January 3, 2024 - 4:00pm

“Iran is a terror octopus,” wrote Naftali Bennett, Israel’s former prime minister, on X last week while sharing an article he had written for the Wall Street Journal. “It’s time for the US and its allies to target its head, Tehran, and bring down its regime.”

That same day John Bolton, previously a national security advisor to Donald Trump, made essentially the same argument in the Telegraph. “It has been clear for years that overthrowing the mullahs, [and] replacing them with some other form of government that enjoys the support of Iran’s citizenry, is central to decreasing insecurity throughout the Middle East,” he wrote. 

The accusation, that a large part of Iranian foreign policy operates through regional proxies, is entirely fair. Tehran has strong relationships with all the groups mentioned, as well as politically powerful militias in Iraq and Syria. There is also no doubt that groups supported by Iran are creating political volatility across the Middle East and beyond. But would war with Iran really solve these problems and make the region “less insecure”, as Bolton claims?

Events have clearly escalated. On Tuesday, senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri was killed by an alleged Israeli attack in Lebanon, suggesting that the Gaza conflict is set to spread further. Earlier today, over 100 people were killed as a result of two explosions in Kerman on the fourth anniversary of the American assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. In addition, according to US Central Command, the Houthis are now responsible for 23 attempted strikes on commercial shipping in the Red Sea since mid-November. Meanwhile, US troops stationed in Iraq and Syria have been attacked more than 100 times since the start of October.

These incidents are directly connected to what is occurring in Gaza, with Abu Alaa al-Walaei, head of the Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada group in Iraq, declaring they would not end without a ceasefire there. Similar sentiments exist across much of the Muslim world, with or without Iranian assistance, but what Tehran brings is military intelligence and hardware capabilities such as drones and precision-guided missiles

It is beyond doubt that Iran is a major thorn in the side of both the US and Israel, but the benefits of a confrontation appear dubious. Just as the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the catalyst for Iranian influence in its western neighbour, Saudi Arabia’s war with Yemen did the same for the Arabian peninsula after 2015. War, like so much else, can succumb to the law of unintended consequences. Even after the debacles of the last 20 years, that is something too few decision-makers in the West seem able to grasp.

A failed state with a population of 90 million people is an attractive proposition to very few outside neoconservative circles in Washington. Further, it is rarely mentioned how the successor to the present regime in Tehran would likely be some form of military autocracy. This was, after all, the milieu from which Reza Shah emerged a century ago when he overthrew the Qajar dynasty. Among the swollen ranks of the country’s Revolutionary Guard there are many figures who would excel in the vacuum of an Iraq-style war. There is also no guarantee that a post-theocratic Iran — led by military men and ultra-nationalists — would be more stable, or friendly to its neighbours, than at present. 

The potential downsides of a botched war with Iran, a nation three times the size of Iraq, are hard to exaggerate. The country’s landmass is the size of Germany, France and Ukraine combined, while decades of sanctions have made it an industrial autarky which produces more steel than any EU country except Germany. 

Iran has the capacity to feed itself, enjoys an abundance of fossil fuels (whose sale, as with Russia, has blunted the effectiveness of US sanctions), and has an impressive military-industrial complex. The Mohajer-6 is comparable to the much-vaunted Bayraktar drones produced by Turkey, and the Quds Force is among the most feared extraterritorial services in the region. The country claims to have developed a hypersonic missile — although the veracity of this remains to be seen

This is all before touching on the fact that retaliation via proxies would be a disaster. A blockade of the Strait of Hormuz — central to Iranian self-defence doctrine — would send energy prices far higher than last year. But to America, that is perhaps not a major concern: high energy prices aren’t all bad for a net exporter like the US. While millions of displaced Iranians might head west as refugees displaced by war, few would cross the Atlantic — so it’s easy to see why the likes of John Bolton are calling for war. Insulated by two giant oceans, America sees few of the downsides when things go wrong. 

While war with Iran might not be good from Washington’s perspective — particularly if large sums of money are spent and casualties suffered — for Europe it would be an unadulterated disaster. Given the key foreign policy decisions made by the US in recent decades, we are entering very dangerous waters.

Aaron Bastani is the co-founder of Novara Media, and the author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism.