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Iran and the Uses of "Preventive" War


“For the cause of all wars and revolutions–in a word, of
all violence–is always the same: the negation of hierarchy.”

Meditations on the Tarot (Anonymous)

History, it has been said, is what the winning side–the strongest, the most nimble, the most devious, and on occasion the most enlightened–remembers and records for posterity. But in the 21st century, there is a conscious and calculated undercurrent–manifested in the use of military power in preventive war–that seeks to freeze the future by forcing the present to conform to an unchanging hierarchy of power among nation-states.

(This of course, assumes that the “record” survives; particularly when history was primarily oral, emendations and omissions would not be rare. And even when histories were written, manuscripts could disintegrate or be destroyed in subsequent natural or man-made catastrophes.)

There are competing views of history–e.g., that great men (and women) are the catalysts for history and shape it, or that the unfolding of events calls forth the women and men with the talents, energy, and drive to seize the moment.

This latter, it seems, is where the world is today, at least as seen by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and U.S. President George Bush. After months of verbal jabs at the U.S., the UN, and others trying to find a way out of the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program, Ahmadinejad sent Bush an 18-page letter that, as a cartographer might say, was “one over the world.” Perhaps not willing to study such a wide-ranging tome, the White House dismissed the letter as philosophical and irrelevant. Reportedly, among other subjects, the Iranian president pointed to what he saw as a chasm between Bush’s professed Christian values, his actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his threats against Iran.

The problem, as the administration sees it, has nothing to do with spiritual values and everything to do with nuclear values–who is trustworthy enough to join the select club of countries permitted to operate the nuclear fuel cycle. Washington says that Tehran’s 18-year history of concealing its nuclear research program makes it untrustworthy to operate domestically the nuclear fuel cycle.

Thus Bush’s efforts at the UN to write or at least influence history.

The first attempt by the U.S. to get a UN Security Council resolution sanctioning Iran for re-starting its uranium enrichment program stalled in early May when both China and Russia declined to endorse a condemnation under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter. Over the subsequent two weeks, the European Union -3 (Britain, France, and Germany) have been putting together a new packet of “carrots and sticks” to entice Iran to reconsider its defiance and accept control of the fuel rods (supply, insertion, extraction, return to Russia) necessary to run its Russian-built reactor.

The U.S. is backing the EU-3’s efforts largely because it has no military option to employ–which the Iranians know. Nonetheless, the U.S. “all options are on the table” rhetoric survives and even thrives–including preventive war. And considering the lead-in to the Iraq war, this cannot be ignored as a possibility if Iran does not change its course. For Iran’s part, their very latest letter is an offer–which when made by the U.S. to Tehran earlier was rejected–to sit down for one-on-one discussions.

Given the quality of the challenges made and the responses elicited, it appears that neither president did very much to actually unravel the Iranian nuclear conundrum.

Another way to consider how history is made acknowledges the unfolding of natural forces and rhythms which form the backdrop for the movements and activities of animals and humans–or in some cases their lack of activity.

This latter aspect is not trivial. Inaction is a shaper of history as much as action is, for each constitutes a choice, and the future is charted–or perhaps distorted — through the myriad choices made or perhaps simply accepted. And because we live in a single, still unfolding universe, we cannot achieve an Archimedean point from which to look at our universe and see how great any one distortion might be.

At one time, war was considered one of the great rhythms of life. Even a cursory look at the history passed down through the generations reveals that the causes of war are legion and could be aggressive or defensive. From time to time, the so-called” Great Captains” would emerge, men who seemed at home on the battlefield making the history that others would record.

But war is not simply a rhythm. War is a choice. Most particularly, preventive war is a distorted choice, for it comes not in the face of a plausible and imminent threat but because a ruler comes to believe, based on present day actions or inaction, that at some indeterminate time in the future, another country or group will pose a threat of great magnitude to that ruler’s successors and to their country.

This was the Bush administration’s calculus for Iraq in 2002-2003. Glimpses of the same calculus can be seen with respect to Iran. Before the White House orders the Pentagon to do a detailed update (“operationalize”) of its war plan for Iran, Congress needs to reassert its constitutional power by putting the administration on notice that “war (against Iran) is not the answer.” Instead, in trying to induce Iran to abide by UN decisions and guarantees, Congress should lay down a marker stating that U.S. policy is to engage Iran bilaterally, through the UN, and in other multilateral fora, to develop and implement procedures for safeguarding fissile materials, while permitting Iran to develop peaceful nuclear energy programs in accordance with the provisions of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Among the myriad possible combinations of today’s events, personalities, and choices, one will eventually emerge to form a yesterday in human history. The conundrum confronting the international community is to anticipate which among the myriad possible combinations of today’s events, personalities, and choices will eventually emerge to form a yesterday in human history. The options available are largely known on the macro scale, but their interaction is largely unpredictable. Hence strong efforts are needed to circumscribe the unpredictable elements to diminish ensuing disruption, distortion, and destruction.

This is the philosophical and pragmatic failing of preventive war. At first glance it appears to short circuit a future potentially more distorted by “correcting” it before the cost can grow exponentially. But the instigator of preventive war assumes, consciously or unconsciously, that future intentions and actions can be predicted based on an extrapolation of the past into the context of today’s status quo. Preventive war purports to freeze history, thereby contradicting the fundamental law that the only universal constant is change.

Even in Iran.

Col. Daniel Smith, a retired colonel and Vietnam veteran, is a West Point graduate and a grad against the war. He can be reached at:





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