An Attack On Iran Would Be A Major, Mistaken, War
An attack on Iran's nuclear program would be far more complicated than a one-off attack.
Anthony Cordesman, who has been an old hand in foreign policy analysis circles for decades now (I remember watching him on ABC News in late 1990 and early 1991 discussing the likely course of events in what would soon become Operation Desert Storm) recently co-authored a detailed study looking at the likely course of any efforts by the United States and/or Israel to engage in military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Over at Wired’s Danger Room, Noah Shachtman summarizes the report, which essentially concludes that strikes against Iran would be a major military engagement and not the kind of one-off attack that many advocates of such a strategy seem to think would be enough to pull off a successful attack:
Should the U.S. actually take Benjamin Netanyahu’s advice and attack Iran, don’t expect a few sorties flown by a couple of fighter jocks. Setting back Iran’s nuclear efforts will need to be an all-out effort, with squadrons of bombers and fighter jets, teams of commandos, rings of interceptor missiles and whole Navy carrier strike groups — plus enough drones, surveillance gear, tanker aircraft and logistical support to make such a massive mission go. And all of it, at best, would buy the U.S. and Israel another decade of a nuke-free Iran.
There’s been a lot of loose talk and leaked tales about what an attack on Iran might ultimately entail. Anthony Cordesman, one of Washington’s best-connected defense analysts, has put together a remarkably detailed inventory of what it would take to strike Iran (.pdf), cataloging everything from the number of bombers required to the types of bombs they ought to carry. He analyzes both Israeli and American strikes, both nuclear and not. He examines possible Iranian counterattacks, and ways to neutralize them.
But, hold on, because that’s only the first wave of the attack. Assuming nothing goes horribly wrong and it goes off perfectly, we’d still need to do more:
At the same time, the U.S. has to keep Iran from blocking the ultra-important Strait of Hormuz, the 21-mile-wide waterway through which flows around 20 percent of the world’s oil and liquid natural gas supplies. And America has to protect its energy-producing allies in the Persian Gulf, or else there will be no oil or gas to send through the Strait.
That will be no mean task, Cordesman writes: “Iran can cherry pick its targets in an effort to pressure and intimidate the U.S. and Southern Gulf states. It can use long-range conventionally armed missiles or drones against large military or urban targets as terror weapons. It can attack sporadically and unpredictably in a war of attrition or attempt to ‘swarm’ U.S. and Gulf naval forces.”
But to make sure Tehran’s missiles don’t hit Riyadh or Kuwait City, the U.S. will have to take out Iran’s eight ballistic-missile bases and 15 missile production facilities, and 22 launch facilities if a preemptive strike is ever ordered. America will “need to destroy as many missile launchers as possible … in order to reduce number of incoming warheads,” Cordesman writes. Each target will require two aircraft each — either carrier-launched F/A-18s or F-15Es and F-16Cs flying from nearby air bases — for a total of 90 jets. Auxiliary targets could include Iran’s refineries, its power grid, its military bases, and its roads and bridges.
But, guess what? We still haven’t gotten to the main attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities:
Destroying each of Iran’s five nuclear facilities will require a pair of B-2 bombers flying out of Diego Garcia. Every plane will carry two of the U.S. military next-gen, king-sized bunker-busters, the 30,000-pound GBU-57 Massive Ordinance Penetrator. The “GPS-guided weapon contain[s] more than 5,300 pounds of conventional explosives inside a 20.5 foot-long bomb body of hardened steel. It is designed to penetrate dirt, rock and reinforced concrete to reach enemy bunker or tunnel installations,” writes Cordesman, who believes such bomb can set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions for years.
And none of this even takes into account the probability of non-conventional retaliation against the interests of the U.S., Gulf States, and Israel via the terrorist networks that Iran has cultivated over it’s 30-odd years of existence or the rather obvious impact that a war of this scale would have on oil production and transportation in the one of the most economically important parts of the world. The important takeaways from Cordesman’s report, though, are two-fold:
- Israel does not have the capability to do anything more than pull off a strike that would set Iran’s program back a year or two at best. This isn’t really a new revelation, but it comes at a time when there are some signs that the Israelis may be thinking they are reaching a so-called “point of no return” after which they’d have no capability at all of having an impact on Iran’s nuclear program. Furthermore, an Israeli attack is likely to set off a wave of terrorist retaliation that would turn the Middle East into the kind of powder keg unseen in decades. This suggests that the American efforts to discourage a unilateral Israeli attack is a move in the right direction since such an attack would likely make any subsequent attacks more difficult and only harden the Iranian’s resolve to develop nuclear weapons.
- An American attack would potentially set the Iranian program back by as much as a decade if it were successful, but it would come at an enormous cost in men and material and would likely still lead to spikes in the prices of oil and the threat of terrorist retaliation. I would suggest that it would also, quite likely, put an end to any idea that the United States could act as an “honest broker” in Middle East peace negotiations, which by itself could throw the region into a kind of chaos that it may not recover from for a long time.
