Crazy Talk on Iran

Let's compare Iraq and Iran.

In the wake of Doug’s post on Ralph Peters’s column on the costs of attacking Iran I thought I’d put a little perspective on the question by doing a side-by-side comparison of Iraq and Iran.

  Iraq Iran
Size 438,317 sq km 1,648,195 sq km
Terrain mostly broad plains; reedy marshes along Iranian border in south with large flooded areas; mountains along borders with Iran and Turkey rugged, mountainous rim; high, central basin with deserts, mountains; small, discontinuous plains along both coasts
Population 30,399,572 77,891,220
GDP (PPP) $113.4 billion $818.7 billion
Per capita GDP $3,800 $10,600

In Iraq we see a mostly flat, relatively small, lower middle class or poor country with a fractious population. In Iran we see some of the most rugged country in the world in a territory more than twice the size of Afghanistan and four times the size of Iraq, more than twice the population of Iraq and three times the population of Afghanistan, with a substantial middle class economy. I would also claim that Iran has a lot more social cohesion than Iraq but I guess that would be contentious.

There is no such thing as a limited war with Iran. That’s crazy talk.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. Ben Wolf says:

    Add the fact that Iran’s nuclear facilities are probably as decentralized as possible, meaning we have no way to be sure air strikes can successfully halt the program. Iran has been thinking of ways to protect itself from us for as long as we’ve been thinking about attacking it, so a big shout-out to the Bush Administration for revealing the weaknesses in our military via invading and occupying Iraq.

  2. Chico says:

    Israeli or US attack on Iran?

    Forget about 5th Fleet HQ staying in Bahrain, forget about CENTCOM in Qatar, forget about the US Army in Kuwait, any carriers in the Gulf, and forget about any continuing U.S. influence or presence in Iraq.

    For that matter, forget about the UAE as a trade and financial center, the Saudi and Kuwaiti oilfields, increased oil production in Iraq.

    That is the most conservative estimate of effects. There may be a concept of operations that has regime change as its object, that would be the only way of “winning,” but the stakes are extremely high, right up to WW III as Russia and China could get involved or try to exploit opportunities.

  3. Stan says:

    I am Jewish and I am old enough to remember the nightmares I had in 1945 after seeing the newsreels of the concentration camps when I went to the movies with my parents. I also remember being in Brussels with my wife just before the start of the 1967 war and having a shopkeeper, observing my semitic features, asking us if we were Jewish, pointing to a newspaper predicting an Egyptian victory, and then saying they’re going to do it again and everybody will watch, just like the last time. And then he broke down crying, just the way my parents did when they saw the piles of corpses on the movie screen.

    I agree with Dave Schuler that the US should avoid a war with Iran. But if the Israelis bombed Iran’s nuclear sites, or occupied them long enough to destroy them, I’d cheer.

  4. @Stan:

    As I noted in my own post on this, the consensus seems to be that Israel has the ability to start a war with Iran but not the ability to successfully end it. Whether they intend it or not, an Israeli attack is likely to make US involvement inevitable, with all the consequences that could flow from that.

    One that Peters talks about that everyone needs to keep in mind is what happens to the Persian Gulf, the Straits of Hormuz, and the price of oil in the wake of an attack on Iran. Dave’s right, there is no such thing as a limited war against Iran.

  5. Hey Norm says:

    I think the comparison with Iraq is meaningful…but for more than just statistics. What did we learn about ourselves during Iraq?
    There’s no desire to ask for the national sacrifices required to “win” a war with Iran.
    There’s no desire to come together as a nation which would be necessary to “win” a war with Iran.
    There’s no desire to pay for a military action of the size required to “win” a war with Iran.
    There’s no desire to re-institute the draft…which would be required to “win” a war with Iran.
    Crazy Talk is a spot-on description.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Hey Norm:

    You forgot “The end of the world as we know it.” As Doug pointed out, the disruption in oil supplies would be economically catastrophic. If you think it is bad now, what would happen then would make the Great Depression look like a cake walk.

  7. george says:

    I’d argue that thanks to blowing all our cash on the Iraq War, we can’t afford to fight Iran. Our military could certainly defeat Iran’s (assuming it didn’t turn into WW3), but our economy would be so trashed that we’d end up a very poor second to China economically.

    Of course, we wouldn’t be the first global power to cause its own ruin by over extension.

