By Niall Ferguson
Are we living through the origins of the next world war? Certainly, it is easy to imagine how a future historian might deal with the next phase of events in the Middle East:
With every passing year after the turn of the century, the instability of the Gulf region grew. By the beginning of 2006, nearly all the combustible ingredients for a conflict – far bigger in its scale and scope than the wars of 1991 or 2003 – were in place.
The first underlying cause of the war was the increase in the region’s relative importance as a source of petroleum. On the one hand, the rest of the world’s oil reserves were being rapidly exhausted. On the other, the breakneck growth of the Asian economies had caused a huge surge in global demand for energy. It is hard to believe today, but for most of the 1990s the price of oil had averaged less than $20 a barrel.
A second precondition of war was demographic. While European fertility had fallen below the natural replacement rate in the 1970s, the decline in the Islamic world had been much slower. By the late 1990s the fertility rate in the eight Muslim countries to the south and east of the European Union was two and half times higher than the European figure.
This tendency was especially pronounced in Iran, where the social conservatism of the 1979 Revolution – which had lowered the age of marriage and prohibited contraception – combined with the high mortality of the Iran-Iraq War and the subsequent baby boom to produce, by the first decade of the new century, a quite extraordinary surplus of young men. More than two fifths of the population of Iran in 1995 had been aged 14 or younger. This was the generation that was ready to fight in 2007.
This not only gave Islamic societies a youthful energy that contrasted markedly with the slothful senescence of Europe. It also signified a profound shift in the balance of world population. In 1950, there had three times as many people in Britain as in Iran. By 1995, the population of Iran had overtaken that of Britain and was forecast to be 50 per cent higher by 2050.
Yet people in the West struggled to grasp the implications of this shift. Subliminally, they still thought of the Middle East as a region they could lord it over, as they had in the mid-20th century.
The third and perhaps most important precondition for war was cultural. Since 1979, not just Iran but the greater part of the Muslim world had been swept by a wave of religious fervour, the very opposite of the process of secularisation that was emptying Europe’s churches.
Although few countries followed Iran down the road to full-blown theocracy, there was a transformation in politics everywhere. From Morocco to Pakistan, the feudal dynasties or military strongmen who had dominated Islamic politics since the 1950s came under intense pressure from religious radicals.
The ideological cocktail that produced ‘Islamism’ was as potent as either of the extreme ideologies the West had produced in the previous century, communism and fascism. Islamism was anti-Western, anti-capitalist and anti-Semitic. A seminal moment was the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s intemperate attack on Israel in December 2005, when he called the Holocaust a ‘myth’. The state of Israel was a ‘disgraceful blot’, he had previously declared, to be wiped ‘off the map’.
Prior to 2007, the Islamists had seen no alternative but to wage war against their enemies by means of terrorism. From the Gaza to Manhattan, the hero of 2001 was the suicide bomber. Yet Ahmadinejad, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, craved a more serious weapon than strapped-on explosives. His decision to accelerate Iran’s nuclear weapons programme was intended to give Iran the kind of power North Korea already wielded in East Asia: the power to defy the United States; the power to obliterate America’s closest regional ally.
Under different circumstances, it would not have been difficult to thwart Ahmadinejad’s ambitions. The Israelis had shown themselves capable of pre-emptive air strikes against Iraq’s nuclear facilities in 1981. Similar strikes against Iran’s were urged on President Bush by neo-conservative commentators throughout 2006. The United States, they argued, was perfectly placed to carry out such strikes. It had the bases in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan. It had the intelligence proving Iran’s contravention of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
But the President was advised by his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to opt instead for diplomacy. Not just European opinion but American opinion was strongly opposed to an attack on Iran. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 had been discredited by the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein had supposedly possessed and by the failure of the US-led coalition to quell a bloody insurgency.
Americans did not want to increase their military commitments overseas; they wanted to reduce them. Europeans did not want to hear that Iran was about to build its own WMD. Even if Ahmad-inejad had broadcast a nuclear test live on CNN, liberals would have said it was a CIA con-trick.
So history repeated itself. As in the 1930s, an anti-Semitic demagogue broke his country’s treaty obligations and armed for war. Having first tried appeasement, offering the Iranians economic incentives to desist, the West appealed to international agencies – the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council. Thanks to China’s veto, however, the UN produced nothing but empty resolutions and ineffectual sanctions, like the exclusion of Iran from the 2006 World Cup finals.
Only one man might have stiffened President Bush’s resolve in the crisis: not Tony Blair, he had wrecked his domestic credibility over Iraq and was in any case on the point of retirement – Ariel Sharon. Yet he had been struck down by a stroke as the Iranian crisis came to a head. With Israel leaderless, Ahmadinejad had a free hand.
As in the 1930s, too, the West fell back on wishful thinking. Perhaps, some said, Ahmadinejad was only sabre-rattling because his domestic position was so weak. Perhaps his political rivals in the Iranian clergy were on the point of getting rid of him. In that case, the last thing the West should do was to take a tough line; that would only bolster Ahmadinejad by inflaming Iranian popular feeling. So in Washington and in London people crossed their fingers, hoping for the deus ex machina of a home-grown regime change in Teheran.
This gave the Iranians all the time they needed to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium at Natanz. The dream of nuclear non-proliferation, already interrupted by Israel, Pakistan and India, was definitively shattered. Now Teheran had a nuclear missile pointed at Tel-Aviv. And the new Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu had a missile pointed right back at Teheran.
The optimists argued that the Cuban Missile Crisis would replay itself in the Middle East. Both sides would threaten war – and then both sides would blink. That was Secretary Rice’s hope – indeed, her prayer – as she shuttled between the capitals. But it was not to be.
The devastating nuclear exchange of August 2007 represented not only the failure of diplomacy, it marked the end of the oil age. Some even said it marked the twilight of the West. Certainly, that was one way of interpreting the subsequent spread of the conflict as Iraq’s Shi’ite population overran the remaining American bases in their country and the Chinese threatened to intervene on the side of Teheran.
Yet the historian is bound to ask whether or not the true significance of the 2007-2011 war was to vindicate the Bush administration’s original principle of pre-emption. For, if that principle had been adhered to in 2006, Iran’s nuclear bid might have been thwarted at minimal cost. And the Great Gulf War might never have happened.
• Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University http://www.niallferguson.org
© Niall Ferguson, 2006 ”