In a democracy, there are two criteria for deciding whether a nation goes to war. The first is whether or not the war is justified; the second is if the war is wise.
The first issue revolves around the conduct of the other state. Have they committed clear, undisputable acts of war against the nation? There are very strict criteria for this.
The second is tougher and far more subjective. The offended nation must weigh the offense given against the costs of the war. The first question is, can the war be won? The second question is, will waging the war achieve the goals intended? The third question is, will the costs (financial and other) outweigh the benefits?
When these questions are applied vis-a-vis the United States and Iran, the first question is simple. Yes, Iran has committed many, many, many acts of war against us. It started with the Hostage Crisis back in 1979, when they invaded and occupied the United States Embassy (by international law, the embassy was sovereign United States territory), and continued through the 1980s and 1990s, when they backed numerous terrorist attacks in America, Americans, and American interests. They mined the Persian Gulf repeatedly. They attacked United States warships. And now, they are supplying Iraqi terrorists with weapons specifically designed to kill American troops — and have, at last count, killed 170 and wounded over 600.
Do Iran’s actions in Iraq constitute an act of war against the United States? It’s certainly debatable. Similar comparisons can be made to the United States’ actions in the past. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, we freely and openly supplied aid to the insurgents fighting the Communist invaders — aid that was, in the end, essential to bloodying the Bear’s nose.
Also, prior to Pearl Harbor, the United States supplied Great Britain and the Soviet Union with literally millions of tons of weapons and other war materiel. We also attacked German submarines who ventured too close to our shores, or menaced our shipping. We were at war with Germany, in essence, long before Hitler foolishly chose to go beyond his obligations to Japan and declare war on us after Japan attacked us.
In both cases, our “enemies” — the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany — could have made a very credible case for saying we had committed acts of war against them, and declared war against us. But in both cases, such action would not have served their national interests. They were not ready for an open confrontation, so they “overlooked” the actions.
So, do Iran’s actions against the United States — specifically, their supplying Iraqi insurgents with weapons specifically designed to kill and injure American troops, and disabling or destroying American military equipment, along with training and other assistance — constitute a clear act of war against the United States?
I think they do.
But as seen above, that does not necessarily mean that we have to declare war over it — or even react at all. That is another debate entirely.