As President Obama faced the looming re-election campaign in the spring of 2012, he issued a stern challenge to those critics of his approach to the Iranian nuclear program. “When I see some of these folks who have a lot of bluster and a lot of big talk but when you actually ask them specifically what they would do,” Obama pointed out, “It turns out they repeat the things that we've been doing over the last three years.” Slamming the “casualness” of their incendiary rhetoric, President Obama declared, “This is not a game.” And that wasn’t all:
"If some of these folks think that it's time to launch a war, they should say so. And they should explain to the American people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences would be. Everything else is just talk."
Six years later and on the eve of the third anniversary of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed to by Iran and the P5+1 powers, the cheap talk is back. That’s because Donald Trump has set himself a May 12 deadline to reimpose sanctions on Iran if Tehran does agree to major new concessions beyond the scope of the deal. And while France, Germany, the U.K., and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have pleaded with him to continue the agreement with which Iran has consistently complied (the International Atomic Energy Association [IAEA] has now certified that compliance 9 times), Trump is threatening to rip up the accord. And if he does, Donald Trump could unleash a devastating regional conflict that will make the Iraq war seem like a walk in the park.
As it turns out, that next disaster is being encouraged by many of the same voices who brought you the first one. Despite opposition from much of his current and former military leadership, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu re-emerged this week to urge Trump to back out of the deal. His English-language PowerPoint presentation only supported what American intelligence had concluded in its 2007 and 2011 National Intelligence Estimates: Iran had a clandestine nuclear weapons program which it halted in 2003. (Of course, Bibi was silent about the last time he pressed Americans to attack an Israeli foe in 2002, when he predicted, “If you take out Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you it will have positive reverberations on the region.”)
Former Bush National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—the same Condi Rice who in the fall of 2002 warned “we don't what the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud”—proclaimed on Tuesday that “I don’t think it’s the end of the world if the administration leaves the agreement.” And failed Iraq war cheerleader-turned-Trump national security adviser John Bolton, who in 2015 penned a New York Times op-ed titled simply “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” promised a conference of the Iranian resistance group “People’s Mujahedeen” (MEK) in Paris last year that the United States would go Old Testament on the Ayatollah’s government in Iran:
"The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs' regime in Tehran. The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself. That's why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!"
Leave aside for the moment America’s calamitous experience with regime change and preventive war in 21st century. Bolton, Bibi, Condi, and their ilk are casually omitting two vital points when it comes to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Either the United States and its allies will immediately need a robust inspection regime to foreclose the possibility of Iranian cheating or they will need to launch a massive military campaign to thoroughly destroy the Iranian nuclear infrastructure. To put it another way, choosing to “jettison” the current JCPOA agreement means the Trump administration will either need a new accord very much like it or it will have to go to war.
But missing from grim assessments of the Iran nuclear and the cases for its abrogation is a much more important question: What happens next? While the usual suspects like Bolton, Joshua Muravchik, and Arkansas GOP Sen. Tom Cotton claim that Tehran's nuclear aspirations can be neutralized by "several days of air and naval bombing," most of the American national security leadership vehemently disagrees. To ensure that Iran can never develop nuclear weapons, the possible price tag in blood and treasure for an American invasion and occupation of Iran would require what one 2012 analysis called "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."
Here's why, rather than eliminating a future nuclear threat from Iran, a preventive U.S. military strike could produce "the worst of all worlds."
Iran, after all, is far larger than Iraq. With more than 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 more than 530,000 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 region. But Tehran's asymmetric warfare capabilities 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 an earlier $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 brushed off Iranian capabilities and Tehran's likely response to supposed surgical strikes designed to cripple its nuclear infrastructure. As Bolton put it three years ago, "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.
That's the precisely the point that then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey made clear in 2015. Carter, the Los Angeles Times reported, "sought to downplay the likelihood or the utility of an attack" because "no plan under consideration, including use of the newly bunker-buster bombs, could deliver a permanent knockout blow to Iran's nuclear infrastructure and enrichment plants."
"A military strike of that kind is a setback, but it doesn't prevent the reconstitution over time," he said. "And that basically has been the case as long as we've had those instruments and those plans, and I don't think there's anything substantially changed since then."
U.S. officials have publicized the new bomb partly to rattle the Iranians. Some Pentagon officials warned not to underestimate U.S. military capabilities even if the bunker-busters can't eliminate Iran's nuclear program.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested at the same Pentagon news conference Thursday that airstrikes might be ordered multiple times if Iran tries to build a bomb.
The military option "isn't used once and set aside," he said. "It remains in place. ... We will always have military options, and a massive ordnance penetrator is one of them."
Just as important, the danger from an Iranian response is quantitatively and qualitatively of a different magnitude than Saddam in 1981 or Assad in 2007 could have posed.
That's why leaders of the national security establishments in both Israel and the U.S. have long warned about what such operations will entail. Short of a total invasion and occupation of that nation of some 82 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 Syria 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 Gen. 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 in January 2015 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.
Very little has changed in the intervening years to alter that conclusion. As the talks with Iran, China, Russia, France, Germany, and the U.K. wound down in 2015, the United States made no secret of its newest bunker-busting weapon, the $15 million, 15-ton Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP). Breathless articles in CNN (“Bunker-Busting Bomb on Standby as Iran Nuclear Talks Near End”) and Time (“U.S. Air Force Primed and Ready to Attack Iran's Nuclear Sites”) touted the “Mother of All Bombs,” the GBU-43/Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB). (In April 2017, the president ordered the U.S. Air Force to drop one on an Islamic State cave complex in Afghanistan.) But as he talks up his Nobel Peace Prize prospects in advance of his upcoming talks with North Korea, Donald Trump is telling the world “we’ll see” about the fate of the deal that has kept the peace with Iran. As the run-up to his self-imposed May 12 deadline approaches, Trump and his hardline water-carriers are talking tough. Tehran’s ballistic missile program, its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and its backing for the brutal regime Assad regime in Syria are real issues; as the arms control agreements with the Soviet Union showed, the JCPOA need not be undone over them. The resurrected Iran hawks are simply not telling the truth about the consequences of scuttling the Iran accord, if they say anything about them at all.
As President Obama warned in 2012, this is not a game. If Donald Trump, Congress, John Bolton, Condi Rice, Bibi Netanyahu, and company "think that it's time to launch a war, they should say so.” Anything else is the real MOAB: The Mother of All Bullshit.