Since last week’s Iran analogy was so well-received, I thought it might also be fruitful to examine the other popular analogy regarding Iran: The Cold War.
Like the Old Cold War with the Soviet Union, the New Cold War with Iran has deep historical roots.
The Old Cold War resulted from the historical drive of Russian expansion. Russia’s imperialistic urge erupted instantaneously after it broke free of the Golden Horde in 1480, as it sought to dominate the power vacuum left by the Horde’s demise, and recapture the glory of 9th Century Kievan Rus. Invasions of Lithuania and Poland commenced, followed by intervention in modern-day Estonia and Latvia, and clashes over the Ukraine with the other great power interested in European expansion: the Ottomans. Finally in the 1940’s, with Europe in turmoil and the Ottoman Empire a distant memory, Russia was able to push as far as Berlin. But the glory would prove ephemeral, and the thousand-year-old dream was crushed by the fall of the Soviet Empire. Eastern European NATO membership is a spear in the side. And just to make sure, the US pushes for Ukrainian entrance into NATO, upon which “Russia's imperial aspirations are essentially nostalgia,” to quote Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Similarly, the New Cold War has ancient origins.
Iran is driven by a desire for regional domination that stretches back to the 6th century BCE days of Cyrus the Great. Once Cyrus’ empire was established, Persia stretched its arm as far west as possible, until the Greeks slapped it back at the Battle of Thermopylae. Persia retreated to Asia, where it has remained ever since, pursuing the more humble ambitions of regional power. Whenever possible, it acts on its urge for western expansion. It battled the Ottomans a time or two for possession of Baghdad and overall Persian Gulf dominance, but generally the Ottomans and their successor nation-states were successful in checking the Persian expansionist urge. Thus the genesis of the New Cold War, explained by Robin Wright in the Washington Post last year:
The roots of Cold War II lie in the Bush administration's decision to remove regimes it considered enemies after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The first two targets were the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- coincidentally, both foes of Iran that had served as important checks on Tehran's power. The United States has now taken on the role traditionally played by Iraq as the regional counterweight to Iran.Cold War echoes can now be heard, in both rhetoric and strategy.
Iranian rhetoric toward Israel is evocative of Reagan’s rhetoric toward the Soviet Union. Ahmadinejad’s statements that the Israeli government is a “stinking corpse” and that the “regime is on its way to annihilation,” and that the Israeli government must “vanish from the pages of time” (or whatever translation you prefer), seem rhetorically derivative of Reagan’s statement on the “decay of the Soviet experiment” and his proclamation “that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last -- last pages even now are being written,” and that “the march of freedom and democracy… will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history.”
Also, as in the Old Cold War, actors pursue success via consolidation of power blocs. As Robin Wright wrote:
The Bush administration is now adapting the tactics of the last Cold War to the new one. In the 1940s, the Soviet Union lowered its Iron Curtain to shore up communism in Eastern Europe and prevent penetration from the West. The former Kremlinologists now running U.S. foreign policy, such as Rice and Gates, are trying their own version, with a Green Curtain designed to cut off the bloc of Iranian-linked radicals and protect U.S. allies in the Middle East.The American bloc is currently “weak,” “feckless,” and “divided,” as Thomas Friedman tells us, which presents a conundrum for our presidential candidates.
Democrats offer a relaxation of tensions as a solution to America’s relative weakness. This alternative extends the Cold War scenario - though tensions will be relaxed, goals will still conflict. Republicans offer regime change via propagation of the notion that the Iranian government is illegitimate. This alternative solves the Counterbalancing Iran problem by advocating Iran’s eventual destruction. Both proposals have problems, and neither presents a path for transforming Iran’s imperial ambitions to nostalgia.
If we believe Iran’s leaders, a nuclear weapon will have no effect on its quest for regional dominance. As Ali Larijani (now Iran’s parliament speaker) has said:
The root of regional power is not from the bomb. For example Pakistan: it didn't have nuclear weapons before, now it does. How much did its influence in the region change? Therefore, from a point of view of realities, there's no reason for us to pay the cost and go after it.Thus voters should carefully examine the moral and Realpolitik realities lurking quietly beneath Iran policy campaign rhetoric.