Prospects of war with Iran 

Brian M Downing 

[An article from 2012 when a US strike on Iran was though to be forthcoming. I was skeptical.]

The escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf and attendant positioning of military assets in the region gives the impression that war is all but inevitable.  Machinery is in gear and turning faster and faster by the day, as it was in the lead-ups to the Gulf wars of 1991 and 2003.

The decision to go to war, though ultimately resting with President Obama, is a complex process involving the US public, congress, the military, allied governments, and the president’s advisers.  Some of those groups are active participants, others virtually inert.  Combining the apparent positions of these various groups does not show a strong consensus either for going to war or remaining with sanctions.  And so a war between the US and Iran is not the forgone conclusion it is often assumed to be.

The Public

The American people have been a vast reservoir of support for war since the shining victory of WWII ended longstanding isolationist traditions and enduringly alloyed military action with the ideals of American might and virtue.  Paradoxically, in 1945, just as Europe had wearied of armed conflict and foreign involvement, the US was romanticizing them and making them integral parts of the national identity and economy.

This reservoir of war romanticism has known shortage, as in the years after Vietnam and at the height of the Iraq insurgency.  Today, the military budget is beginning to be seen as burdensome and the war in Afghanistan drags on without signs of progress.  The appeal of war is weaker than in the heady days after the 9/11 attacks, but it remains at abundant, exploitable levels.

Several parts of the American media and political system have been making the case for war over the last several years – quite insistently in the last few months.  Large parts of American radio and television are devoted to hawkish, populist messages disparaging President Obama’s inattention to foreign dangers and to warnings of the danger in Iran’s nuclear program.  Some sources all but demand air strikes on Iran.

In the conservative GOP presidential primaries, most candidates endorse a tough stance against Iran, though naturally enough they are reluctant to specify precisely what that stance would be and what it would lead to.  They are not disposed to clarity on even so grave an issue.

Ron Paul, a maverick libertarian, vehemently opposes any hostile action against Iran.  Indeed, he is opposed to America’s global presence in general.  His respectable showing in the primaries, however, is based more on his demonstrated opposition to government spending than to his neo-isolationism, which at present resonates only faintly among conservatives and only somewhat more so in the general public.

Audiences are not apprised of likely consequences of such air strikes – or of ongoing assassinations and bombings inside Iran, for that matter.  Nor, as we shall see, is there mention of cautious evaluations by members of the Israeli military and intelligence service.

Popular support for war with Iran, nonetheless, is at present not robust.  Lingering animosity over the long embassy crisis of 1979-80 is not strong and the argument of an endangered Israel draws strong support only in predictable places.

Polling questions and responses vary with the skill and agenda of pollsters.  When given a choice between taking action or not, respondents favor military action by 54% to 38% – a narrow majority.  However, when respondents are graciously given continued sanctions and diplomacy as an option, it is favored by 65% of respondents and the military option falls to 16%.

Lack of enthusiasm does not imply significant opposition.  After all, even at the height of the Iraq insurgency opposition was limited to occasional speeches in congress and gatherings devoted to a number of causes of little relation to the war.  Americans today are preoccupied with personal and familial matters amid hard times and are unlikely to mount serious opposition to an impending or actual war.

Inasmuch as any attack on Iran is thought to take the form of air strikes and not involve ground troops, war would be seen by many Americans, at least at its outset, as a quick and almost costless effort from which Iran will emerge chastened and the US strengthened.

The Congress

The US political system has not yet come to meaningful discussion of the Iran situation.  With the exception of occasional stern comments from committee chairpersons, congress has only looked on as stances harden and troops move into place.

The absence of debate as war clouds build is not surprising.  Congress, though empowered by the Constitution with control over going to war, largely ceded that power to the White House long ago.

Congress is not getting any strong signal either way from the public.  This leaves the matter of influence in the hands of think tanks, which shape opinion and are typically supportive of interventionism, and lobbying organizations, which are typically supportive of Israeli and Saudi interests.  The Iranian nuclear issue has brought Israel and Saudi Arabia, historical adversaries, into a strange but redoubtable partnership.

Over the last three years, congress has doggedly pressed President Obama for tougher sanctions and shorter deadlines for talks.  These were more than simply bluster; they aimed to force the president into a sterner approach to Tehran.  A recent vote on firmer sanctions on the Iranian oil and financial sectors passed the House by a vote of 410 to 11 – an astounding margin rarely seen since Pearl Harbor.

Handling of the Iran matter will likely build as the November elections near and campaigns become more contested and costly.  Should there be a vote on military action against Iran, it will take place amid anxious electoral competitions not given to thoughtful consideration of foreign policy.

The Military 

While priding itself on being apolitical, the military has over the years been supportive of foreign policies that allow it to practice its craft and justify its budgets.  As spending cuts loom for years to come, the military will wish to demonstrate its importance to national security and world affairs.

