War Stories

A Global Game of Chicken

Can Washington and Tehran avoid war?

Are the U.S. and Iranian governments on a breakneck collision course toward war? Or are they just playing chicken with each other—though if they are, why should we trust either one of them to swerve off the road in time to avoid catastrophe?

They’ve been revving the engines and rattling the sabers loud and hard lately. In the past few weeks, President Bush has released a document on national-security strategy that declares Iran to be the single biggest threat on the planet. Vice President Dick Cheney has warned that Iran will face serious consequences if it continues to enrich uranium. Joseph Cirincione, a sober-minded nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment, writes in the new issue of Foreign Policy:

For months, I have told interviewers that no senior political or military official was seriously considering a military attack on Iran. In the last few weeks, I have changed my view. In part, this shift was triggered by colleagues with close ties to the Pentagon and the executive branch who have convinced me that some senior officials have already made up their minds: They want to hit Iran.

The Iranians are hardly cowering. In their “Great Prophet” naval exercises this past week, Iran’s Republican Guard test-fired new missiles and torpedoes for which they boasted astonishing powers: an anti-ship missile invisible to radar and capable of hitting several targets; an “ultra-horizon” missile that can be fired from any plane or helicopter; and a “super-modern flying boat,” also undetectable by radar, that can launch missiles with precision while moving.

The claims are either mundane or preposterous. Still, the message is clear: If the United States attacks Iran, Iran will strike back. In this respect, the location of the exercises was especially pertinent—the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow neck of the Persian Gulf through which one-third of the world’s oil exports flow. The Washington Post’s Dana Priest also reports that U.S. intelligence experts believe that Iran would retaliate with terrorist strikes worldwide.

At a series of seminars at the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday, analysts and ex-officials debated the pros and cons of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, but they agreed that keeping the conflict to a snappy “limited strike” was unlikely; it would almost certainly escalate to all-out war, with regional and possibly global repercussions.

The growling and brandishing have grown intense lately, in part because of the U.N. Security Council statement, passed by consensus on March 29, giving Iran 30 days to suspend its enrichment of uranium. Or else what? It’s unclear. Sanctions would ordinarily be the sequel to such a declaration; but Russia and China have said, for now, that they won’t support sanctions.

So, the Bush administration is sending signals—to the Iranians but also to the Russians, Chinese, and Europeans—that it might enforce the deadline in its own, more forceful manner if the Security Council goes wobbly. And the Iranians are sending signals back that they have their own array of options and therefore won’t succumb to pressure.

That’s the game of chicken. Two cars speed toward each other, head-on, late at night. There are three possible outcomes. One driver gets nervous and veers away at the last second; he loses. Both drivers veer away; the game’s a draw. They both keep zooming straight ahead; everybody dies. Back in the early ‘60s, the flamboyant nuclear strategist Herman Kahn wrote that one way to win at chicken was to detach the steering wheel and wave it out of the window; the other driver, seeing you can’t pull off the road, will be forced to do so himself. The dreadful thing about the current showdown between America and Iran is that both drivers seem to be unscrewing their steering wheels; they’re girding themselves so firmly in their positions—the Americans saying Iran’s enrichment is an intolerable threat to security, the Iranians saying it’s an absolute ingredient of national integrity—that backing down is a course neither is willing to take.

There’s another dangerous thing about chicken. One or both drivers might intend to veer off, but they know they don’t have to until the last second. They might accelerate, to step up the pressure, as the cars approach each other; miscalculations—of time, distance, and intentions—could ensue; a collision could happen by accident.

The Iranians have good reason to believe America’s threat is a bluff and that they’ll pay no penalty if they keep enriching uranium. They paid no penalty when they started enriching, after all. Too many members of the Security Council rely on Iranian oil and thus have too strong an interest in seeing the oil continue to flow.

If President Bush wants to avoid a collision, he should be doing all he can to show Iran he isn’t bluffing. At the Council on Foreign Relations seminar, Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst and author of The Persian Puzzle, an excellent history of U.S.-Iranian relations, argued that a ban on capital investment in Iran would be useful. Iran’s leaders seem genuinely fearful of economic sanctions (they came to the negotiating table last year only when Britain, France, and Germany seemed on the verge of imposing them); sanctions on investment are doubly threatening because they don’t starve children (and therefore rally Western opposition to them on humanitarian grounds) and because Iran’s economy is heavily dependent on foreign investment.

Investment sanctions would force Iran’s ruling circles into a debate they’d rather avoid; they would have to ask themselves which they want more: a nuclear arsenal or a healthy economy? If the latter choice wins, not only would Iran’s nuclear program be slowed down but the modernists within the government would be strengthened. If the former choice wins, at least we’ll have a better picture of where we stand.

However, Pollack makes another argument: The Europeans (the biggest investors in Iran) aren’t likely to sign on to sanctions unless the deal also gives Iran some rewards for making the right choice. There have to be not just sticks but also carrots—penalties from Europe if the Iranians keep enriching uranium and benefits from the United States if they stop.

The Bush administration has several goals when it comes to Iran: no nukes, no support of terrorists, and regime change. If Bush wants to avoid war, he may have to set priorities. If he concludes that the top priority is no nukes, he may have to set aside the other goals (which aren’t likely to be satisfied soon anyway). More than that, he may have to offer Iran tangible security guarantees.

Christopher Hitchens has suggested in these pages that Bush go to Tehran, with a full package of inducements to join the world, in the same spirit that Nixon went to China. In the long run, this may have a better chance than military strikes of turning the country in the right direction.

It’s unpleasant, but is there any choice? It’s worth emphasizing that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon now, nor is it likely to for at least three years. A U.S. military attack would unleash a wider war—which might be acceptable if it snuffed out Iran’s nuclear program, but by most estimates it would merely set the program back a few years. Meanwhile, it would only stiffen popular support for Iran’s fundamentalist leadership and alienate the vast majority of Iran’s population, which for now holds a favorable view of America.

Would a diplomatic initiative be productive? Maybe not. But a military strike might be completely counterproductive: It would probably impede, but not halt, Iran’s nuclear program; it would enflame anti-American terrorism; and it would strengthen Iran’s regime.