All of this suggests to me that the current Obama Administration policy is likely the correct one. We’ve ratcheted up sanctions against the Iranian regime based on their non-compliance with international law, and we’ve engaged in sub-rosa efforts to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program via operations such as the Stuxnet virus and the Flame trojan. Indeed, it appears that Stuxnet itself was in part motivated by an effort by the Obama Administration to placate Israeli fears and convince them to hold off from launching an attack that likely would not succeed and which would only result in strengthening Iranian resolve while simultaneously flaming the fans of terrorism and sinking the world economy via exploding oil prices.
Of course, the Romney campaign disagrees, and says so in a recently released campaign memo:
The Iranian program has gotten to this point because President Obama has squandered all credibility with the ayatollahs:
- A Failed Engagement Policy. President Obama offered the ayatollahs “no preconditions” talks, which were rebuffed. The latest round of multilateral talks has produced no results.
- Refrained From Supporting The Green Movement. When asked during a press conference, President Obama shamefully refused to voice support for Iranian dissidents in 2009 as they were being killed in the streets, saying he did not want to “meddle” in Iran’s affairs.
- A Weak Sanctions Policy. President Obama opposed and sought to water down crippling sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank until he was forced into them by Congress and our European partners. He then undermined those sanctions by issuing waivers to 20 of the top importers of Iranian oil, including China.
- Abandoned Missile Defense. He abandoned a European missile defense system meant to protect against Iranian missiles.
- Undermined The Credibility Of The Military Option. His administration has given the Iranians no reason to believe it is serious about a military option. The administration has repeatedly talked down the effectiveness and advisability of the military option, and seems to have devoted more energy toward preventing an Israeli strike on Iran than toward preventing an Iranian nuclear weapons capability. Obama officials leaked that the administration has focused its efforts on explaining to Israel “the dangers of an Israeli attack” on Iran and has attempted to “make the decision to attack as hard as possible for Israel.” And the President himself, after boldly stating to AIPAC that the United States “has Israel’s back,” changed his tune two days later by saying his statement was “not a military doctrine.”
In the face of such irresolution, the ayatollahs are pressing forward toward nuclear weapons capability without fear of repercussion because they do not believe we are serious.
Daniel Larison does a good job of debunking each of these arguments, but his comments about the Obama Administration’s “failure” to support the Green Movement deserve particular attention. The Green Movement, you will recall, was the protest movement that erupted in Tehran and other Iranian cities after the last Iranian Presidential elections. The protests erupted after Mir Hossein Mousavi lost the election to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a manner that many of Mousavi’s supporters considered to be fraudulent. The country was rocked by protests for several weeks, and for a time there was a question as to whether or not Ahmadinejad would stay in power in the wake of the popular uprising. Many of the protests turned violent and several people died. In the end, Ahmadinejad’s victory was confirmed and, ever since then, people on the right have criticized President Obama for not, well, doing something even though they cannot name precisely what he should’ve done. As Larison notes, much of the conservative mythos of the so-called “Green Revolution” is based on wishful thinking and bad information:
Obama did, in fact, speak in support of the protesters within a few weeks of the presidential election in Iran, but that’s almost beside the point. Obama’s greater rhetorical support would not have changed the outcome of the protests, and lending sustained rhetorical support to protests against the current leadership would hardly have made the Iranian regime any more likely to acquiesce to U.S. demands on the nuclear issue. The Iranian opposition is the political force inside Iran that is harmed the most by the sanctions that Romney still thinks are too weak, and if he had his way the Iranian opposition would be even weaker because sanctions invariably strengthen the regime and its cronies at the expense of everyone else in a country. If Romney wants to argue that Obama is not doing enough to strangle the Iranian economy and has “failed” to impose even more unjust burdens on the Iranian people, he can do so, but he might at least have the decency to stop pretending that this has anything to do with supporting the Iranian opposition. It doesn’t, and it never has.
This is spot-on, but it’s also worth mentioning that the “Green Revolution” was never really a revolution to begin with. The differences between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad, at least on the issues that concern the United States the most, were never really that substantive. Indeed, Mousavi was Prime Minister of Iran when the nation first embarked on its nuclear research program and said that he supported continuing it during the campaign. He did, and apparently still does, take the position that the Teheran regime should be more open to contact and negotiation with the outside world, including the United States, but that doesn’t mean that he’d be any more willing to back down on nuclear issues than Ahmadinejad is. And, of course, it is always worth remembering that the ultimate authority Iran lies not with the President, but with Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader. In the end, a change in the identity of the President of Iran, which is all the “Green” protests were aiming for, probably wouldn’t matter much at all unless Khamenei agreed to the change in policy.
But this, along with Cordesman’s analysis, is not the kind of sanity that the right seems to want to listen to right now when it comes to Iran.
Here’s Cordesman’s report: