The American public is understandably skeptical about potential war with Iran. As I wrote just a short time ago, the U.S. success in dissuading Iranian attacks against American military forces has made officials in the Trump administration look like the boy who cried wolf and warmongers. The new criticism, sometimes veiled with satire, has been that the recent tanker attack that America blamed on Iran is just a false flag similar to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident used to escalate the Vietnam War or attack Iraq.
I find that premise faulty for a variety of reasons. The comments about the military industrial complex, calling people warmonger, and neverending wars are ridiculous. They are talking points that have been repeated since World War I. There is not a cabal of munitions makers or F-35 industrialists forcing the U.S. into war nor is there some grand war-like conspiracy. There are those that are more hawkish than others, but they view war as a sometimes necessary tool of foreign policy, and warmonger is a convenient epitaph to discredit them without having actually made a case against war.
The tankers attacked were not flying the U.S. flag, and so the reasoning goes we have no compelling national interest in this matter. Iran is just a tiny country who poses no threat to us and America already spends more than the next eight countries combined on the military.
A more reasonable and less conspiratorial or paranoid explanation is that the world is a dangerous place and, as the leading world power, the United States has a role in maintaining peace. Iranian actions are more important and potentially catastrophic than isolationists argue. Just like the Freedom of Navigation patrols in the South China Sea, protecting the commons is a necessary step leading toward peace. If international law is disregarded, it will be a free-for-all in this region, where disputes are settled by force. As the biggest military power in the region near a very narrow straight, Iran could easily close a vital artery through which 25 percent of the world’s oil is shipped. Iran doesn’t need to beat the U.S. in a symmetric fight (and there are several problems with assessing problems based on military spending anyways), they just need to use fast boats and mines right off their coastal waters to interdict enough ships and make it too dangerous to move through the Strait of Hormuz. If matters are volatile right now, imagine how bad they are when nations are scrambling for oil and the price of gas tripled for American consumers.
And all of this without considering Iran both wants to have nuclear weapons and sponsor terrorism as an arm of foreign policy. As I’ve mentioned before, at best this will lead to a conventional arms race in the Middle East where powers like Saudi Arabia will heavily invest in weapons. Americans are upset with Saudi Arabia’s counter-insurgency in Yemen, so ignoring Iranian provocation would have the unfortunate side effect of giving Saudi Arabia more tools and reason to fight Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen.
Considering the consequences of terrorists armed with nuclear weapons, at best a conventional arms race in the Middle East, fighting Iranian-backed proxies across the region resulting in untold suffering of civilians, and cutting off the vital oil supply facilitated via the Strait of Hormuz, it seems like a small investment to solidify world opinion against Iran and station forces in the region in order to deter a bellicose Iran.