The Case for Invading Iran

Thomas Holsinger has a long essay on “The Case for Invading Iran” over at Winds of Change.

All the reasons for invading Iraq apply doubly to Iran, and with far greater urgency. Iran right now poses the imminent threat to America which Iraq did not in 2003. Iran may already have some nuclear weapons, purchased from North Korea or made with materials acquired from North Korea, which would increase its threat to us from imminent to direct and immediate.


Iran’s mullahs will use nuclear weapons as a shield against foreign attack while they more openly support terrorism elsewhere. American acquiescence in Iranian nuclear weapons will lose the war on terror by ceding terrorists a “privileged sanctuary†in Iran. We’ll have let terrorists have in Iran what we invaded Iraq to stop. The invasion of Iraq will have been a complete waste of effort, and our dead in Iraq will have died in vain.

Many will argue that the Iraq invasion was a complete waste of effort and that merely doubling the rationale for it still leaves one with zero rationale. I am not among them, of course, but couching one’s argument for a war with Iran that has even most hawks quite skeptical on the basis that of course your audience supports the war in Iraq is problematic.

Those still reading after ten paragraphs finally get to the substance of the case:

If the United States does not forcibly prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons, every country in the area will know to a moral certainty that they cannot rely on the United States for protection against Iranian nuclear attack, or Iranian nuclear blackmail in support of domestic opposition to the generally shaky regimes of the Middle East. American prestige and influence there will collapse. If we won̢۪t protect ourselves by pre-emption, we can̢۪t be relied on to protect anyone else.

So every country within reach of Iranian nuclear weapons will have enormous strategic pressure to develop their own nuclear weapons to deter Iranian nuclear threats. As a recent strategic survey noted, Syria has many times the per capita and absolute GDP of North Korea, and Egypt several times the per capita and absolute GDP of Pakistan. If North Korea and Pakistan can develop nuclear weapons, so can Syria and Egypt, and also Saudi Arabia, all three of whose regimes are shaky. And they won’t be the only countries to develop nuclear weapons after Iran does – many more will join the nuclear “club†within a few years, some within months.

This is indeed plausible and a good reason–beyond the not insignificant fear of the Iranian mullahs having nuclear weapons–for us to take action. While nuclear mullahs is of concern to the U.S., it is even more so for their Arab–not to mention Jewish–neighbors. So, not only might it set off a regional arms race, but the fact that the U.S. did nothing to the mullahs would embolden the others.

Only military force THIS YEAR can prevent this nightmare. Bombing alone won’t do it — it will only postpone things, and Iran’s mullahs won’t just sit there while we’re bombing them. War is a two-way street. They have spent years preparing for this conflict, and will try to stop Persian Gulf oil exports. There will also be an instant massive uprising by Iranian-led Shiite militias in southern Iraq.

I agree that bombing alone appears not to be a viable option. But how viable, exactly, is military invasion? And would that not have regional consequences as well?

Holsinger cites an Atlantic Monthly article on the subject that I discussed here recently and concludes,

it won̢۪t take us only 7-10 more days to overthrow Iran̢۪s regime than it did Iraq̢۪s, not to mention locating and destroying the known and secret nuclear facilities scattered over a wide area. I feel the Atlantic panel significantly underestimated logistic problems. Our forces must pass through mountains to get to Iran̢۪s capital of Teheran, while getting to Baghdad required passage only through deserts and broad river valleys. Iran is much bigger than Iraq, so our ground forces will have a greater distance to travel, while even minor resistance in mountain passes will cause significant delays.

While he says the Atlantic’s experts–who rejected invasion as a feasible option–were too optimistic on some issues, he argues that Iran’s functioning civil society and other factors make the situation more favorable than in Iraq. Still, his, “rough estimate of American casualties in the conquest and occupation campaigns for Iran, assuming that the mullahs don’t nuke us, or use chemical weapons, is that we’d take about 50% more casualties in the first 18-24 months in Iran than in three years in Iraq, mostly in the twelve month period after the initial conquest.”

So, assuming that the regime wouldn’t use the nukes or chemical weapons that he thinks they have–which is an odd assumption given that much of the rationale for invasion is our fear they will use nukes–we would have a long war and quite several thousand American dead.

Everyone I know of with opinions on the subject agrees that the occupation campaign in Iran would be more intense than Iraq’s, but Iraq’s has seen only about 1700 KIA (or is it total fatalities including accidents?) during the 33 months of the occupation to date. That is about 50 fatalities per month for an average of about 120,000 troops (1 fatality per month per 2400 troops).