  8. Stan says:

    Doug, the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians, which I think is the root of the problem, is both wicked and stupid, and if you told me that Netanyahu is a disaster, I’d agree.
    But I’m not sure that any concessions the Israelis might make would satisfy the ruling group in Iran. If it comes to a choice between surrender or war, I think the Israelis will choose war. And I won’t blame them if they do.

  9. @Stan:

    Who is asking the Israelis to surrender? They have, according to estimate, something close to 300 nuclear weapons of various capabilities. They can clearly defend themselves.

  10. ponce says:

    They have, according to estimate, something close to 300 nuclear weapons of various capabilities. They can clearly defend themselves.

    Not really.

    Israel is a one nuke country.

    One explosion over Tel Aviv and it’s gone.

    It’s more accurate to say Israel can avenge itself.

  11. anjin-san says:

    It’s more accurate to say Israel can avenge itself.

    Can anyone point to anything in Iran’s history that would lead one to conclude it would engage in a national murder/suicide pact?

  12. Drew says:

    I suppose the comparison is aimed at an attempt to debunk the notion of all out war with Iran.

    But what really are the options?

    1. Bonzai!!

    2. Sanctions. (Please, pretty please, do as we say…….oh, I’m sorry, I mean as we ask. And if you don’t we will be very disappointed. Meanwhile, Russi and China to the rescue.)

    3. Do nothing for now.

    Seems to me the do nothing for now is the only option. But the clock is ticking. Is this going to become a Hobsen’s choice eventually? When Iran gets the bomb, and can put it on a rocket……………what now?

  13. ponce says:

    Can anyone point to anything in Iran’s history that would lead one to conclude it would engage in a national murder/suicide pact?

    The 2.5% of its GDP Iran spends on defense is clearly provocative:

    https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2034rank.html

  14. hass says:

    In 2003, Iran offered to make complete peace with the US and even to recognize Israel. This and many other Iranian concessions have been ignored, because Iranian ‘nuclear weapons’ are just an excuse for forcing regime change in Iran, just as “WMDs in IRaq” was just an excuse for a war.
    http://www.iranaffairs.com/iran_affairs/2011/11/iran-offered-to-recognize-israel-in-2003.html

  15. Barry says:

    @Stan: “But I’m not sure that any concessions the Israelis might make would satisfy the ruling group in Iran. If it comes to a choice between surrender or war, I think the Israelis will choose war. And I won’t blame them if they do. ”

    I’m going to pile on with Doug here – Israel’s choice is to laugh at Iran. If Iran tried jack sh*t, Israel could land a few hundred nuclear weapons on the.

    And this means that Iran wouldn’t try anything like that, because the leadership of that country is not suicidal.

  16. Ron Beasley says:

    Israel may be a one nuke country but that one nuke is going to impact Lebanon, Syria and Jordan as well not to mention the Palestinians. Are the Iranian’s really going to nuke Israel? Not likely.

  17. ponce says:

    Are the Iranian’s really going to nuke Israel? .

    Probably not, but Hamas might.

  18. Dave Schuler says:

    @Drew:

    I suppose the comparison is aimed at an attempt to debunk the notion of all out war with Iran.

    Not quite, Drew. My point is exactly what I said in the body of the post (and in my comment to Doug’s post). Iran is very different from Iraq and, in particular, much wealthier. The idea of limited war, limited objectives in Iran is fatuous. Going to war with Iran requires a very high level of commitment.

  19. Dave Schuler says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Doug, I don’t think that you appreciate Israel’s strategic position. Israel can obliterate Iran but it can’t wage non-nuclear war with Iran. Israel is a country about the size of New Jersey with most of its population concentrated in a very few cities. A handful of nukes can take Israel out.

    Preemptive nuclear strike (or EMP as has been suggested) is about Israel’s only move. And it’s got to take Iran completely out quickly. Frankly, I don’t think that’s politically possible for Israel and would be a form of national suicide.

    Note that I am absolutely, positively not advocating war with Iran by anybody. I’m just pointing out the parameters.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t think Israel’s math has much to do with actually being nuked. I think it has a great deal more to do with the fact that a nuclear Iran is untouchable. Non-nuke powers (Libya, Iraq,) can be safely knocked over by western militaries. Nuclear powers (North Korea, Pakistan) become essentially invulnerable to external regime change because the potential downside is so much greater.