A recent Centcom commander, Admiral William Fallon, famously voiced his opposition to attacking Iran.  However, that was in 2007 as the Iraq insurgency was at its deadliest and institutional mistrust of neo-conservative foreign policy was strongest.  Iran, Fallon knew, could direct Shiite militias to strike back hard against US troops in Iraq and increase casualties sharply.

Iran can still retaliate against US troops in Afghanistan, but US troops are out of Iraq and the neo-cons are out of office.  No flag officer has opted to repeat Fallon’s public stand against attacking Iran, and US assets continue to move into the Gulf region.

Institutional support for war will be strongest in the navy and air force.  Thus far in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan they have played only minor, subordinate roles.  Providing air support for an infantry company is most welcome to the guys on the ground and constitutes a vital part of war.  To the navy and air force, however, it reduces them to auxiliaries of the army and marines.

Better there be a strategic bombing campaign against air defense systems and communication centers.  Better there be neutralization of enemy fighter aircraft, stealth bombers hitting hardened targets, then on to crippling the enemy’s economic infrastructure and supporting uprisings among oppressed peoples such as the Kurds and Balochs.

The Pentagon is not incautious here.  They know that two or three aircraft carriers are close to Iranian shores.  One or two will be in the relatively closed waters of the Persian Gulf where they have less room to maneuver and are especially vulnerable to Iranian missiles, ships, and aircraft.

Pentagon modelling of war with Iran has been sobering.  In addition to a wave of bombings and assassinations throughout the region and perhaps inside the US as well, an aircraft carrier could be lost to “swarming” tactics by Iranian ships, planes, and missiles.  The US hasn’t lost a carrier since WWII and flag officers and statesmen alike must know that the public reaction would be immediate, unreasoning, and vengeful.

The Allies

The American leadership will makes its decision after careful discussions with key allies in and out of the Gulf region.  Many allies are adamant in advocating war – or at least seem to be.  Others are more circumspect.  Owing to new fiscal and geopolitical realities facing the US, the administration’s deliberations will be more mindful of allies’ viewpoints and capabilities than in previous years.

Several EU states, especially Britain and France, oppose Iran’s nuclear program.  They do not want to see another nuclear power and are concerned that a nuclear Iran could endanger the flow of Gulf oil upon many EU states depend.  Britain and France have been prominent in the many rounds of diplomacy over the years and have voted to boycott Iran’s oil beginning in July, but participation in a war is quite another matter.


British and French security bureaus are unlikely to form scenarios of quick strikes and satisfactory results.  The costs of the world wars were far higher there than in the US and are deeply rooted in the political culture – elite and popular alike.  War with Iran, with or without British or French participation, would present serious concerns.

Oil prices would rise sharply, and European countries that rely on oil from the Gulf will anxiously wonder for how long.  Iran could protract the dangers to tanker traffic by intermittent use of mines, aircraft, and ships and by sporadic strikes on Saudi oil facilities.  Coming along with the still-emerging euro crisis, Europe could be severely hurt, as would much of the world.

Iranian retaliation could also take the form of assassinations and bombings in many parts of the world, including Europe.  (Indeed, recent bombing attempts in India, Georgia, and India signify that Iran has begun its retaliatory campaign.)  This would be an unwelcome reprise of the assassinations of dissidents and former officials in the Shah’s government that took place in Europe back in the 80s.  Sympathetic attacks may come from small numbers in disaffected Muslim populations across the continent, who though chiefly Sunni, will act in the name of anti-interventionism and Islamic fraternity.

Most European allies are unlikely to take part in attacks on Iran and will likely counsel against it, preferring continued sanctions and diplomacy.  Sanctions may not be successful this year, they will note, but sanctions constitute a long-term cost to Iran for any violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and may lead to welcome change in the Iranian elections scheduled for 2013.

The US is more needful of allies now than at any time since WWII.  Budgets will be tight in the foreseeable future; reductions in ground troops are already underway.  US strategy now calls for greater cooperation with other countries, especially in East and South Asia where China is becoming the primary concern.

S. Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and India – key partners in the neo-containment alliance – share Europe’s dependence on Gulf oil and its attendant concern with price rises and disruptions of tanker traffic.  They do not share the US’s concern with Iran’s nuclear program and most of them, despite US and Saudi urging, have declined to boycott Iranian oil.  They, like the European powers, are almost certainly pressing Washington to refrain from military action and to stick to sanctions and diplomacy.

Further, East Asian allies will be concerned with the strategic judiciousness of the US should it initiate a conflagration in the Gulf.  They will also be concerned if the US were to keep a large number of its naval and air assets away from the Chinese periphery for an expended period, much as the US’s NATO partners were dismayed by so many US assets devoted for so long to the war in Southeast Asia back in the 1960s.

