When it comes to the Iranian nuclear program, the United States is rapidly approaching a point of no return. The P5+1 talks are coming down to the wire even as the participants express cautious optimism that a deal could be inked
as soon as Sunday. But if the negotiations in Geneva fail or if their opponents in Congress succeed in blowing them up, leaders of both U.S. political parties will have to quickly come up with a plan B to prevent Tehran from building a nuclear device.
To put it another way, all those who have sought to sabotage an agreement will have to put up or shut up. The Congressional Republicans who invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to torpedo the Iranian talks, the 47 GOP Senators who wrote the leadership of the Islamic Republic threatening to block sanctions relief for Tehran, the 367 House members who penned a similar letter to President Obama, the bipartisan supporters of the Corker-Menendez bill and virtually the entire 2016 Republican presidential field will have to put their money where their mouths are.
And the amount of that money could be as much as $2 trillion over a decade. Thousands of U.S servicemen and women, as well as American civilians, could be the casualties of a conflict that might well spread beyond the region. To ensure that Iran can never develop nuclear weapons, that's the possible price tag in blood and treasure for an American invasion and occupation of Iran that would require "a commitment of resources and personnel greater than what the U.S. has expended over the past 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
Perhaps President Obama's foes on both sides of the aisle would like to bring that package up for a vote in Congress. Call it the "Iran Regime Change Act of 2015."
Of course, you'd never know about any of these risks listening to those who casually chant, "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran."
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Consider, for example, former Bush U.N. Ambassador and possible 2016 White House hopeful John Bolton. In his New York Times op-ed last week ("To Stop Iran's Bomb, Bomb Iran"), Bolton made the destruction of Iran's network of nuclear facilities and the overthrow of the Mullahs in Tehran sound like a walk in the park:
Rendering inoperable the Natanz and Fordow uranium-enrichment installations and the Arak heavy-water production facility and reactor would be priorities. So, too, would be the little-noticed but critical uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan. An attack need not destroy all of Iran's nuclear infrastructure, but by breaking key links in the nuclear-fuel cycle, it could set back its program by three to five years. The United States could do a thorough job of destruction, but Israel alone can do what's necessary. Such action should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran's opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran.
Bolton has plenty of company among the crowd that brought you the war in Iraq. In the sequel to his 2006 Los Angeles Times
op-ed titled simply, "Bomb Iran
," Joshua Muravchik recently took to the pages of the Washington Post
to declare, "War with Iran is probably our best option
." Why? Because, as he put it in 2011
, "Only two methods have turned states away from nuclear weapons: military force and regime change."
Does this mean that our only option is war? Yes, although an air campaign targeting Iran's nuclear infrastructure would entail less need for boots on the ground than the war Obama is waging against the Islamic State, which poses far smaller a threat than Iran does...
Wouldn't destroying much of Iran's nuclear infrastructure merely delay its progress? Perhaps, but we can strike as often as necessary. Of course, Iran would try to conceal and defend the elements of its nuclear program, so we might have to find new ways to discover and attack them. Surely the United States could best Iran in such a technological race.
Many of the other usual suspects on the right have suggested conflict with Iran would be about as unpleasant as an ill-timed fart. In 2012, Elliott Abrams
, the former Iran-Contra architect and cheerleader for the Iraq war, urged President Obama to seek an authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) against Iran. (Abrams, a foreign policy adviser to Mitt Romney in 2012, is now providing his sage counsel to Florida Senator Marco Rubio
.) In July 2013, Senator Lindsey Graham
(R-SC) echoed Abrams, declaring to a gathering of Christians United for Israel:
"If nothing changes in Iran, come September, October, I will present a resolution that will authorize the use of military force to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb...The only way to convince Iran to halt their nuclear program is to make it clear that we will take it out."
As it turned out, come November 2013, something did change. That month, the U.S., UK, France, Germany, Russia and China inked an interim deal with Tehran that froze or scaled back many areas of the Iranian program. As Secretary of State John Kerry
described the results of that deal to Congress last month:
"I don't know anybody who looks at the interim agreement and doesn't say, 'Wow, this has really worked' -- including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who would like to see it extended, having opposed it vehemently in the beginning, calling it the deal of the century for Iran."
But now with the Obama administration and its negotiating partners close to a deal that would limit Iranian nuclear activity, establish a monitoring regime for the next decade and enable the West to extend Tehran's "breakout" to a nuclear weapon to at least a year, the hawks are once again circling in Washington. While Jeb Bush
claims "on Israel and Iran, President Obama mistakes friend and foe," Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker
declared his keen analysis of the movie Trading Places
informed his position to scuttle any Iran deal "on Day One" of his would-be presidency. Meanwhile, GOP presidential candidates and Congressional leaders want nothing short of a deal that results in the complete dismantling of the entire Iranian nuclear infrastructure.
That is a fantasy and has been for over a decade. But in its place, Obama's foes from both sides of the aisle can only offer another preventive war and regime change, this time in Tehran instead of Baghdad.
Those hallmarks of the Bush Doctrine should give everyone pause. After all, preventive war doesn't just present challenges under international law; you have to be correct about the long-term threat you seek to remove. In the case of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, the "smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud," like the WMD themselves, never materialized. As for regime change, you don't need to point to President Bush's creation of a compliant Shiite government and Iranian ally in Iraq to make the case for blowback. It was American regime change with the 1953 ouster of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and U.S. support for the Shah that has fueled Iranian fury ever since. (Nevertheless, many of the same people who brought you Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress are standing behind—and lobbying for—the M.E.K., a recently delisted terrorist group without real influence or support within Iran.)
Still, those who hope to undermine the likely nuclear agreement with Iran still haven't answered the question General David Petraeus posed in 2003: Tell me how this ends.
Iran, after all, is far larger than Iraq. With about 80 million people, the country has triple the population of its Shiite majority neighbor. According to the Global Firepower Index, the conventional Iranian military counts some 545,000 frontline personnel and 1.8 million reservists, along with about 2,000 tanks and self-propelled guns. (Those numbers exclude the Basij volunteer paramilitaries, who died by the tens of thousands during the Iraq-Iran war and who cracked down on pro-democracy demonstrators in 2009.) Its surface fleet and aging 470 aircraft don't pose a serious challenge to U.S air and naval forces in the Persian Gulf and throughout the reason. But it is Tehran's asymmetric warfare capabilities that pose the real problem for American forces. Hundreds of small attack boats and mines, along with more modern anti-ship missiles, could inflict casualties among U.S. ships in the tight quarters of the Straits of Hormuz. Tehran's Quds Forces and Revolutionary Guards have helped train and lead Shiite militia in Iraq, Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon and Syria, and carry out terror operations as far afield as Saudi Arabia and Argentina. Whether attacked by Israel, the United States or both, Iran would almost surely strike back with what long-range missiles it possesses as well with its proxy forces in Gaza and Lebanon.
In January 2008, a confrontation between a handful of Iranian patrol boats and U.S. ships provided in miniature a preview of a future conflict for American commanders. As the New York Times recalled, the episode recalled the outcome of $250 million war game simulation which did not end well for the U.S.:
In the days since the encounter with five Iranian patrol boats in the Strait of Hormuz, American officers have acknowledged that they have been studying anew the lessons from a startling simulation conducted in August 2002. In that war game, the Blue Team navy, representing the United States, lost 16 major warships -- an aircraft carrier, cruisers and amphibious vessels -- when they were sunk to the bottom of the Persian Gulf in an attack that included swarming tactics by enemy speedboats.
"The sheer numbers involved overloaded their ability, both mentally and electronically, to handle the attack," said Lt. Gen. Paul K. Van Riper, a retired Marine Corps officer who served in the war game as commander of a Red Team force representing an unnamed Persian Gulf military. "The whole thing was over in 5, maybe 10 minutes."
Still, many of the Obama administration's opponents in the U.S. and Israel casually brush off Iranian capabilities and Tehran's likely response to supposed surgical strikes designed to cripple its nuclear infrastructure. As Bolton put it, "The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel's 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed."
But the Iranian scenario is altogether different from the Israeli raids on Osirak and the Syrian reactor. Neither Saddam Hussein (then an American ally) nor Bashar Al-Assad posed a serious threat of military retaliation to the one-off Israeli strikes. Crippling Tehran's nuclear capability would require a sustained military campaign that, short of total invasion and occupation, would only temporarily delay the Iranian program. And the danger from an Iranian response is quantitatively and qualitatively of a different magnitude. That's why leaders of the national security establishments in both Israel and the U.S. have warned about what such operations will entail. Short of a total invasion and occupation of that nation of 75 million people, the deployment of Iranian nuclear weapons can only be delayed, not halted, by military action. And the resulting carnage and chaos throughout the Middle East would make the U.S. conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq seem like picnics in comparison.
At a minimum, thousands of Iranian civilians would die in an American attack against Tehran's nuclear installations. Even if the Israelis alone launch a strike against Iran's nuclear sites, Tehran will almost certainly hit back against U.S. targets in the Straits of Hormuz, in the region, possibly in Europe, and even potentially in the American homeland. And Israel would face certain retaliation from Hezbollah rockets launched from Lebanon and Hamas missiles raining down from Gaza.
That's why it came as no surprise in May 2012 when a majority of Netanyahu's own defense chiefs opposed an Israeli strike on the mullahs' nuclear facilities. That same month, the New York Times reported that Israel's former intelligence chief Meir Dagan "has said that a strike on Iran's nuclear installations would be "a stupid idea," adding that military action might not achieve all of its goals and could lead to a long war." Why?
"A strike could accelerate the procurement of the bomb," claimed Dagan, who spoke at a conference held at the National Security Studies Institute in Tel Aviv. "An attack isn't enough to stop the project."
Dagan posited that military action would align the Iranian population behind the regime, thus solving the country's political and financial problems. Moreover, he asserted that in the case of an Israeli strike, Iran could declare before the world that it was attacked even while adhering to agreements made with the International Atomic Energy Agency - by a country that reportedly possess "strategic capabilities."
