It often does not take much to start a war.
The assassination of the Austrian archduke by a Serbian national brought all of Europe into the War to End All Wars (that worked out well). The United States was given an excuse to increase military action in Vietnam by the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which historians purport may never have happened.
And, of course, we have the example of the Iraq War before us.
This brings us to Iran, against which it seems we are teetering on the brink of catastrophe.
Last week it was reported the U.S. government uncovered an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. This has led members of both parties to put on war paint.
“These are acts of war, and they need to be viewed as such,” said former Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said the United States and Iran are on a “collision course.”
And President Obama, in a press conference, vowed to “apply the toughest sanctions and continue to mobilize the international community to make sure that Iran is further and further isolated and pays a price for this kind of behavior.”
Without a doubt, if this incident is legitimate, it is a big deal. But, at times, the evidence does not add up.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, flatly denied the allegations, calling them “meaningless and absurd.” Friends of Manssor “Jack” Arbabsiar, the accused plotter, say he was, according to the Washington Post, “renowned for being almost comically absent-minded, perpetually losing keys, cell phones, briefcases, anything that wasn’t tied down.”
“No way was this guy the master of this plot,” said former roommate Tom Hosseini, according to Reuters. “Iran has 75 million people, and they cannot find a better guy to make a plot like this?”
Even Sen. John McCain, who is on record advocating for regime change in Iran, said, “it is surprising to me how inept it was.”
Nonetheless, let’s assume the allegations are correct, the government is telling the truth and Iran is, as David Ignatius said, “stressed … in ways that are leading them to engage in riskier behavior.”
What do we do now?
We could, as President Obama pledged, apply tougher sanctions. But what would that do? Sanctions are notoriously ineffective. If a country really wants to do something, it will do so, sanctions and international opinion be damned.
But sanctions are a backdoor to war. Which raises the question: Would the United States go to war over this?
According to the New York Times, administration officials have privately said a military response is highly unlikely, so the answer is no for now.
But the war drums are beating. Jamie Fly of the neoconservative organization Foreign Policy Initiative opined that diplomacy has failed, and that “it is time to take military action against the Iranian government elements that support terrorism and its nuclear program.”
This steady march to war — first through innocuous sanctions, then escalating to military action — has been done many times before. And President Obama, he of the Nobel Peace Prize, has proven, by escalating the Afghanistan War and fighting in Libya and, now, Uganda without congressional authorization, that he is plenty capable of entering into such a conflict.
Let it be clear: A war with Iran, no matter how odious the country is, would be unwise. Our troops are stretched thin as it is, and another Middle Eastern quagmire is hardly what the debt-ridden United States needs at present time. And the Just War doctrine principle of reciprocity necessitates a restrained response.
But, for the United States, this incident may just be enough for a response of a different kind.