If Iran’s occupation entails 200,000 men and is twice as intense as Iraq’s in terms of casualties, we’re looking at 1 fatality per 1200 men per month. 200k x 12 months = 2400k divided by 1200 = 2000 fatalities per year. This is certainly a lot compared to Iraq’s occupation campaign, but it also indicates that American casualties in Iran will be acceptable by any reasonable standard.

In my opinion the occupation campaign in Iran will be awful only for the first year, and then conditions will improve much faster than in Iraq for reasons mentioned above in this post. My guesstimate at this point is about 3000 American fatalities over two years for both the conquest and occupation campaigns in Iran, though the first year would be ghastly.

Remember, this is an argument for invasion. It gets better:

Consider also, that, if small numbers of Iranian nuclear weapons are enough of a threat to seriously menace an American invasion, they are enough of a threat to merit pre-emptive attack with American nuclear weapons. Get real Рour nukes are bigger than theirs, and we have lots more than they do. And if Iranian nuclear weapons aren̢۪t enough of a threat to merit pre-emptive use of our own, they̢۪re not a reason to avoid invading.

That, I’m afraid, I don’t follow. First off, it is inconceivable to me that we would use nuclear weapons in the Middle East in a pre-emptive strike to ensure that they don’t get/use nuclear weapons. Second, the fact that we would find using nukes in such a circumstances morally repugnant and the object of international condemnation really has little connection to our willingness to send troops into nuclear harm’s way. This is, shall we say, the Mother of all Non Sequiturs.

And then there’s this:

Did I mention the bribes? Now is the time for some breathtaking bribes — say a billion dollars per Iranian nuke delivered to us, which would be cheap given the alternative. Once we demonstrate the will to invade and eliminate the mullah regime, such bribes would be more effective than most think. Psychological warfare was wildly successful in the invasion of Iraq.

So, the nukes are basically just laying around unguarded?

Regardless, Holsinger ensures us,

Fear of possible Iranian nuclear weapons use against an American invasion is not a valid reason for doing nothing. A thousand more American civilians have been killed by enemy action at home in this war than American servicemen killed at home and abroad. Not invading Iran will increase this disparity by several orders of magnitude. We have armed forces to protect our civilians from the enemy, not vice versa — soldiers die so civilians don’t. We will invade Iran to protect the American people from nuclear attack. That is worth the risk posed by Iranian nuclear weapons to American soldiers, and the burden of deploying 200,000 troops there for several years. Our reserves knew when they enlisted that they’d be called up for the duration of a major war. Invasion of Iran to protect America from nuclear attack, and preserve our freedom, counts as a major war.

As crazy as much of the article sounds–and it sounds plenty crazy–it is defensible. If one believes the premise–thousands of American civilians will die of Iranian nuclear attack if we do nothing–then doing something is obviously required.

Our old buddy Mohamed ElBaradei says “if they have the nuclear material and they have a parallel weaponization program along the way, they are really not very far—a few months—from a weapon.” He admits that, “Diplomacy is not just talking. Diplomacy has to be backed by pressure and, in extreme cases, by force. We have rules. We have to do everything possible to uphold the rules through conviction. If not, then you impose them. Of course, this has to be the last resort, but sometimes you have to do it.”

So, that something isn’t diplomacy.

Economic sanctions, the likely first next step that the U.N. take will almost certainly be ineffectual. Further, Iran can easily retaliate by raising oil prices. In the meantime ElBaradei’s “few months” tick away.

Nobody with any expertise thinks bombing alone will work.

Holsinger’s closing:

And if we don’t invade this year, it won’t matter much after that. We’ll be in the worst case scenario. And President Bush will be reviled as America’s worst President — the one who through inaction cost us our freedom.

Of course, launching a pre-emptive strike on Iran and absorbing all the consequences that would bring might well have the same consequence for Bush. The irony of success is in such endeavors is that one can never prove what would have happened otherwise.

I’m far from sold that an invasion is called for. But no other option seems available. And we’re running out of time.

As I believe I’ve mentioned previously, there are no good options here.

Update: Dave Shuler points to this post at his blog but provides the following trenchant assessment in the WoC comments section: “[A]n invasion in force of Iran, removing the current regime, and occupying the country is militarily doable but politically impossible.”

I think that about sums it up.

Ironically, Jeff Medcalf has a blog but says nothing about this there. In Shuler’s comments section, though, he provides a very detailed list of U.S. options ranging from “mild sanctions” to “Obliterate Iran with a nuclear attack.” He concludes,

I doubt there would be much controversy in saying that options 14 and up would be exactly what we are trying to avoid by undertaking the lesser options. If we didn̢۪t care about avoiding nuclear annihilation of Iran, in whole or in part, we could let Iran get a nuclear weapon and then destroy them if they use or transfer it.