"We would provide them with the legitimacy to achieve nuclear capabilities for military purposes," he said.
Short of a large-scale invasion and occupation of Iran by American forces, U.S. military action might still only delay the Iranian bomb Tehran would doubtless go into overdrive to produce. That's why former Bush Defense Secretary Bob Gates
and CIA head Michael Hayden
raised the alarms about the "disastrous" impact of supposedly surgical strikes against the Ayatollah's nuclear infrastructure. As the New York Times reported in March 2012
A classified war simulation held this month to assess the repercussions of an Israeli attack on Iran forecasts that the strike would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead, according to American officials.
And the costs in lives and treasure would be staggering. In November 2012, the Federation of American Scientists estimated that a U.S. campaign of air strikes would cost the global economy $700 billion
; a full-scale invasion could have a total impact of $1.7 trillion. Two months earlier, a bipartisan report
signed by ex-National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, retired Admiral William Fallon, former Republican Senator and Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel, retired General Anthony Zinni, former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and others warned Americans about the cost
of trying to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program once and for all:
A unilateral Israeli attack would set back the Iranian nuclear program by only 2 years and an American attack by 4 years. But if the objective is "ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear bomb," the U.S. "would need to conduct a significantly expanded air and sea war over a prolonged period of time, likely several years." In order to achieve regime change, the report says, "the occupation of Iran would require a commitment of resources and personnel greater than what the U.S. has expended over the past 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
The anticipated blowback?
Serious costs to U.S. interests would also be felt over the longer term, we believe, with problematic consequences for global and regional stability, including economic stability. A dynamic of escalation, action, and counteraction could produce serious unintended consequences that would significantly increase all of these costs and lead, potentially, to all-out regional war.
After reviewing the results of a 2004 war gaming exercise
conducted by The Atlantic
in conjunction with leading national security experts, James Fallows last month was moved to ask, "Would a U.S. Strike Against Iran Actually Work?"
Israel doesn't have the military capacity to "stop" Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and neither does the United States, at least not in circumstances short of total war.
If this all sounds like the hypothetical scenarios of a bunch of doves in the Pentagon and the State Department, it is worth recalling the America reaction to the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia which killed 19 U.S. servicemen and wounded hundreds of others. As former Clinton and Bush counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke
recounted in his book, Against All Enemies
, President Clinton and the Joint Chiefs contemplated a massive U.S. invasion of Iran in response to the involvement of its agents:
In our meeting with the Pentagon in 1996, Shali was talking about all-out war. The military had a plan for almost any contingency. The plan on the shelf for war with Iran looked like it had been drawn up by Eisenhower. Several groups of Army and Marine divisions would sweep across the country over the course of several months.
Ultimately, President Clinton opted against the invasion of Iran, in part because of the difficulty in proving the U.S. intelligence case against Tehran to the international community. In the end, the U.S. launched a large-scale covert action campaign against Iranian intelligence assets worldwide. Apparently, the message was received with zero distortion; Iran has not targeted United States interests since.
As the P5+1 talks reach what may be their make-or-break moment, there is little disagreement about the risks for regional nuclear proliferation Iran could pose. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey are just some of the Sunni countries whose initial nuclear efforts could accelerate. But opponents of the deal now taking shape fall into one of two camps. For the likes of Bolton and Muravchik, no combination of sanctions and monitoring will prevent the Islamic Republic of Iran from building nuclear weapons. For Benjamin Netanyahu and his GOP and Democratic allies in Congress, only tougher sanctions and greater pressure will bring "a better deal" to prevent an annihilationist nuclear Iran from wiping nuclear Israel off-the-map with a first strike.
Of course, there's a glaring contradiction there: the same mullahs in Tehran who are rational enough to cave to public pressure over the pain of sanctions are sufficiently irrational to launch a nuclear exchange in which Iran would be reduced to radioactive rubble by Israel and/or the United States. As Matthew Duss tweeted, "Here we go: Iran is run by crazy suicidal apocalyptic mullahs who will crack under greater economic pressure."
But what about the American Congress? While a recent CNN poll showed that 68 percent of the American people support the direct diplomatic negotiations with Iran, potential deal-busting legislation like Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk's "Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015" (S. 269) and the Corker-Menendez "Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015" (S.615) enjoy broad, bipartisan backing in Congress. If the P5+1 talks fail or an actual deal subverted, the inspection and monitoring regime for the Iranian nuclear facilities will come to an end. If deal opponents worry about Iran cheating when the U.S. can "trust but verify," what will happen when the U.S. cannot verify at all? Then President Obama and Congress will have a decision to make, a decision between war and peace.
At the end of the day, if the goal is total elimination of the threat that Tehran could ever build nuclear weapons, Obama's foes should say so. And they should be honest with the American people about what that will mean. A massive build-up of American forces. An invasion and occupation of Iran lasting years, costing trillions of dollars and likely tens of thousands of American lives. Nation building in the wake of toppling the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Tax increases to pay for it all.
Call it the Iran Regime Change Act of 2015.