The Corner

re: Iran the Hegemon

Derb, you ask: “suppose Iran were to attain her hegemonic ambition. This will hurt the U.S.A. … how? You say it would be putting ‘the economic health of the nation in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s hands.’ How would it do that? Because Iran would control ME oil and refuse to sell it to us?”

Walter Russell Mead had an op-ed in the WSJ a couple of days ago that answers exactly this question:

For the past few centuries, a global economic and political system has been slowly taking shape under first British and then American leadership. As a vital element of that system, the leading global power — with help from allies and other parties — maintains the security of world trade over the seas and air while also ensuring that international economic transactions take place in an orderly way. Thanks to the American umbrella, Germany, Japan, China, Korea and India do not need to maintain the military strength to project forces into the Middle East to defend their access to energy. Nor must each country’s navy protect the supertankers carrying oil and liquefied national gas (LNG).

For this system to work, the Americans must prevent any power from dominating the Persian Gulf while retaining the ability to protect the safe passage of ships through its waters. The Soviets had to be kept out during the Cold War, and the security and independence of the oil sheikdoms had to be protected from ambitious Arab leaders like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. During the Cold War Americans forged alliances with Turkey, Israel and (until 1979) Iran, three non-Arab states that had their own reasons for opposing both the Soviets and any pan-Arab state. …

Today the U.S. is building a coalition against Iran’s drive for power in the Gulf…. American opposition to Iran’s nuclear program not only reflects concerns about Israeli security and the possibility that Iran might supply terrorist groups with nuclear materials. It also reflects the U.S. interest in protecting its ability to project conventional forces into the Gulf.

The end of America’s ability to safeguard the Gulf and the trade routes around it would be enormously damaging — and not just to us. Defense budgets would grow dramatically in every major power center, and Middle Eastern politics would be further destabilized, as every country sought political influence in Middle Eastern countries to ensure access to oil in the resulting free for all.

A messy business, to be sure. It is perfectly fine for people of the Paul/Derbyshire persuasion to advocate an American departure from the Gulf, but it is really not plausible to also argue that creating such a power vacuum would be largely cost-free. The proper focus of this debate is not so much on whether America should leave the Gulf, but on whether the fallout from such a move is a cost, weighed against the difficulties of continued involvement, that we and our allies should be willing to bear. I think those costs are too high.

As far as thwarting the Iranian nuclear program, I have to point out that among those who wish to avert a confrontation, there is a constant attempt to raise the bar on what will be required to get the job done. I am not a military analyst and do not have access to the relevant intelligence, but from what I’ve read it seems clear that our armed forces should be able to end the Iranian nuclear program without a full-scale ground invasion and occupation. The objective here need not be regime change — only, to borrow your formulation, the idea that nuclear facilities turned into rubble won’t make trouble.

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