With the successful P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran, President Obama bequeathed Donald Trump a unique window to defuse tensions with Tehran. In compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed to with the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K., France, and Germany, Iran had shipped 97 percent of its enriched uranium out of the country. But instead of using the opportunity to pursue a détente of sorts with Tehran to address its ballistic missile program, Iran’s involvement in Yemen and Syria, and other issues, Trump chose confrontation. In 2018, the 45th president withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA it helped create and designated the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a foreign terrorist group. Predictably, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani returned the favor, branding as terrorists all U.S. military forces in the region.
While our European partners rejected an Iranian ultimatum to buck Trump’s expanded sanctions regime, it’s no surprise they have signaled no willingness to follow the United States into a conflict with Iran. As the Trump administration points to sabotage of oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, drone strikes on Saudi oil facilities, Shiite militia targeting of U.S. embassy personnel in Baghdad, and other unspecified threats to American forces in the region, our allies remain skeptical—with good reason.
Trump, who throughout 2011, 2012, and 2013 charged that Barack Obama would attack Iran to secure re-election and show his toughness, has boasted that if the U.S. was going to get into a military conflict with Iran, “we’d send a hell of a lot more” than 120,000 troops. Leading the charge is Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton—the same John Bolton who in 2015 wrote “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran” and in 2017 told the Iranian resistance group MEK at their annual meeting in Paris:
“The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran. The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself. That’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!”
Meanwhile, heading the war caucus in Congress is Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton. Cotton, who was one of the 47 GOP signatories of a 2015 letter to the “leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran” promising the next president could reverse Obama’s nuclear agreement “with the stroke of a pen,” bragged this week that the United States would defeat Iran in “two strikes”:
“Could we win in a war with Iran?” PBS’ “Firing Line” host Margaret Hoover asked Cotton during a recent interview.
“Yes, two strikes,” Cotton said. “The first strike and the last strike.”
Americans can be forgiven if Cotton’s talking point sounds sickeningly familiar. After all, then-Vice President Dick Cheney guaranteed American troops “will, in fact be greeted as liberators” in Iraq after a quick victory the likes of John McCain forecast would be achieved “within about three weeks.” And as Adam Taylor warned last week in the Washington Post, “A conflict with Iran would not be like the Iraq War. It would be worse.”
Despite the similarities, a conflict with Iran would not simply be a redux of the 2003 war with Iraq. It would be quite different in many ways — and it would almost certainly be substantially worse. Present-day Iran is a significantly different country compared to Iraq in 2003. The way it would fight a war is very different, too.
Very different and substantially worse, indeed. Here’s why, rather than eliminating a future nuclear threat from Iran, a preventive U.S. military strike could produce “the worst of all worlds.”
Iran, after all, is far larger than Iraq. With more than 80 million people, the country has triple the population of its Shiite majority neighbor. According to the Global Firepower Index, the conventional Iranian military counts more than 530,000 frontline personnel and 1.8 million reservists, along with about 2,000 tanks and self-propelled guns. (Those numbers exclude the Basij volunteer paramilitaries, who died by the tens of thousands during the Iraq-Iran war and who cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators in 2009.) Its surface fleet and aging 470 aircraft don’t pose a serious challenge to U.S air and naval forces in the Persian Gulf and throughout the region. But Tehran’s asymmetric warfare capabilities pose the real problem for American forces. Hundreds of small attack boats and mines, along with more modern anti-ship missiles, could inflict casualties among U.S. ships in the tight quarters of the Straits of Hormuz. Tehran’s Quds Forces and Revolutionary Guards have helped train and lead Shiite militia in Iraq, Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon and Syria, and carry out terror operations as far afield as Saudi Arabia and Argentina. Whether attacked by Israel, the United States or both, Iran would almost surely strike back with what long-range missiles it possesses, as well with its proxy forces in Gaza and Lebanon.
