Already bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would be sheer folly for the United States to take military action against Iran's nuclear infrastructure. Such a move could trigger a protracted conflict and have myriad, adverse consequences, from destabilizing the Persian Gulf and Iraq to a sizeable spike in world oil prices.
The administration is no doubt still mulling preventive military action against Iran's nuclear industry in order to make sure Tehran does not achieve a nuclear weapons capability. Indeed, leaks in January suggesting Israel was considering the use of nuclear weapons against Iranian nuclear targets may well have been meant to keep pressure on Washington to take this bull by the horns militarily.
Recent U.S. moves, such as the deployment of a second carrier battle group to the Gulf, are no doubt aimed at intimidating Iran in the hope of minimizing Iranian interference in Iraq at the time of our "surge" and also perhaps to begin putting in place the elements needed for a robust campaign of air strikes against Iran.
Some observers might not appreciate that if military action is taken connected to Iran's nuclear infrastructure, there would be nothing surgical about such an operation. The air strikes associated with contingency planning suggests that in addition to hitting a number of widely dispersed nuclear-related targets, much of Iran's air defenses would have to be taken out to clear paths to the targets.
In addition, to eliminate Iran's ability to retaliate in the Gulf, strikes also probably would be made against Iran's formidable array of anti-ship missiles near the Strait of Hormuz, Iranian Kilo-Class submarines, and perhaps even Iran's ballistic and medium-range missile capabilities.
Such an ambitious air campaign could spread out over nearly a week, involving well over 1,000 combat aircraft sorties and hundreds of cruise missile launches. During that period, Iran could strike back with whatever military capabilities escaped destruction in the course of the earliest strikes.
Indeed, a badly wounded Iran would likely do everything it could to retaliate, such as attacking U.S. fleet elements and commercial shipping with any anti-ship missiles escaping the first waves of air strikes. It might also launch whatever ballistic and medium-range missiles that survive the U.S. assault at various targets in the Gulf region, countries Tehran would likely view as complicit in such an attack. And Iran has other capabilities as well, such as various types of naval mines and asymmetric military retaliatory options including a Revolutionary Guard speedboat fleet trained to swarm against merchant ships or even enemy combat vessels.
Worst of all, shorn of much of its ability to strike back in the Gulf, a rather chaotic Iraq would doubtless have considerable allure as an ideal venue for payback against the United States. This could be carried out by Iran's allies among various Shi'a militias, (elements that probably would be enraged by such a U.S. attack on Iran in any case) or even by the insertion of hundreds of Iran's own personnel to carry out attacks on U.S. forces. In such a scenario, the situation in an already seriously destabilized Iraq would become that much worse.
Some in Washington would hope that in the midst of or following such heavy blows, Iranians would turn against the clerical regime, which is unpopular in many quarters. However, if history is any guide, patriotic Iranians of most all political persuasions would likely rally instead to the defense of their country, perhaps even strengthening the current regime.
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of all this would be the absence of an end game. The last major military move against Iran was initiated by none other than Saddam Hussein back in 1980. The Ba'thist regime in Baghdad, feeling threatened by revolutionary Iran, lashed out at Iran militarily, assuming that an unprepared Iran would quit the fight to lick its wounds and that a humiliated revolutionary government might well collapse.
Instead, Iranians across the political spectrum fought back with grim determination, trapping Iraq in an 8-year war that eventually would cost Iraqis more than 150,000 casualties. Americans, ironically also now in Iraq, must be mindful of this great blunder on the part of a bullying and clueless dictator.
- Wayne White is an adjunct scholar at the nonpartisan Middle East Institute. He is a former deputy director of the State Department's Intelligence and Research Office, focusing on Middle East issues, especially Iraq and Iran.