With U.S. President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announcing that major cuts are coming to the Defense Department, hawks seeking to stop nuclear weapons development by Iran by any means necessary will soon have less “means” to call upon. With the Army set to shrink by approximately 80,000 soldiers, and a broad swath of cuts set to affect every service, “Operation Iranian Freedom” may be far less likely than many hawks had previously hoped.
The diminished prospect for a military confrontation with Iran is particularly bad news for some considering that Secretary Panetta just last month suggested that Iran could – although it was unlikely – have a nuclear weapon before 2012 is over.
Yet while few outside the Iranian regime see a nuclear Iran as desirable, any decision that could lead to war between the United States and the Islamic Republic deserves considerable discussion before the American people. Simply beating the war drums so loudly as to drown out the voices of any opposition is a poor substitute for real debate.
Five points deserve particular consideration as decision makers consider the United States’ option. They are particularly important as the 2012 election gets closer and calls for a military solution increase.
First, Iran possesses what is likely the most capable military the United States has faced in decades. Iran is no Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Serbia, Afghanistan or Iraq. In all of these examples, the U.S. military defeated an adversary incapable of competing with superior American land, naval, and air forces. The Iranian military is far more competent and capable, and after watching the war in Iraq for a decade has a good understanding of U.S. tactics and strategy.
For example, Iran's regular navy is adept at littoral combat and may be capable of closing the Strait of Hormuz for sufficient duration to wreak economic havoc. The recent naval exercises by the Iranian navy illustrate a clear strategy that would seek to close the strait while attempting to sink American combat vessels that enter the area. This would result in a significant loss of commercial shipping and cause the price of oil to skyrocket.
If it comes to war, the proliferation of advanced air defense systems to countries like Iran may give it one of the best integrated anti-aircraft defense systems the United States faces in combat. They may be capable of inflicting casualties on American airpower not seen since Vietnam. And with a declining bomber force, losses could be unacceptable.
Unlike Iraq, Iran’s regular Army and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps won’t lay down their arms at the first sight of U.S. ground troops. They, more than any other element of the regime, watched Afghanistan and Iraq for lessons on how to defeat the Americans.
Second, the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security (MOIS), Iran’s espionage service, is among the most competent in the world. Over the past thirty years, MOIS agents have successfully hunted down and assassinated dissidents, former officials of the Shah's government, and real or perceived threats to the regime. MOIS is still capable of carrying out assassinations, espionage, and other kinetic attacks against government and civilian targets. The spy service is also likely to have covert agents in the United States.
While information is incomplete, there’s reason to believe that Manssor Arbabsiar, the Iranian who allegedly attempted to hire the Zeta drug cartel to assassinate a Saudi ambassador on American soil, was tied to MOIS. While the effort failed, it demonstrates the lengths to which MOIS will likely go.
MOIS has also been known to target Iranian expatriates, imprisoning their family members and causing bodily harm. A small number of the 1-1.5 million Iranian-Americans may very well become targets of such tactics.
Third, Iranian-backed Hezbollah is more capable of conducting terrorist attacks than al-Qaeda ever was. With three decades of experience fighting the Israelis in Lebanon and northern Israel, suspected ties to Latin American drug cartels, and a global network, Hezbollah is an international network that is able to conduct large-scale attacks against the United States and its interests abroad.
In fact, Hezbollah cells are believed to be active in the United States, Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere, making the organization more than a hypothetical threat. With the U.S. Marine Barracks bombing (Beirut,1983), Argentine Israelite Mutual Association bombing (Buenos Aires,1994), Khobar Towers bombing (Saudi Arabia,1996), and many other attacks under their belts, Hezbollah has a history of global terrorism. Should the U.S. military attack Iran, Hezbollah is likely to launch a series of terrorist counter-attacks that will not be as readily thwarted as those of al-Qaeda.
Fourth, Iran’s cyber capabilities are impressive and growing. An attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is likely to prompt a sustained cyber-attack unlike any we have seen. It will likely target critical data in the public and private sector and seek to wreak havoc, shut down systems, and destroy data.
Fifth, after a decade of intense combat operations, the United States military deserves a rest from war. Afghanistan and Iraq have taken their toll on America's fighting men and women, their families, and the equipment they rely on. A “limited attack” on Iran will likely escalate into a wider war, making it difficult for the military to rest and refit.
When considering whether to use military force against Iran it’s important to understand that there is an asymmetry of interests at stake. The Iranian regime sees itself as fighting for its very survival. The stakes are considerably lower for the United States.
Even a focused strike against Iran's nuclear facilities will elicit a response well in excess of the United States' “limited” objectives. While a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and troop reductions in Afghanistan – Iran’s western and northern neighbors – may cause the Iranian leadership to slow the development of a “Shi’a bomb,” a strategic attack by the United States will only strengthen their resolve and solidify the regime’s worst fears.
While Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bellicose statements make good political theatre, there is rarely much behind them. To suggest that Ahmadinejad is all bark and no bite is not far from the truth. The fact is that the Iranian regime is more risk averse than many give it credit for. Regime survival is of paramount concern and greatly explains why the regime acts as it does. Pushing the regime to the edge may turn empty threats into reality and will certainly undermine any effort by President Barack Obama to save defense dollars.
In the end, Iran may prove less capable than I’ve described, and a military conflict with Iran may be less costly in blood and treasure than suspected. However, weighing all options before resorting to military conflict is critical to reaching the best solution.
For the United States, determining what a nuclear weapons-free Iran is worth is critical. Had the American people understood the costs of Iraq before the war began, it’s unlikely they would have given their consent. Given the current economic woes of the country, that cannot happen again.
Dr. Adam B. Lowther is a member of the faculty at the U.S. Air Force's Air University. The views expressed are those of the author.