Why Bush Won’t Attack Iran

Steve Clemons has a provocative piece at Salon arguing that, despite a near-consensus among the foreign policy elite that war with Iran is inevitable, President Bush will likely let Iran join the nuclear club rather than launching military action.

To try to discern what the president himself thinks, however, is very difficult. It’s particularly hard when Bush is trying to convince Iran that the military option is real, and that if Iran doesn’t work out a mutually acceptable deal with the U.S., he will launch a strike.

To date, however, nothing suggests Bush is really going to do it. If he were, he wouldn’t be playing good cop/bad cop with Iran and proposing engagement. If the bombs were at the ready, Bush would be doing a lot more to prepare the nation and the military for a war far more consequential than the invasion of Iraq. There is also circumstantial evidence that he has decided bombing may be too costly a choice.

[…]

Bush knows that the American military is stretched and that bombing Iran would not be a casual exercise. Reprisals in the Gulf toward U.S. forces and Iran’s ability to cut off supply lines to the 160,000 U.S. troops currently deployed in Iraq could seriously endanger the entire American military.

Bush can also see China and Russia waiting in the wings, not to promote conflict but to take advantage of self-destructive missteps that the United States takes that would give them more leverage over and control of global energy flows. Iran has the third-largest undeveloped oil reserves in the world and the second-largest undeveloped natural gas reserves.

Bush also knows that Iran controls “the temperature” of the terror networks it runs. Bombing Iran would blow the control gauge off, and Iran’s terror networks could mobilize throughout the Middle East, Afghanistan and even the United States.

Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking on my part, because I’ve long since come to the conclusion that Benen attributes to the president, but this certainly sounds right.

Further, it’s not entirely clear to me that the binary option — war with Iran versus nuclear Iran — is correctly cast. Nobody in the region wants Iran to go nuclear. That provides powerful incentive to form a consensus stance that brings together all “sticks” short of war while offering real “carrots” to make giving up their nuclear program and allowing a robust verifications regime worth the Iranians’ while.

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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.

Comments

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  2. Ugh says:

    It’s Steven Clemons, not Benen.

  3. Steve Verdon says:

    Further, it’s not entirely clear to me that the binary option — war with Iran versus nuclear Iran — is correctly cast. Nobody in the region wants Iran to go nuclear. That provides powerful incentive to form a consensus stance that brings together all “sticks” short of war while offering real “carrots” to make giving up their nuclear program and allowing a robust verifications regime worth the Iranians’ while.

    I am far from an expert on this topic, but doesn’t this assume that the Iranian leadership will think like we do–i.e. there seems to be a rationality assumption here that may not be valid.

  4. James Joyner says:

    It’s Steven Clemons, not Benen.

    Fixed. Thanks.

    I’ve done that a couple times now. Not sure why I get them mixed up, other than the common first name.

  5. James Joyner says:

    there seems to be a rationality assumption here that may not be valid.

    It’s certainly true that we operate under different expected utility calculations. I don’t think that necessarily makes them irrational.

    I certainly recall many arguing a few years ago that we simply couldn’t along Kim Jong Il to get his hands on nukes because he’s just so darned unstable. Thus far, at least, he’s operated perfectly rationally with them, though.

  6. legion says:

    I don’t think I’ve seen this particular detail discussed much, but does Bush realistically have the option of going to war with Iran? I mean yeah – we could throw a mess of cruise missiles and airstrikes their way, but does the ‘grunt-level’ manpower to actually invade Iran exist right now without our having to raise the warning-flag of a no-kidding draft or other legislative preparation?

  7. Scott_T says:

    Reprisals in the Gulf toward U.S. forces and Iran’s ability to cut off supply lines to the 160,000 U.S. troops currently deployed in Iraq could seriously endanger the entire American military.

    Does this guy even know his geography?

    Certainly the troops in Iraq get all of their supplies through Kuwait and then North into Iraq, because that’s the shortest route to get the goods where it needs to go.

    But supplies can still be landed along the Red Sea in Jordan or Saudi Arabia and trucked/trained across either to Iraq. Or, oh my gosh dropped in Turkey and driven in from their (our buddy in NATO, even though that letting the 4th ID invade from Turkey didn’t work out so well…..)

