A Global Game of Chicken
Can Washington and Tehran avoid war?
Are the U.S. and Iranian governments on a breakneck collision course toward war? Or are they just playing chicken with each other—though if they are, why should we trust either one of them to swerve off the road in time to avoid catastrophe?
They've been revving the engines and rattling the sabers loud and hard lately. In the past few weeks, President Bush has released a document on national-security strategy that declares Iran to be the single biggest threat on the planet. Vice President Dick Cheney has warned that Iran will face serious consequences if it continues to enrich uranium. Joseph Cirincione, a sober-minded nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment, writes in the new issue of Foreign Policy:
For months, I have told interviewers that no senior political or military official was seriously considering a military attack on Iran. In the last few weeks, I have changed my view. In part, this shift was triggered by colleagues with close ties to the Pentagon and the executive branch who have convinced me that some senior officials have already made up their minds: They want to hit Iran.
The Iranians are hardly cowering. In their "Great Prophet" naval exercises this past week, Iran's Republican Guard test-fired new missiles and torpedoes for which they boasted astonishing powers: an anti-ship missile invisible to radar and capable of hitting several targets; an "ultra-horizon" missile that can be fired from any plane or helicopter; and a "super-modern flying boat," also undetectable by radar, that can launch missiles with precision while moving.
The claims are either mundane or preposterous. Still, the message is clear: If the United States attacks Iran, Iran will strike back. In this respect, the location of the exercises was especially pertinent—the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow neck of the Persian Gulf through which one-third of the world's oil exports flow. The Washington Post's Dana Priest also reports that U.S. intelligence experts believe that Iran would retaliate with terrorist strikes worldwide.
At a series of seminars at the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday, analysts and ex-officials debated the pros and cons of attacking Iran's nuclear facilities, but they agreed that keeping the conflict to a snappy "limited strike" was unlikely; it would almost certainly escalate to all-out war, with regional and possibly global repercussions.
The growling and brandishing have grown intense lately, in part because of the U.N. Security Council statement, passed by consensus on March 29, giving Iran 30 days to suspend its enrichment of uranium. Or else what? It's unclear. Sanctions would ordinarily be the sequel to such a declaration; but Russia and China have said, for now, that they won't support sanctions.
So, the Bush administration is sending signals—to the Iranians but also to the Russians, Chinese, and Europeans—that it might enforce the deadline in its own, more forceful manner if the Security Council goes wobbly. And the Iranians are sending signals back that they have their own array of options and therefore won't succumb to pressure.
That's the game of chicken. Two cars speed toward each other, head-on, late at night. There are three possible outcomes. One driver gets nervous and veers away at the last second; he loses. Both drivers veer away; the game's a draw. They both keep zooming straight ahead; everybody dies. Back in the early '60s, the flamboyant nuclear strategist Herman Kahn wrote that one way to win at chicken was to detach the steering wheel and wave it out of the window; the other driver, seeing you can't pull off the road, will be forced to do so himself. The dreadful thing about the current showdown between America and Iran is that both drivers seem to be unscrewing their steering wheels; they're girding themselves so firmly in their positions—the Americans saying Iran's enrichment is an intolerable threat to security, the Iranians saying it's an absolute ingredient of national integrity—that backing down is a course neither is willing to take.
There's another dangerous thing about chicken. One or both drivers might intend to veer off, but they know they don't have to until the last second. They might accelerate, to step up the pressure, as the cars approach each other; miscalculations—of time, distance, and intentions—could ensue; a collision could happen by accident.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.