Saudi Arabia has been one of the driving forces in the effort to counter Iran and, along with Israel, foremost in public calls for war.  The Saudis were most helpful to the US in opposing the Soviets in Afghanistan by funding the mujahadeen and driving down oil prices and devastating the Soviet Union’s export revenue.

But that was no favor which put the US in the Saudis’ debt.  They were angered by an officially atheistic power’s  invasion of a Muslim country.  Furthermore, the US defended the kingdom in 1991 when Saddam’s army overran Kuwait and seemed poised to drive farther south.  The House of Saud cannot call in any markers in Washington.

Saudi Arabia is pressing for war but is unable to field a meaningful part of any military effort and must rely on the US.  This of course weakens their position in the matter.

The Saudi military is replete with pomp and elegance but under no circumstance can it match up with Iran.  Further, its Asian trade partners, especially China, are urging Riyadh to put aside sectarian-based anxieties and, in the interest of world trade, find a diplomatic solution.

The influence of Israel’s more hawkish voices will become more apparent as the crisis builds over the next few months.  The Obama administration, however, may be more attentive to the several Israeli national security authorities who are both more thoughtful and more cautious.  Their nuanced analyses get no purchase in the US public but they might have a welcome audience in the war councils on the Potomac.

The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran striking Israel is the basis of the case for stopping Iran’s nuclear program.  Politicians and talk radio hosts state as a veritable certainty that the irrational mullahs in Tehran – dogmatic Twelver Shi’ites to the man – will seek to annihilate Israel even if it means their own annihilation in a counterstrike.

Many Israeli intelligence and defense experts, however, see the Iranian leadership as rational, even cautious, and well aware that a nuclear war would bring them nothing but swift and massive retaliation.  Nor are these experts unmindful of disastrous consequences for Israel should a strike on Iran lead to a regional war.

In that these arguments are often leaked, it appears that these Israeli experts are seeking the attention of calmer minds in the publics and war councils of Israel and the US alike.

The Administration

Few in President Obama’s foreign policy team and trusted advisers are disposed to using military force.  This is all the more so after the departure of Dennis Ross, James L Jones, and Rahm Emanuel in the last year or so.

There is a notable absence of military experience in the president and the people around him, but as the previous administration ably demonstrated, this is no obstacle to favoring war.  Obama and his staff, however, are liberal democrats who prefer social spending to military spending and see the latter eating into the former too much already.   It is in their upbringings, educations, and political careers.

Some of them applauded the Afghan campaign in 2001 and voted for the Iraq invasion the following year, but the rise of bloody insurgencies in both countries have impressed greater sobriety.  The hawks’ preference for armed force and optimistic war scenarios no longer receive the almost reflexive assent they enjoyed in the heady aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Outside the wars it inherited, the administration has demonstrated a preference for highly limited military actions as evidenced by the cases of Libya and Somalia.  Those cases saw only sparing use of US might, usually fighter aircraft and drones, and substantial indigenous and allied help, often in the form of ground troops.

The Iran case would be quite different.  There would be weeks of heavy bombing and cruise missile strikes on the air defense system, fighter aircraft, and naval vessels before concentrating on the nuclear facilities at Natanz, Qom, Isfahan, and Fordu.  The nuclear sites are hardened targets buried under over a hundred feet of bedrock or burrowed well into mountains, making difficult damage assessments and repeated strikes a likelihood.

The burden would fall mainly on the US.  Help from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunni states would be slight in the overall effort as Israeli pilots would have long flights requiring refueling and Saudi pilots are inexperienced and of uncertain determination under fire.  No ground troops from any power are likely – save perhaps for the Kurdish, Baloch, and Mujahadeen-e-Khalq guerrillas who will be encouraged to conduct attacks.

Iranian responses are of course not known, but they would likely include guerrilla attacks throughout the Gulf and assassinations and bombings wherever US, Saudi, and Israeli targets may be.  Tehran may seek to make their response a series of intermittent attacks, lasting months or even years.  Such a conflict, then, would be open-ended and costly – a lengthy burden on the purses of belligerents.

If Iran were to strike inside the US or seem poised to, consumer spending and business investment would freeze and the already frail economy would slump.  Civil liberties would suffer and the reach of domestic surveillance would become even more Orwellian.

The president’s personal make-up may be critical the decision to go to war.  Barack Obama envisions himself as an exceptional figure, above the crush of ordinary politicians and tired circumstance, who went from the Illinois legislature to the White House in just a few years.  He is one who effects change through charisma, elocution, and consensus-building, not through the coarse method of dropping bombs.

Barack Obama has great expectations.  He does not want to go down in history as a war president – one who failed to devote himself fully to bettering the lives of Americans and who carried on with his predecessors’ plan for the Middle East.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online)