The danger of taking any path 4 or higher, including simple limited blockade, is that Iran will defend itself, and could easily escalate the conflict. We have to be prepared for option 12 or 13 even if we only intend option 4.

Indeed. The problem with a pre-emptive war to avoid a possible war at the time of the enemy’s chosing is that you definitely get a war at the time of your own chosing. I’m not yet convinced that’s a worthwhile exchange.



FILED UNDER: Middle East, Terrorism, Uncategorized, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    Many will argue that the Iraq invasion was a complete waste of effort and that merely doubling the rationale for it still leaves one with zero rationale.

    Not quite. The main reason (IMHO) Iraq was a waste of effort was that it was never a realistic threat to the US. The argument about whether or not Bush, et al knew this prior to the invasion belongs elsewhere, but Iraq a) didn’t have a WMD stockpile anymore (the leftovers from the Kurd extermination haveing long since rotted), b) didn’t have a nuke program more worthwhile than a wish list (I guess North Korea had a bigger budget for that stuff), and c) had a leader who, far from being a supporter of Bin Laden, was actually quite opposed to Bin Laden’s ultimate goals (at least regarding the future of the Islamic world – yes, they both would’ve been happy to see the US go down in flames, but Hussein had about as much chance of causing us serious pain as I have of starting at cornerback for the Steelers this weekend).

    The problem is not that Iran is _less_ of a legitimate target than Iraq… to the contrary, it’s always been a _more_ plausible threat both to America and American interests. But it would be a helluva lot less of a threat if we’d done something about it a couple years ago instead of invading Iraq.

  2. Anderson says:

    JJ, I’ll confess to not reading the linked item, but this excerpt that you called “plausible” strikes me as a total non sequitur:

    If the United States does not forcibly prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons, every country in the area will know to a moral certainty that they cannot rely on the United States for protection against Iranian nuclear attack, or Iranian nuclear blackmail in support of domestic opposition to the generally shaky regimes of the Middle East. American prestige and influence there will collapse. If we won’t protect ourselves by pre-emption, we can’t be relied on to protect anyone else.

    That makes no sense to me at all.

    How does our not being willing to invade just to stop Iran from possessing nukes, imply that we wouldn’t use force against Iran if it actually employed nukes?

    That’s like “if Britain would not declare war on Germany to prevent its possessing an air force, then obviously Britain would not go to war against Germany if Germany attacked its neighbors with its air force.”

    What am I missing?

  3. James Joyner says:

    Anderson: I suppose it doesn’t follow that failure to do A would lead to failure to do B. It does seem plausible that the former would cause a loss of confidence in the latter. After all, the Poles can’t have had much a priori confidence that the Brits would go to war after they were invaded in 1939 given recent history.

    In the present content, the argument is that if we’re afraid to risk the consequence of war with a budding nuclear power, we’d be even more afraid of the same country once it achieved several nukes.

  4. Anderson says:

    We don’t have any good non-nuclear options against Iran, it seems. And we are (I hope) very reluctant to use nukes as a preemption of Iran’s obtaining nukes. Immanuel Kant would cause earthquakes throughout northeastern Europe by the sheer vigor of his grave-spinning.

    But surely, we can make a plausible threat that we would nuke Iran if it nuked any of our allies.

  5. Jonk says:

    Speakly purely from a military standpoint, I think the casualty rates for invading Iran estimated by Holsinger are laughably low. At our current troop strength, we do not have a large enough military to successfully invade such a vast country, let alone control it. We barely have a grasp on Iraq, and it has just over a third the population of Iran. Add in the terrain, which is not very conducive to mechinized warfare….many of the advantages our ground forces enjoy in Iraq we will not have in Iran. Look to Afghanistan for what the combat will be like in Iran.

  6. Randall B says:

    We don’t need to invade Iran at all. A better strategy would be to completely surround them and lob missiles in their territory until they succumb.

    We’re pretty close to having them surrounded already. All we need to do is amass some troops in Turkmenistan, get Turkey to move some NATO troops near the border and have some of our guys in Afghanistan move down to Pakistan.

    We then just start bombing the the place, come hell or high water.

    As soon as Ahemdnigab falls, we get the Shah’s son out of reitrement and re-install the monarchy. Hell, it worked in 1953, why not now?

    Freedom is on the march!

  7. Anderson says:

    Agreed, Jonk. One thing I don’t see in his article (now that I’ve skimmed it) is: with what army are we invading Iran? I don’t see how we can possibly do it without the draft.

