The cover article for this week’s Economist mainly addresses Iran’s nuclear program, but manages to jam a call for attacking Syria into its conclusions:
The growing risk of a nuclear Iran is one reason why the West should intervene decisively in Syria not just by arming the rebels, but also by establishing a no-fly zone. That would deprive Mr Assad of his most effective weapon—bombs dropped from planes—and allow the rebels to establish military bases inside Syria. This newspaper has argued many times for doing so on humanitarian grounds; but Iran’s growing clout is another reason to intervene, for it is not in the West’s interest that a state that sponsors terrorism and rejects Israel’s right to exist should become the regional hegemon.
There are several things wrong with this. Because of its own nuclear arsenal, its far greater conventional military superiority, and its greater economic power, Israel is much closer to being a regional hegemon than Iran. Indeed, the open secret of the the U.S. and Israeli obsession with Iran’s nuclear program is that the program could potentially threaten their freedom of action in the region. The fact that Iran’s ally in Syria has been fighting off an internal rebellion backed by several other regional governments for the last two years suggests that Iranian power in the region isn’t waxing. It is at best holding steady, and it has clearly declined from where it was a few years ago. Put simply, Iran is in no danger of becoming the region’s hegemon. Iran and its allies are on the defensive, and even if Assad holds on to power for the next few years Iran and Hizbullah will be preoccupied with propping him up. If an important American client or ally somewhere were wracked by civil war and its government was in danger of being overthrown, no one would be claiming that U.S. regional influence was on the rise. So there’s not much merit to the idea that Iran is gaining in regional influence and strength. On the contrary, it is desperately trying to stave off a serious setback. Even if Iran “wins” in Syria, it won’t be in a better position than it was two years ago. Its regional influence would almost certainly be reduced.
The Economist predictably overstates the “risk of a nuclear Iran,” but if we were to take this “growing risk” seriously the aggressive Syria policy they propose would be most unwise. If Western governments imposed a no-fly zone in Syria (which is hardly “decisive” action), this would give Iran more of an incentive to acquire a nuclear deterrent. Attacking Iran’s ally in Syria isn’t going to make Iran more cooperative on the nuclear issue, and waging war on a Syrian government that is being directly supported by Iran creates the potential for an escalation into a much larger regional war between the U.S. and Iran. This article is a good example of the foolish thinking that comes from overestimating the threat from Iran.