Back in 1965 the US military at its highest levels was particularly clueless and gripless. We can see that in one short exchange between the President, Lyndon Johnson and the Chief of the JCS, Army General Earle Wheeler as the President considered escalating (that word has been replaced recently by the term "surge") our forces on the ground in South Vietnam.
LBJ "What if they (North Vietnam) matches us escalation for escalation?"
Wheeler "Good! Because then we'll cream them."
We know just who creamed whom a few years later. We also know that our eventual--and inevitable, self-inflicted defeat didn't matter to US interests in the slightest. (See the current visit of the President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam to Washington, DC if you don't believe the Geek.)
Currently the military leadership of the US is not nearly as testicle grabbing, lip licking eager for enlarging the wars on the ground in either Iraq or Afghanistan as some Neocoservatives both in and out of government. Certainly they are not eager to take on a third opponent while we are still in the ring fighting opponents number one and two.
In one sense making the analogy between the self-defeating invitation made by our air attacks on North Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder and not doing the same with respect to Iran today is self-evident. There is little doubt that the Iranians are assisting at least some of the insurgents operating in Iraq. It is probable that Tehran is doing the same on a very limited scale in Afghanistan.
The so what question is easily answered. In neither case is the Iranian assistance of measurable military effectiveness.
The Taliban is given much more significant aid from Pakistan where the current President straddles a narrow and potentially fatal fence between our demands and the power of the Islamists in Pakistan. (Reflect for a couple of seconds where the current protests against the UK granting a knighthood to Salman Rushdie started. That's right. Pakistan.) The leaky border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is Taliban's best support--even though our battlefield rockets and UAV's can easily cross it as well as long as we and the Paks keep quiet about that reality.
Consider Iraq: While the Iraqi population is majority Shiite, this does not mean that Iraqis look to Tehran for guidance, assistance or leadership. There is an old saying in Iraq that the farmer prefers that which grows from his own land. The bridge of religious commonality does not cross the chasm of language and unshared historical experience.
In short, Tehran can count on no major gains by its low risk, low payoff tactic of semi-covert assistance to some insurgent elements in Iraq and Afghanistan. As long as we don't invite the Iranians into the wars by either air operations or overly boisterous "covert" destabilization operations the Iranians will stay on the sidelines muttering dark and meaningless threats.
It can be argued that Iran today is analogous to Imperial Japan seventy-five or so years ago. It can and has been asserted that Iran seeks to be the regional hegemonic power in the Persian Gulf region. This assertion has been buffed up by references to the country's economic strength, read "oil," its growing military power and its nuclear ambitions. Of course, Iran's Islamist credo has been invoked as well.
Leaving aside the nuclear "threat" which will remain a potential and not an actuality for some years to come, the analogy with Imperial Japan is attractive. Japan's political goal in the 1930s and early 1940s was to be the dominant regional power, the hub of something they called "The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." The Japanese invoked religion, culture and their military and industrial power as well as their economic needs and responsibilities to justify their ambition.
A look below the surface changes the analogy. Japan was and Iran is fundamentally weak. Weak industrially, weak economically and weak militarily.
After the United States conducted diplomacy so gripless that it gave Tokyo only two choices--humiliating compliance with American demands or war--Japan was never our major theater of military operations during the Second World War. It was a sideshow. Even so, the US had little difficulty (except for the grunts, squids and zoomies doing the fighting and dying) defeating the Japanese. Even without the use of the two atomic bombs, even without an invasion Tokyo's defeat was inevitable.
The Iranian reality today is one of equivalent weakness. The population is overburdened with young people. Over one in three Iranians is under twenty-five. Unemployment is high (above twenty percent) and rising. Dissatisfaction with the mullahs is also high and rising. The economy is near breakdown. Corruption and theft are as rampant in Iran today as they were in Saddam Hussein's Iraq the day before our big invasion.
True, the Iranians are purchasing new, advanced equipment from Russia. Again the question is so what? It takes more than new hardware to give a military true fighting capacity. It takes leadership, doctrine, training and tradition. The Iranians lack all of these. So far the only capacity the Iranian army has shown in battle is that of dying in large numbers without a complete internal collapse.
If the analogy between Iran and North Vietnam is true, it depends upon the US forcing the Iranians to enter war openly. If the analogy between Imperial Japan and Iran is true, it depends upon inept American diplomacy forcing a lesser-of-two-evils choice on Tehran.
What if neither analogy is true? What if the right analogy is a hyped up version of the confrontation between Nazi Germany and the US, Great Britain and the Soviet Union? What if the right analogy is a hot version of the Cold War between the US and the USSR?
Doesn't the Iranian nuclear project point in those two directions? Doesn't the possible possession of the atomic bomb by a regime given to an apocalyptic world view change the nature of the game so that the only analogy is a Hot War now to prevent a Hotter War later?