    While any would be more expensive/time consuming. I’m sure Saudi Arabia would foot the bill and do whatever it takes to make it happen across their territory, to ensure that Iran stays non-nuclear. Turkey wouldn’t care except for the extra traffic, they are friendly/peaceful with us and probably don’t want a nuclear Iran next door. The Kurds in Northern Iraq would love it (more US patrols).

    While he might be thinking of the axiom of “An army survives by logistics” (or whatever it is) is comprehension of geography is serously lacking.

  8. markm says:

    “I don’t think I’ve seen this particular detail discussed much, but does Bush realistically have the option of going to war with Iran?”

    Sorta. I’ve seen this discussed and what it would amount to would be a massive air strike (which is certainly doable) with no ground assault. We’d just wreck the hot targets and get out of there. Sounds simple enough (too simple i’m sure). I would tend to think, though, that if/when Iran does go nuclear the Israelis would be the ones that would take on that task.

  9. Scott_T says:

    Damnit, and I forgot.

    The Army would have XX many of days worth of goods still in Kuwait waiting to be shipped north while a new supply route was reorganized also, once any Iran engagement began.

    For all we know, Bush could be ‘surging’ supplies into Kuwait before any attack also, for the contingency of relocating the Main Supply Route into Iraq.

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  11. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    The issue is not war with Iran but rather conventional war now, or nuclear war later. We are not dealing with rational people who fear death. These are folks who strap bombs to children to kill their enemies. But, fear not, Israel will never allow Iran to go nuclear. Still a silly proposal as bombing of Iran has nothing to do with ground forces and Iran would lose any pitched batttles against U.S. ground forces solely because they instantly lose air superiority to our air supremecy. Lose the air, lose the fight.

  12. Steve – I think the rationality assumption is probably stronger for Iran than the Norks. Iran is at no plausible risk of extermination, Iran has no trouble feeding its population and troops, and Iran has a much more decentralized government–which is part of the reason why negotiations are so protracted… the real power is held by the ayatollahs in the Assembly of Experts, not the presidency, and they have no unified position (and frankly, I don’t think they collectively trust one person enough to have their finger on the nuclear button, certainly not a loon like Ahmadinejad).

    Whether they’re rational like us is a different question. But so long as the Iranians want nuclear weapons only as a deterrent to externally-imposed regime change (something that is politically implausible anyway), and not for offensive use against Israel or other regional actors, I don’t see a nuclear-armed Iran as particularly dangerous.

  13. Michael says:

    It’s certainly true that we operate under different expected utility calculations. I don’t think that necessarily makes them irrational.

    Oh, I thought he was talking about _our_ current administration.

    I would tend to think, though, that if/when Iran does go nuclear the Israelis would be the ones that would take on that task.

    Exactly my thoughts too. And I don’t know if Israel has aircraft and/or missles capable of reaching Iran and back without traveling through Iraqi airspace, which means the US will have to at least allow it.

    More importantly, Iran has plans for retaliating with bombers, which means they’ll either by flying over Saudi Arabia (who won’t like it), Turkey & Syria (Syria may not mind, Turkey probably will) or run the gauntlet over Iraq, forcing US interception, and throwing us right into the middle of war we didn’t actually start this time. I wonder what our plans are for a defensive war against Iran and possibly Syria.

    Also, chances are Iran’s bombers wouldn’t be making a return trip, so it’s either a suicide run or they’re landing somewhere else (again possible Syria, don’t know who else would welcome it).

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  15. mannning says:

    For Bush to make the threat of attack credible, it must be possible to carry it out, and probable as well, if decisions by Iran are not what we expect. Otherwise, it is empty rhetoric. I have not seen any reports of additional troops being sent to the area, but some augmentation can be hidden by rotations that somehow do not take place, or do take place to Kuwait. If we were to attack by February, or as late as March 08, some further movements would be obvious by now, I expect.

