Matthew Kroenig’s pro-war essay on Iran in Foreign Affairs has received a lot of attention. Many others have ably identified and criticized the essay’s many flaws, so I won’t repeat most of those arguments here.
Matt Duss picks up on one of the most far-fetched claims in the essay, which is that an attack may help the Iranian opposition. Kroenig wrote:
An attack might actually create more openings for dissidents in the long term (after temporarily uniting Iran behind Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), giving them grounds for criticizing a government that invited disaster. Even if a strike would strengthen Iran’s hard-liners, the United States must not prioritize the outcomes of Iran’s domestic political tussles over its vital national security interest in preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
There is simply no reason to think that there would be more space for anti-regime dissent after an attack than without one. This is not only the judgment of leading Iranian dissidents, but it is also simple common sense. There is rarely a serious reassessment of government policy after a certain course of action has led to a military attack on a country’s territory, and political dissidents always find it more difficult to criticize the government in the years following a foreign attack. This is true for both the short and long term.
Kroenig refers to a government inviting “disaster,” but in the eyes of most Iranians (and most nations around the world) a U.S.-led attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would appear to be an unprovoked act of aggression. Even if Iran’s government could have avoided the attack by yielding to U.S. terms, political dissidents would not be able to make that argument in the months and years following such an attack for fear of being labeled disloyal. Indeed, the more damaging the resulting conflict was, the more difficult criticizing the government would become. In order for the opposition to gain a hearing with most of the public, they might criticize the government for its failure to defend the country adequately, but they would gain nothing by advocating a more accommodating policy. As a rule, political openness does not fare very well during national emergencies and wartime, and this is obviously even more true of authoritarian political systems where there is not much interest in political openness in the first place.
Having said all that, it’s a bit refreshing for an Iran hawk to acknowledge that he isn’t terribly interested in the fate of the Iranian opposition. Even if it is just an anti-Obama talking point, Iran hawks usually combine their agitation for war with crocodile tears for the Green movement. Generally speaking, I agree that it is a mistake to prioritize another country’s domestic political disputes ahead of U.S. interests, but then I don’t pretend that a change in Iranian leadership would make much difference in resolving the nuclear issue to Washington’s satisfaction. Then again, I don’t think U.S. security interests are threatened by Iran’s nuclear program.
P.S. As Paul Pillar notes in his post, an attack on Iran would be an unprovoked act of aggression:
An armed attack against Iran of the sort that Kroenig is agitating for would be illegal and unprovoked. And to attack someone else’s nuclear program because it supposedly would, in Kroenig’s words, “limit U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East”—and, of course, would end Israel’s nuclear weapons monopoly in the region—would be no more justified than Japan attacking a fleet that it saw as limiting its freedom of action in the Pacific.