Between the Anglo-French declaration of war against Germany in September 1939 and the German invasion of France in May 1940, the world had eight months of “phony war” or Sitzkrieg (“sitting war”). Sitzkrieg continued on the Eastern front until June 1941, when Hitler at length invaded Russia. The question in 1940 was Germany’s aggressive intentions; the question today is Iran’s.

Now that the last American combat brigades have left Iraq, the conservative commentariat is unanimous in its self-congratulation for having fought the good fight in Iraq. John Podhoretz’ column today is entitled “Barack the Neocon,” and the editors of National Review boast that  ”we have transformed Iraq from a hostile, terrorist-supporting dictatorship destabilizing the region into a ramshackle democracy that is an ally in the war on terror.” They add: “Any strategy for containing Iran makes no sense unless a stable, U.S-allied Iraq is a bulwark against it.”

Sounds a bit like the Maginot Line. On the contrary: the reason that Iraq appears stable is that the Persians, who invented chess, well understand Aron Nimzovich’s maxim, “The threat is mighter than the execution.” Tehran has used its capacity to turn Iraq into a bloodbath as an instrument of blackmail against the United States: bomb our nuclear facilities, and we will turn Iraq into living hell.

It pains me to point this out, but left-wing commentators are stating the obvious truth that my conservative friends wish to suppress: it is up to Iran to determine how stable Iraq shall be. The odious Tony Karon, for example, wrote today on the Time website:

“[The] political power vacuum is being ably filled by Iran. Saddam’s Iraq was a brutal dictatorship that privileged Sunnis over Shi’ites and Arabs over Kurds, but it also functioned as a bulwark and battering ram against Iran on behalf of neighbors like Saudi Arabia, which funded Iraq’s war against the Islamic Republic. By inverting the domestic power equation — putting Shi’ites in charge, making the Kurds into kingmakers and marginalizing the Sunnis — the U.S. invasion also inverted the regional power equation. Iran, via its long-standing ties to the main Shi’ite parties, emerged as the dominant outside influence in Baghdad’s politics. U.S. officials routinely grumble about Iranian meddling in Iraqi politics, but there’s little they can do, because the vehicles for such meddling are, in fact, popularly elected Iraqi politicians. And Iran recognizes that if it can’t impose a friendly government next door, the next best thing might be a weak government unable to threaten it in the way that Saddam did.

As I wrote in the Tablet webzine last April:
Iran has gained political ascendancy in Iraq through intensive subversion efforts. According to senior military sources cited by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius on February 25, “The Iranians allegedly are pumping $9 million a month in covert aid to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite party that has the most seats in the Iraqi parliament, and $8 million a month to the militant Shiite movement headed by Moqtada al-Sadr.”

Petraeus’s opinions about the Middle East carry less weight than those of his boss, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen, who has been warning against an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear capability for the past year. In a March 16, 2009, interview with Charlie Rose, Mullen said: “What I worry about in terms of an attack on Iran is, in addition to the immediate effect, the effect of the attack, it’s the unintended consequences. It’s the further destabilization in the region. It’s how they would respond. We have lots of Americans who live in that region who are under the threat envelope right now [because of the] capability that Iran has across the Gulf. So, I worry about their responses and I worry about it escalating in ways that we couldn’t predict.”

A rough translation of Mullen’s remarks into civilian political language is that the quixotic notion of building democracy in the Middle East led the United States into an Iranian trap.

The neoconservatives never appear to have noticed that the Iranian leadership was just as keen on building democracy in Iraq as they were. When the American occupation forces held the constitutional referendum in late 2005 that is the putative foundation of Iraqi democracy, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei hailed it as “a great and blessed job” in an October 21, 2005, sermon. “The next important step in Iraq after the referendum is the general elections on which the occupiers are planning right now,” he said. Khamenei called for a truce in the sectarian war between Shi’ites and Sunnis, intoning, “These elements [extremists] are neither Sunni nor Shi’ite but are the enemies of both and Islam.”

Iran retained the capacity to inflict high levels of casualties on the United States throughout the Iraqi democratization campaign but chose not to use it. Instead, it withdrew some of its most exposed and volatile assets, including Muqtada al-Sadr, to Iran. The Iranians counted on the fact that the Americans would soon be gone—and that their proximity, staying power, and affinity with Iraq’s Shi’ite majority would allow the Islamic Republic to emerge as the dominant player in the country.

It is utter and complete folly to attempt to stabilize the plaster and drywall around Iran. To prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the West will have to suffer the consequences that Iran has been preparing for the better part of the decade that Washington wasted in its Mesopotamian distraction. These include civil war in Iraq, interdiction of Persian Gulf shipping through surface-to-sea missiles, rocket attacks on Israel from Lebanon and Gaza, as well as terror attacks all over the world. Lancing the boil now will be painful and messy.

The grand vulnerability of the West is fear of chaos. The grand advantage of Iran and Islamic radicals generally is their willingness to place the burden of uncertainty upon the enemy by threatening chaos.

If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will be free to subvert its neighbors and perpetrate acts of terrorism under a nuclear umbrella, and the world will change drastically for the worse. To prevent this from happening the West must attack Iran’s capacity to make nuclear weapons, and do it soon. Just how much time we have before Iran makes a deliverable bomb, I do not know and cannot find out. Operational estimates of this sort are dicey at best; if some intelligence agency has a definitive estimate, no-one will tell me. My view on timing is: Why take chances? Get it over with now.

That probably means a prolonged civil war in Iraq between the Shi’ite forces funded and trained by Iran and the 100,000-strong Sunni Awakening funded and trained by General Petraeus during the so-called surge. It may mean a replay of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, but as a civil war in Iraq, spilling over into several other venues, notably Pakistan. It may involve casualties an order of magnitude larger than the million dead in the Iran-Iraq conflict.

And that is the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is a nuclearized Middle East and an inevitable nuclear exchange among several players, with casualties two orders of magnitude larger than the Iran-Iraq war—a hundred million dead or more. It is questionable whether the State of Israel could survive such a conflict. When all was lost, Hitler and Goebbels hoped to burn on the funeral pyre of civilization and take everything down with them. Tehran may do the same.

We are going to have something very much like the Thirty Years War in the Middle East. We cannot avoid it; we should consider how to win it. The winner of the last Thirty Years War was Cardinal Richelieu, and I highly recommend close study of his methods.