    Israel doesn’t like the idea of Iranian hegemony. Neither does Saudi Arabia. Which is why we’re even talking about hitting Iran. You combine Israel and Saudi Arabia, toss in the neo-cons and our fractious history with Iran and you have a powerful pro-war faction.

  21. Dave,

    I get that, which is why I said that Israel could *start* a war with Iran via what they think will be a limited attack such as a bombing run (leaving aside the logistical issues of how Israeli planes will get from Israel to Iran for the moment) but that we would inevitably drawn in when Iran retaliates via conventional and unconventional means.

  22. grumpy realist says:

    Great. The original “damn fool incident in the Balkans” has now morphed into “damn fool incident in the Mid-East.”

    Hasn’t anyone read history?

  23. Drew says:

    Dave –

    I think we are saying the same thing, although in my typical drive by shorthand the point may not have been clear: two different situatons………and ain’t no way we are going banzai!! That is, no way we embark on some massive military campaign.

    I think I’m correct; the current just wait and see posture is, and should be, our posture. But the vexing question remains: time is passing; they will get the weapon? They might not use it. But they are well known supporters of terrorist organizations. So what to do? Wait until disaster? (And if you do, what does THAT look like?) Pre-empt at some defined point? If Newfoundland was building a bomb and threatening NYC would WE take a relaxed attitude?

    The anti-semites, Iranian head in the sand apologists and neocon invoking children need not reply.

  24. michael reynolds says:

    @Drew:
    I think we do what we’re doing: computer sabotage, efforts to cut off their access to components, diplomatic pressure, sanctions, possible intelligence operations inside Iran, and hope we see regime change or perhaps that Iran simply decides to go a different way.

    Otherwise it’s the threat of obliteration if they misbehave, and we start to deal with the reality that Saudi Arabia will be next.

  25. Rob in CT says:

    And in the end, all we’re going to do is delay them. Maybe that ends up being a good thing because the delay allows time for internal regime change, I dunno.

    But eventually they’re going to produce a nuclear weapon. At that point, we have to rely on MAD, which has a pretty good track record.

  26. ponce says:

    So what to do? Wait until disaster?

    That worked okay for the Soviets, the Chinese, the North Koreans, etc., etc. etc. developing nuclear weapons.

  27. Liberty60 says:

    @Rob in CT: @ponce:
    Pretty much my thoughts as well.

    Its true that possessing a nuke makes nations invulnerable (N Korea, Pakistan, India, etc.) but it has a flip side- using them becomes suicide.

    Is the regime in Tehran really crazier than Stalin? Mao? Kim Il Sung?

  28. Drew says:

    The Soviets were rational. The N. Koreans, a client state of the Chinese, rational, because the Chinese told them to be so.

    Iran? That’s an awful lot of faith, ponce. Not saying I have an answer, but that’s an awful lot of faith.

    I prefer Michael’s list: be a total pain in the ass and play for time.

  29. Drew says:

    BTW –

    In the context of all this…………..N American oil shale and sands anyone? Or a thimble full of energy from wind and solar?

  30. Rob in CT says:

    @Drew: False choice.

    Solar is getting better and better, even if it’s not going to be doing the heavy lifting anytime soon. The choice is not Solar + Wind versus Nat. Gas. All of the above (including Coal, of course).

    We’ll end up fracking the hell out of our oil shale (and probably allow it to be done irresponsibly, at that – *sigh*). For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, in the end we will do what we’ve always done: extract the resources and worry about the pollution later. There’s money to be made, after all (and losses to be socialized).

    As for rationality – first off, the same sort of people who are salivating over bombing Iran would have been screaming about the irrationality of the USSR, PRC, DPRK (with some justification, perhaps). I have very little faith (read: none) in the people who perpetually shout for war.

    The better comparison is Pakistan, which I admit worries me. The worry isn’t so much that the leadership decides “you know what, screw it, let’s burn it all down.” The worry is that a faction within the leadership leaks a weapon to a group crazy enough to use a nuke, hoping for plausible deniability.

  31. HAVE A NICE G.A. says:

    Is the regime in Tehran really crazier than Stalin? Mao? Kim Il Sung?

    Yup, but they can’t do much other then help murder our troops, the Israelis,other dumb muslims, their protesters and countless other innocent bystanders, yet.

    That crap hole is run by 12ers…..