In January 2008, a confrontation between a handful of Iranian patrol boats and U.S. ships provided in miniature a preview of a future conflict for American commanders. As the New York Times recalled, the episode recalled the outcome of an earlier $250 million war game simulation which did not end well for the U.S.:
In the days since the encounter with five Iranian patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz, American officers have acknowledged that they have been studying anew the lessons from a startling simulation conducted in August 2002. In that war game, the Blue Team navy, representing the United States, lost 16 major warships — an aircraft carrier, cruisers and amphibious vessels — when they were sunk to the bottom of the Persian Gulf in an attack that included swarming tactics by enemy speedboats.
“The sheer numbers involved overloaded their ability, both mentally and electronically, to handle the attack,” said Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, a retired Marine Corps officer who served in the war game as commander of a Red Team force representing an unnamed Persian Gulf military. “The whole thing was over in 5, maybe 10 minutes.”
Still, during the Obama administration many of his opponents in the U.S. and Israel casually brushed off Iranian capabilities and Tehran’s likely response to supposed surgical strikes designed to cripple its nuclear infrastructure. As Bolton put it four years ago, “The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.”
But the Iranian scenario is altogether different from the Israeli raids on Osirak and the Syrian reactor. Neither Saddam Hussein (then an American ally) nor Bashar Al-Assad posed a serious threat of military retaliation to the one-off Israeli strikes. Crippling Tehran’s nuclear capability would require a sustained military campaign that, short of total invasion and occupation, would only temporarily delay the Iranian program.
That’s the precisely the point that then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey made clear in 2015. Carter, the Los Angeles Times reported, “sought to downplay the likelihood or the utility of an attack” because “no plan under consideration, including use of the newly bunker-buster bombs, could deliver a permanent knockout blow to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and enrichment plants.”
“A military strike of that kind is a setback, but it doesn’t prevent the reconstitution over time,” he said. “And that basically has been the case as long as we’ve had those instruments and those plans, and I don’t think there’s anything substantially changed since then.”
U.S. officials have publicized the new bomb partly to rattle the Iranians. Some Pentagon officials warned not to underestimate U.S. military capabilities even if the bunker-busters can’t eliminate Iran’s nuclear program.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested at the same Pentagon news conference Thursday that airstrikes might be ordered multiple times if Iran tries to build a bomb.
The military option “isn’t used once and set aside,” he said. “It remains in place. … We will always have military options, and a massive ordnance penetrator is one of them.”
Just as important, the danger from an Iranian response is quantitatively and qualitatively of a different magnitude than Saddam in 1981 or Assad in 2007 could have posed.
That’s why leaders of the national security establishments in both Israel and the U.S. have long warned about what such operations will entail. Short of a total invasion and occupation of that nation of some 82 million people, the deployment of Iranian nuclear weapons can only be delayed, not halted, by military action. And the resulting carnage and chaos throughout the Middle East would make the U.S. conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq seem like picnics in comparison.
At a minimum, thousands of Iranian civilians would die in an American attack against Tehran’s nuclear installations. Even if the Israelis alone launched a strike against Iran’s nuclear sites, Tehran will almost certainly hit back against U.S. targets in the Straits of Hormuz, in the region, possibly in Europe, and even potentially in the American homeland. And Israel would face certain retaliation from Hezbollah rockets launched from Lebanon and Syria, and Hamas missiles raining down from Gaza.
That’s why it came as no surprise in May 2012 when a majority of Netanyahu’s own defense chiefs opposed an Israeli strike on the mullahs’ nuclear facilities. That same month, the New York Times reported that Israel’s former intelligence chief Meir Dagan “has said that a strike on Iran’s nuclear installations would be ‘a stupid idea,’ adding that military action might not achieve all of its goals and could lead to a long war.” Why?
“A strike could accelerate the procurement of the bomb,” claimed Dagan, who spoke at a conference held at the National Security Studies Institute in Tel Aviv. “An attack isn’t enough to stop the project.”
Dagan posited that military action would align the Iranian population behind the regime, thus solving the country’s political and financial problems. Moreover, he asserted that in the case of an Israeli strike, Iran could declare before the world that it was attacked even while adhering to agreements made with the International Atomic Energy Agency – by a country that reportedly possess “strategic capabilities.”
“We would provide them with the legitimacy to achieve nuclear capabilities for military purposes,” he said.
