Students of defense studies are routinely assigned Barbara Tuchman’s excellent study of the outbreak of the First World War, The Guns of August. The thrust of Tuchman’s analysis was that the stars were aligned in favor of war. Over a number of years national politics, alliance relationships, military organizations and war plans had created a reinforcing architecture that made war all but inevitable. More recent scholarship has taken this thesis a step further, arguing that most of the Great Powers wanted a war, albeit for different and often misguided reasons. All that was required was a trigger.
The situation in the Persian Gulf between Iran and much of the rest of the world increasingly suggests the possibility for a replay of the Guns of August scenario. Teheran is expanding, dispersing and hardening its nuclear enrichment program and trying to find a way around sanctions before its domestic economy is crippled. Beyond the immediate issue of Teheran’s nuclear program there is the changing character of security relationships in the region, the political storms set off by the Arab Spring, the evolving U.S. security posture in the region, the declining strength of Western military establishments in general, the new economics of global energy and the military buildups by the Gulf States.
For many of the parties to this crisis, the future looks decidedly bleak, increasing the incentive to choose a course of action which while not necessarily a good option, is better than doing nothing. Israel cannot tolerate an Iran with nuclear weapons. Moreover, it faces increasing uncertainty regarding the security situation vis-à-vis both Egypt and Syria. The United States military faces major force structure cuts that could well force a choice between operations in the Asia-Pacific region and the Persian Gulf. NATO is a declining military force that could not even agree on the need to intervene in Libya and could not carry out the operation without significant U.S. assistance. Continuing economic problems in Europe virtually guarantee additional cuts in defense spending and military forces. Having expended so much political capital and suffered serious economic consequences, Iran’s leaders cannot of their own volition halt their nuclear enrichment program. But their conventional military capability is likely to atrophy in the near term under the twin pressures of an arms embargo and economic sanctions. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have undertaken major military modernization programs involving, among other things, advanced fighters and theater missile defenses. For virtually all sides, a war now may be a better option than any in the future.
The U.S. is expanding its military presence in the region. Additional mine countermeasure ships and helicopters have been deployed. The USS Stennis carrier battle group is enroute to the region. Israel is deploying additional missile defense units, conducting long-range air operations drills and preparing its population for possible war.
There have been recent news reports that the Israeli government is considering a strike on the Iranian nuclear complex in October, prior to the U.S. presidential elections. This sounds too much like a Hollywood generated, “wag the dog” script. However, there are very real political, strategic, operational and economic reasons to consider the possibility that as in 1914, the guns of war may sound later this year.
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