  32. Drew says:

    Rob / CT –

    “Solar is getting better and better, even if………etc”

    So you are the CEO of a company. You have a sales problem. Its a serious sales problem. You of course have your existing product and channel options. You’ve been given some new product and channel optons. One could clearly double sales. The other, perhaps sexy and intricate, could add 3%, and in a best case 6% because its getting “better and better.” Where would you allocate your resources and political capital?

    Remember, you have obligations (at the risk of being sued or fired as a fiduciary) to employees, shareholders and other stakeholders, not just the whimsical notions of the Girl Scouts, with idealistic notions and cookies to sell.

    This is no false choice. This is reality, not an internet debate.

    I sit on Boards. Cheap “false choice” arguments go down in immature flames under the scrutiny of adult decisionmaking.

  33. ponce says:

    Drew,

    If we run America like it’s a corporation, it will end up looking like one big WalMart: cheap, ugly and full of poor people.

    Start thinking like an American.

  34. Drew says:

    “If we run America like it’s a corporation, it will end up looking like one big WalMart: cheap, ugly and full of poor people. Start thinking like an American.”

    Is this the collective opinion of your other high school sophomores?

  35. Robert C. says:

    @Stan:

    Stan, I am really tired of people playing the holocaust card vis-a-vis Iran. Thats the m.o. of hasbara.

    RC

  36. Robert C. says:

    @Hey Norm:

    Because……there is no benefit to Americans in a war with Iran.

    RC

  37. anjin-san says:

    Is this the collective opinion of your other high school sophomores?

    Gee Drew, when we grow up are we going to be as boring as you are?

    Hope I die before I get old…

  38. ponce says:

    Drew just suffers from “when all you’ve got is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” syndrome.

    I bet he’s not very good at the life skill of compromise.

  39. Barry says:

    @ponce: No, Hamas won’t. And the reason they won’t is because they do not and never will have nuclear weapons.

    I love this right-wing line that the government of Iran, realizing that any nuclear attack on Israel would be suicide, decides somehow that they could give nuclear weapons to another group to attack Israel, and somehow get away with it like corporate criminals disavowing actions of their shell corporation.

  40. Barry says:

    @Rob in CT: “As for rationality – first off, the same sort of people who are salivating over bombing Iran would have been screaming about the irrationality of the USSR, ”

    Back then is was ‘Godless Communists who don’t care how many of their people die’, now it’s – well, just a variation.

  41. Rob in CT says:

    Drew,

    I mentioned solar and said something mildly positive and you appear to have had a Pavlovian response. Given that the rest of my comment related to power was to agree that we will use the natural gas, what the hell is your problem?

    You go so carried away with being a condenscending ass that you completely ignored the part where I agreed we’re going to use the natural gas (which I’m largely fine with, but for my concern regarding reasonable environmental protections).

    As was the case in the other thread recently, you completely ignore the subject of pollution (note: by this I don’t even mean global warming. I’m talking about contaminating aquifers with various hydrocarbon compounds that are hazardous to human health). I suspect that’s because you have no answer for it, as I pointed out in the other thread, other than yelling about “environuts.”

    You love to pretend you’re all about hard-nosed accounting, but someone sitting on a board should be thinking about environmental matters, if for no other reason that the self-interested approach of containing the company’s future liability. Perhaps other reasons might occur to you, to the extent you have any ethical concerns beyond fudiciary duty to shareholders.

  42. anjin-san says:

    what the hell is your problem?

    @ Rob

    Do you sit on any boards? No? How dare you question Drew…

  43. mannning says:

    By using an EMP weapon, Israel can halt all electrical activity in IRAN for a period of days to weeks. Israel can repeat that EMP hit as often as needed to ensure no movement of vehicles, no radio transmissions, no radar, and no microwave links or sat links in the country. Their air defenses would be essentially dead. This provides Israel open airspace to pour in the IAF to hit any and all military targets in Iran for as long as it takes to eliminate most military capabilities except manpower. It provides for the use of C-130 aircraft to haul MOABs to nuclear sites readily and often, until a satisfactory level of damage has been inflicted on both the nuke sites and the military.

    Iran would declare war, I believe, and they could include the US in that declaration. In any event the timing and decision to strike will be Israel’s and not the US. We in the US, however, will most likely be drawn into the war in one or more ways, whether we want it or not. So there is the raw situation, and our distaste for yet another war is simply beside the point. Israel will do the deciding based upon their need for national survival.