    An air attack must be comprehensive to be effective and low-cost to us. We cannot simply hit the nuclear facilities, leaving the air defenses, command and control, and communications alone. That would be a prescription for serious aircraft losses. We cannot attack with missiles alone unless they carry nuclear warheads. Conventional warheads are not heavy enough to dig out the targets we must hit. I do not believe Bush would order a nuclear attack.

    In order to massively augment our ground forces in Iraq or Kuwait, we would have begun call ups and repositioning of troops by now. Such a buildup would be needed to blunt any Iranian move to cut our supply lines, to put paid to the Kurds, and to capture Iraqi oil sites. In the extreme, we would have to draft, equip, and train a large number of recruits. This has not happened either to my knowledge, and it isn’t likely to happen short of all-out war.

    While all of these preparations could be hidden to a degree, I suppose, or held off until the last moment, I am dubious now, for lack of signs, that an attack will occur in the Spring of 08 as I had guessed in the past. It would be amazing to me for Bush to order an attack during the election season next Fall, or in the lame duck Spring of 09.

    There is one caveat. If Iran makes a preemptive move against us, or against the Kurds, we would be forced to retaliate with force.

  16. mannning says:

    The Israeli air force has the aircraft and tanker capability to reach Iranian targets, and has been training for the mission for some time now. Obviously, the US would not prevent them from flying over Iraq, and just might accidentally have a fleet of tankers in the area in case of needing to save pilot’s lives–a purely humanitarian gesture, of course.

    This is the wild card in the game. If the Israelis attack, we would have to join them sooner or later, I believe. I am not very confident that we can hold them off, if they believe their national survival is at stake.

  17. Scott_T says:

    Michael said:
    More importantly, Iran has plans for retaliating with bombers,

    Some problems here:
    1) Their ability to reach Israel would be real slim. Iraq and Turkey are inbetween Syria/Jordan on the way to Israel. Syria/Iran don’t share a common border. Look up “syria” on your google-map.

    2) Any Israeli attack planes would be F-15s (like used into Syria).

    Any defensive Israeli planes would be F-16Is left at home, that don’t have the range as the F-15s (unless the get a boatload of refueling). And their F-16s are probably a generation+ better than the outdated Soviet SU-24s (?) that the Iranians have. The Israeli’s will have the latest electronics (they upgrade other countries fighter-planes), the Iranians, not so much.

    Their’s a reason why the Israeli’s have air superiority of Syria, and the Syrians don’t ‘come up to play’ with them in air-to-air combat.

    3) Israel can hit Iran with cruise missiles if they want to, or ICBMs. While Iran might reach Israel with theirs.

    Manning said:
    Such a buildup would be needed to blunt any Iranian move to cut our supply lines, to put paid to the Kurds, and to capture Iraqi oil sites.

    The Iranians don’t have “Armored Divisions” like the Americans, they are basically truck-born light infantry. Their air force is 15+ yrs old and couldn’t put up a fight against ours based in Kuwait. They have lots of small attack boats (with anti-ship missiles) that’d hurt our Navy boats. Try reading http://www.strategypage.com for info on their gear.

    The USAF would have to ‘interdict’/deny access to any Iranian infantry force that came across the border. You remember the “Highway of Death” during GW1? I’m sure the Iranians do and realize it if they attack across the border lots of their trucks and any tanks are going to look like that.

    The Iranians stopped Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war with numbers of people, not equipment. That works well defensively, not offensively so much.

  18. Tlaloc says:

    The Israeli air force has the aircraft and tanker capability to reach Iranian targets, and has been training for the mission for some time now.

    From what they;ve said and various military analysis they can reach the target but likely not get back, and they’ll be low on fuel once there, which means they better not have any problems to deal with (like say the Iranian air defense).

    Obviously, the US would not prevent them from flying over Iraq

    Yeah the US might not but what will Iraq say? Remember technically and legally it’s their airspace. Do we undermine their shaky regime by letting an enemy fly right over them to attack one of their new allies? That’ll do wonders for our image as foreign invaders.

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  23. mannning says:

    The Iraqi could say whatever they want to say, Tlaloc, but it would not make any difference. The game would be far, far over their heads at that point. Fact is, we ARE foreign, and we ARE invaders. So what? Image is not important once the balloon goes up with Iran. Winning is.

