Underlying his narrative, along with the narratives of many Iran hawks, though, is a broader argument about vital interests that needs to be challenged; namely, that all potential threats to the most expansive conception of American interests require aggressive confrontation. Always. Kroenig is level-headed enough to acknowledge that the Iranian leaders are unlikely to launch a suicidal nuclear exchange with Israel or U.S. regional forces just for shits and giggles. His most reasonable concern seems to be that “[h]aving the bomb would give Iran greater cover for conventional aggression and coercive diplomacy.” The logic here merits more than a couple of sentences, but I’ll stipulate that, all else equal, a nuclear Iran would have a marginally easier time engaging in regional proxy conflicts and flexing its coercive muscles. An Iran with the bomb would be m0re or less insulated from regime change via conventional military invasion, since this is the one scenario in which the regime in Tehran could credibly threaten to unleash its arsenal. This would, I suppose, reduce American strategic flexibility. A bit.
To my mind, though, this is simply a cost of defining one’s national interests on a global scale. At a certain point, American leaders need to decide what interests are worth aggressively defending, and then acknowledge that some level of running conflict beyond those red lines is inevitable. It’s not like Iranian conventional capabilities are sufficient to overwhelm American and allied forces in the Persian Gulf, or anyplace else in the region. It’s this inability to brook any challenge to American dominance anywhere that got the U.S. mired in Vietnam. It’s this same basic mentality that got the British into costly and stupid wars in Afghanistan during the 19th Century (the Russians are someplace out there and if we don’t lock down the Hindu Kush they might somehow threaten India someday!). I’ll acknowledge that, the global energy economy being what it is, keeping oil stably flowing out of the Persian Gulf is a vital American interest. It’s one that should have been dealt with long ago via domestic technological and infrastructural improvements, rather than a decades-long military commitment halfway around the world, but it is important regardless.
Imagining, though, that the U.S. requires absolute and unchallenged dominance of the entire Middle East, and that it’s worth starting a potentially catastrophic war in order to prevent the eventual possibility that such dominance might become more strategically expensive, is wrongheaded. If Americans are unwilling to acknowledge that some hostile relationships require management rather than decisive transformative action, they have no business trying to run a global empire.*