WASHINGTON, Feb. 14 (UPI) -- The crisis between Iran and the West has escalated to an alarming degree. Barring a show of realism on the part of Iran, resulting in its suspension of enrichment activities, or a willingness on the part of the United States to engage in talks without pre-conditions, a U.S.-Iran military confrontation may become inevitable.
Before this is allowed to happen, the West should have a correct assessment of the seriousness of the Iranian threat to regional and international security, the consequences of a military attack on Iran, and the relative costs and benefits.
Some Western and Middle Eastern commentators have offered highly exaggerated assessments of the nature and scope of the Iranian regional and global security threat, comparing it to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
Clearly, Iran's support for Hezbollah and militant Palestinian groups, its non-constructive approach to the Arab-Israeli peace process, and its ambiguous role in Iraq have destabilizing effects in the region. And the morally and politically unacceptable statements by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, notably his denial of the Holocaust and his threatening language toward Israel, have created legitimate anxieties.
Yet these transgressions do not make Iran a Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Iran lacks the economic and military power to pose a serious regional let alone global threat. Turkey, Pakistan, and Israel have larger and better equipped armies, the latter two with nuclear bombs. The Western-U.S. military presence the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan decisively tips the military balance against Iran.
Beyond helping Hezbollah and Palestinian groups, Iran is not engaged in other terrorist acts. In Iraq, most bombings have been carried out by Sunni insurgents, supported financially by official and private Arab sources, and by volunteer fighters with support from Arab governments. Shias have constituted most of the dead and wounded.
In the last 200 years, Iran has not attacked its neighbors, but has frequently been attacked by others, mostly recently by Iraq.
Iran's leadership potential in the region is also limited. For most Arabs, it remains a Shia-Persian interloper that has no right to meddle in Arab and Islamic affairs.
Iran's ideology is not democratic, but neither is it totalitarian or racist. Notwithstanding Ahmedinejad's rants Iran has the largest Jewish community outside of Israel in the Middle East.
Moreover, most Iranians and a good part of the political elite oppose their government's policies and confrontational style and language.
In sum, Iran can neither militarily threaten its neighbors nor impose its political hegemony. On Arab-Israeli peacemaking, Iran's impact is limited. Any time the Palestinians/Arabs and Israelis have agreed on a plan, Iran's influence has counted for nothing. Under such circumstances, notably after the 1993 Oslo Accords, even Hezbollah has tried to gain political legitimacy.
Now the question must be asked what would be the consequences, costs, and benefits of a military attack against Iran.
An attack on Iran would foster extreme instability from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea. Should an attack on Iran lead to its territorial disintegration, as some would like to happen, this would unleash centrifugal forces that would not remain limited to Iran. The idea proposed by some that Iran should be reduced neatly to its "Persian core" cannot be realized easily or cheaply or without involving other countries, such as Azerbaijan, Turkey, Pakistan and, potentially Russia. Iranian nationalism is stronger and its neighbors' ethnic problems are more substantial than many believe.
Entities emerging from Iran's collapse would not be economically and otherwise viable, raising the question of who would be responsible for the enormous task of nation- building that would lie ahead. If nation-building has not been easy in Afghanistan and Iraq, each of which has some experience of statehood, why should it be easy in Khuzistan, Baluchistan, or Kurdistan?
Benefits of an attack on Iran are also illusory. Turmoil in Iran or its disintegration will not lead the Palestinians to give up their quest for statehood or the Arabs to show flexibility on this issue. On the contrary, once relieved of the Iranian challenge, Arab countries may well become even less compromising on Palestine and also on energy issues. Nor would Iran's diminution solve the problem of Shia aspirations for legitimacy and emancipation after centuries of discrimination and vilification. They would pursue their claims even without Iran.
Iran should not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons or impose its hegemony on the region, and it should be pressed to alter its positions on key issues. But is the use of military force or sustained efforts to destabilize Iran the best way to achieve these goals? And do the benefits justify the high costs involved? Clearly not.
(Shireen T. Hunter is a visiting fellow and adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, and was formerly deputy director of the Middle East program and director of the Islam Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.)
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)