    We sold the Israelis KC-10 tankers. A few of those is enough, and they will be orbiting in Iraqi airspace too. So there would be gassing up before the raid, and gassing up on the return, which is SOP.

    The IAF is not going to have one-way missions. their pilots and aircraft are too precious to them.

    For the poorly informed, Iran has over 400 T-72s and 50 Centurions, plus 500 BMPs, a standing army of about 400 thousand, and a 2 million man reserve. These are deployed in eight armored divisions, so they are not at all truck-bound infantry. Not much against US M1A2s, but enough to overrun a lightly held position such as Basra and its surrounds, and then defend it.

  24. mannning says:

    The Strategy Page, Scott, lists Iran with 3500 AFV (Armored Fighting Vehicles), which includes tanks, armored personnel carriers, and heavy artillery.
    Your reference appears to support my contention in spades. Iran is capable of limited but effective ground attacks.

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  29. markm says:

    “I have not seen any reports of additional troops being sent to the area”

    I doubt you would. IF we are stretched so thin i’d bet we’d go in by air only…so if you see a couple carrier groups in that neck of the woods that’s a potential indicator.

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  31. Michael says:

    Their ability to reach Israel would be real slim. Iraq and Turkey are inbetween Syria/Jordan on the way to Israel. Syria/Iran don’t share a common border. Look up “syria” on your google-map.

    I actually did look at a map to confirm my assertions before I posted, which is why I listed a northern route flying over “Turkey & Syria”, as Iranian aircraft would likely skirt the Turkish border with Iraq just long enough to enter Syrian airspace.

  32. mannning says:

    It goes like this, markm, the reaction from our air campaign by Iran would take a number of directions: 1) a move on the Kurds in the North and the oil fields there; 2) a move on Basra and the Eastern oil fields of Iraq; and 3) attacks worldwide on American assets, including inside Iraq. Our troops now in Iraq would immediately face serious problems of logistics via Basra and southern ports, defense of the Kurds, and retaking the oil fields both North and South, while maintaining a semblance of the surge strategy elsewhere. One hopes that our air power would be effective enough to stop these thrusts, but if the Iranians close rapidly on our thin positions, we just might not be able to hit them without losing our own troops or Iraqi civilians, both of which are no-nos. Then too, it is not clear to me that the Iraqi army would support us against Iran, which is, after all, a Shiite Muslim country too. There would be defections at the least.

    We would need more troops in Iraq and Kuwait than are there now to be reasonably sure of the outcome after an air strike or ten, in my opinion. An air transport surge might result in building up about twenty or thirty thousand troops over a week or two, if we had enough prepositioned arms, transport and fighting vehicles in Kuwait. That is perhaps 1 1/2 divisions, which I would suggest isn’t enough to go on the offensive. I also suggest that Iran would call up their reserves, and within a week or so, they would be streaming to the border, but hopefully seriously interdicted by our air.

    What if the Iranians have already called up a significant force and positioned them near the border with their transport? Again, a rapid push into Iraq might succeed in putting us on the defensive.

  33. Wayne says:

    I heard similar arguments before U.S. went into Iraq. In the end the U.S. military would wipe out Iran’s military with little difficultie. The problem would be if we wanted to occupy Iran with its difficult terrain. That would be difficult but then again we wouldn’t really need to.

  34. mannning says:

    Wayne, I am talking about local and limited success by the Iranians, well before we are able to reinforce the eastern border of Iraq. Once they had occupied a few miles into Iraq, and are able to interdict our troop positions, dumps, and supply lines with conventional artillery, we do have a problem.

    Globally, once our reinforcements come on scene, they would have had it, but the episode would cost us to drive them out of their defensive positions, and back into Iran. Want to bet that we would pursue them and destroy them, or stop at the border?

  35. Michael says:

    Repost from another thread, because it’s even more appropriate here:
    Cheney mulled Israeli strike on Iran: Newsweek

    Vice President Dick Cheney had at one point considered asking Israel to launch limited missile strikes at an Iranian nuclear site to provoke a retaliation

    […]

    A military response by Iran could give Washington an excuse to then launch airstrikes of its own