  8. Jonk says:

    My point exactly, Anderson. We don’t have the forces necessary to do it. In order to raise the sort of force needed for a successful ground campaign, we will need a draft…and a bigger budget for the new front. Yeah, right…

  9. Bithead says:

    We will have an easier time of it in Iran then we did in Iraq .

    Two indicators are at work here;

    The first is the big desire for nuclear weaponry on the part of Iran. This is not the move of somebody who has a superior ground force.

    Secondly… by now news of what transpired in Iran and the way life goes following the removal of the Islamic nut bags, has doubtless true reached the Iranian population by now . These two factors type together make a strong case for not having nearly the problem as we did in Iraq . Recent intel from that region Is suggestive that something on 90% of the Iranian population would like to see the current power structure and removed in favor of what Iraq ended up with.

    Other factors;

    With our people would established bases just over the border, our supply lines intact, and our people now sharpened and experienced as they have ever been (including the reservists about which you’ll recall there were some question…..)…

    Add to that, the resistance to the radicals now within Iran that will surely come to full fruit once they’re given some direction. I’m hearing they’re quite large, but Disorganized and best at the moment.

    The Intel I’ve been seeing lately suggests that as a whole the average Iranian is better educated than the average Iraqi mostly by western standards, if not western schools. We’re told further that the average everyday Iranian wants the current “government” removed. THey’re hearing about the improvements in the lives of the Iraqwis… apparently they hear more of such than do we here in the states…(thanks, MSM)

    The situation as a whole is far better than was predicted for Iraq going in. With all these points in place I have no doubt that Iran can be taken care of out of hand.

    Indeed, if we are correct about Iran being where all these insurgents are coming from (all along with of course Syria) then, once Iran is dealt with Iraq becomes a more stable place, too. Dominoes, you see, flip in both directions.

    However; this can only be true if we move before Iran puts the nuclear chip on the table. If we wait until after they have the power we are lost.

  10. Herb says:


    So now, you are the foremost expert on our military manpower.

    Is there no limit to your knowledge and expertise?

  11. Anderson says:

    Herb: Is there no limit to your knowledge and expertise?

    Nope. And I have to assume you agree that an invasion’s not possible, because then I would hope you wouldn’t be calling for killing tens of thousands of Iranian citizens by “nuking their industries,” as you proposed.

    Nuking Iran: that will turn the people against their gov’t & make them love America!

  12. Herb says:


    As I thought, you are, by your own word, the worlds foremost authority and expert on all matters of Policy, Defense, Matters of State Military, and now on Iran.

    No I do not agree with you on most everything because I do not follow your pacifist ideas and way of thinking. However, I do marvel at extreme amount of expertise you have on everything. (choke)

    One thing most people dislike, is a “Know It All” and that describes you best.

    Could it be that you are a bit “over-educated”

  13. Pug says:

    The first is the big desire for nuclear weaponry on the part of Iran. This is not the move of somebody who has a superior ground force.

    I don’t recall that Iraq had superior ground forces, either. Seems they don’t need superior ground forces to blow themselves up in a car bomb.

  14. Elrod says:

    You make two errors here:

    1) Just because Iran wants nukes doesn’t mean that its military is weak in lieu of nukes. In fact, there is no historic precedent for a militarily weak nation to obtain nuclear weapons at all.

    2) But more important, your assertion that 90% of Iranians oppose the regime in favor of what Iraq has is utter fantasy. Iran is not Saddam’s Iraq. There was an election recently between a relative moderate in the Khatami mold and a nut. The nut won by a sizable margin. And his margin of victory came in the smaller, more conservative towns and cities away from relatively cosmopolitan Tehran (where he was mayor). In other words, you are making the same mistake that regular readers of blogs like Iraq the Model make – assuming that everybody in Iraq is pro-Western because everybody able to blog about it is pro-Western. Iran is still an extremely conservative society and support for Mullah rule is very deep in large parts of the country. This isn’t like Saddam where he used a small ethnic/sectarian minority to maintain a stranglehold of terror over a majority that never supported the dictator in the first place.

    But then there’s another point. Even though who don’t like Ahmadinejad would run to his support if the country were invaded. Nationalism is very powerful in Iran – much more so than in Iraq where the entire nation was a creation of the British post-WWI. Moreover, all segments of Iranian society, from the educated, pro-Western students to the hard-core Shi’ites want Iran to be a nuclear power. The whole political spectrum supports it.

    And then, of course, there is the problem of US force. We have 130,000 troops in Iraq right now – many of them on their third tour of duty. Bush is right to insist that the time is not right for their removal from the country because of the instability of Iraq’s military forces and the continuing political uncertainty. So where would the 400,000 troops necessary to invade Iran come from? They can’t be pulled out from Iraq. Do you support a draft?