have consistently said they have no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons.  Some people say they’re lying, but the people saying that are the likes of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, whose relationship with the truth has been on the rocks for many years.

The real threat Iran’s nuclear program poses is the very good possibility that it will grow into a viable, self-sustaining nuclear energy industry.  If that happens, the big losers will be Dick and Dubya’s buddies with Exxon/Mobil and in the Sunni oil producing nations who will have lost control of the evolution of the global energy market.  The big winners will be Iran’s sponsor nations, Russia and China.  

Thus, in the grand scheme of the new cold war, Iran is more of a pest than a juggernaut. It is, if anything, a post-Soviet era equivalent of East Germany: a prize, not a peer adversary.  Aside from continuing to goad us into sustaining an eternal arms race with ourselves, Russia and China won’t try to compete with us militarily this time around.  That puts us at a distinct disadvantage, because by this point we’ve grown so used to getting what we want by kicking the door down that we don’t really know any other form of statecraft.  

Tom Friedman and the rest of our fourth estate analysts may realize all this eventually, but I’m not holding my breath.  In his May 4 column Friedman referred to Lebanon as “one of the last corners of decency, pluralism and openness in the Arab world.”

Jeepers, huh?  I have no idea what he was smoking when he wrote that–Lebanon’s been a zoo since its civil war broke out in 1975–but I’d love to know what color the sky is in that flat world of his.

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword . Jeff’s novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books) is on sale now.

“Populated by outrageous characters and fueled with pompous outrage, Huber’s irreverent broadside will pummel the funny bone of anyone who’s served.” — Publishers Weekly

“A remarkably accomplished book, striking just the right balance between ridicule and insight.” — Booklist

View the trailer here.

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