Short of a large-scale invasion and occupation of Iran by American forces, U.S. military action might still only delay the Iranian bomb Tehran would doubtless go into overdrive to produce. That’s why former Bush Defense Secretary Bob Gates and CIA head Michael Hayden raised the alarms about the “disastrous” impact of supposedly surgical strikes against the Ayatollah’s nuclear infrastructure. As the New York Times reported in March 2012:
A classified war simulation held this month to assess the repercussions of an Israeli attack on Iran forecasts that the strike would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead, according to American officials.
And the costs in lives and treasure would be staggering. In November 2012, the Federation of American Scientists estimated that a U.S. campaign of air strikes would cost the global economy $700 billion; a full-scale invasion could have a total impact of $1.7 trillion. Two months earlier, a bipartisan report signed by ex-national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, retired Admiral William Fallon, former Republican senator and Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, and others warned Americans about the cost of trying to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program once and for all:
A unilateral Israeli attack would set back the Iranian nuclear program by only 2 years and an American attack by 4 years. But if the objective is “ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear bomb,” the U.S. “would need to conduct a significantly expanded air and sea war over a prolonged period of time, likely several years.” In order to achieve regime change, the report says, “the occupation of Iran would require a commitment of resources and personnel greater than what the U.S. has expended over the past 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.”
The anticipated blowback?
Serious costs to U.S. interests would also be felt over the longer term, we believe, with problematic consequences for global and regional stability, including economic stability. A dynamic of escalation, action, and counteraction could produce serious unintended consequences that would significantly increase all of these costs and lead, potentially, to all-out regional war.
After reviewing the results of a 2004 war gaming exercise conducted by The Atlantic in conjunction with leading national security experts, James Fallows in January 2015 was moved to ask, “Would a U.S. Strike Against Iran Actually Work?“
Israel doesn’t have the military capacity to “stop” Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and neither does the United States, at least not in circumstances short of total war.
Very little has changed in the intervening years to alter that conclusion. As the talks with Iran, China, Russia, France, Germany, and the U.K. wound down in 2015, the United States made no secret of its newest bunker-busting weapon, the $15 million, 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP). Breathless articles in CNN (“Bunker-Busting Bomb on Standby as Iran Nuclear Talks Near End”) and Time (“U.S. Air Force Primed and Ready to Attack Iran’s Nuclear Sites”) touted the “Mother of All Bombs,” the GBU-43/Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB). (In April 2017, the president ordered the U.S. Air Force to drop one on an Islamic State cave complex in Afghanistan.) As Trump prepared to walk away from the JCPOA last year, the resurrected Iran hawks he echoed were simply not telling the truth about the consequences of scuttling the Iran accord, if they say anything about them at all.
One person who isn’t saying much of anything at all right now is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That’s an interesting development, given Bibi’s campaign to prevent and then undermine the Iran nuclear agreement inked by President Obama. To ratchet up the pressure on Obama, the Netanyahu government in 2012 made it clear the U.S. would not be given advance warning of unilateral strikes against Iranian nuclear targets. In March 2015 Netanyahu, at the invitation of Republican hawks, addressed a special joint session of Congress to urge the rejection of the policy of the sitting president of the United States. But now that it appears the President Trump may realize Bibi’s goal of having the United States do the dirty work of taking out Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure, Netanyahu wants no part of it. As Barak Ravid reported at Axios on Wednesday:
At a special meeting on U.S.-Iran tensions with Israel’s intelligence chiefs and top military brass, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would make every effort not to get dragged into the escalation in the Gulf and would not interfere directly in the situation, Israeli officials tell me.
Seven years ago, President Barack Obama issued a warning to his GOP rivals talking tough about Iran. “This is not a game,” he said. “And there’s nothing casual about it.”
“If some of these folks think that it’s time to launch a war, they should say so. And they should explain to the American people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences would be. Everything else is just talk.”
If Obama’s words of warning sound familiar, they should. That’s because they echo the message from the Republicans’ favorite general turned national security risk, David Petraeus, as he prepared to lead the 101st Airborne Division into Iraq in early 2003:
“Tell me how this ends.”
George W. Bush never came up with an answer for his war in Iraq. Now, as he seems about to bumble his way into a much worse war with Iran at the worst possible time, Donald “Wrong-Way” Trump can’t answer it, either.