The Iran Problem


The drumbeats for war with Iran grow ever louder. On March 13, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Joshua Muravchik asserting that “War with Iran is probably our best option.” On March 26, the New York Times published a piece by John Bolton entitled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” Now the Washington Post editorial board opines that the recently negotiated multilateral framework is irretrievably flawed. Senator Tom Cotton, leader of the group of forty-seven Senators who tried to derail negotiations, promises: “I’m going to do everything I can to stop” the resulting deal.
What has been painfully missing from our national conversation is what a war with Iran would look like. Mr. Muravchik offers one sentence: “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.” Mr. Bolton suggests that a single airstrike, like Israel’s attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, would suffice.
No one from the Pentagon has responded. The answers are undoubtedly classified. I suspect, however, that the Joint Chiefs have wargamed this question extensively and do not like the results. I suspect further that their conclusions underlie Mr. Obama’s preference for a negotiated solution.
If we were to attack Iran, Iran would almost certainly fight back. Unlike Iraq and Syria, which had no obvious retaliatory recourse, Iran has an easy response: close the Strait of Hormuz, through which passes some 20 percent of the world’s traded oil. Physically blocking the Strait would not be necessary. The navigable portion is only six miles wide. Over a dozen supertankers transit it each day. All Iran would have to do is to take out a few supertankers per week and passage would quickly cease to be viable. Iran has the ability: it has large numbers of mines, anti-ship cruise missiles, and small submarines optimized for operation in shallow waters. Supertankers, unfortunately, are massive, lumbering, flammable “kick me” signs.
The result would be to take Europe hostage. Europe cannot survive without a steady supply of oil, much of which now flows through the Strait. To avoid economic collapse, it would have to turn to Russia, which would love to become Europe’s principal source of energy. A Europe beholden to Russia would be a catastrophe for the United States.
If Iran were to close the Strait, therefore, we would have to reopen it. We could probably only do so with boots on the ground and the taking of a lot of Iranian territory, enough to put Iran’s missiles out of range.
We should understand in advance that a ground war in Iran would make Vietnam (a much larger war than our recent commitment in Iraq) look like a picnic. Iran currently has over half a million men under arms. Its population is roughly four times that of North Vietnam in the 1960s, when we deployed a peak of 537,000 troops and lost. At the height of the Iran-Iraq war 30 years ago, Iran was able to mobilize 2.25 million front-line combat troops. Its population has almost doubled since then.
The U.S. Army and Marines total about 750,000, of which about a third are combat troops. But we have competing commitments elsewhere. At the height of our recent war in Iraq, we were only able to field 160,000 “boots on the ground,” of which only a small fraction consisted of combat troops. Even that small number strained our volunteer army.
I have no doubt that we could win such a war. But to win, we would have to make major sacrifices: a draft, much higher taxes, and a significant diversion from consumer to military production. We do not currently have the combat troops necessary to fight such a war, and it is unlikely that we could raise the required number through voluntary enlistment. (We were hard-pressed to raise the much smaller number required in Iraq.) Victory in a land war in Iran would likely require the most significant economic and military mobilization the United States has undertaken since Korea – perhaps even since World War II.
We would also have to be willing to commit for the long run. If we were to attack, fight for a while, and then lose our will, Iran would end up dominating the Middle East. So much for US and Israeli security.
In the meantime, oil prices would surge, which would allow the Russian economy to rebound. Mr. Putin would be reelected in a landslide. If he decided to swallow the rest of Ukraine (or any other part of the former Soviet Union), there is nothing we could do about it – we would be otherwise occupied. And Russia, which would have much to gain from a war between Iran and the U.S., would probably do whatever it could to keep such a war going. Russia could resupply Iran by way of the Caspian Sea; geographically, we would not be in a position to interdict such supplies.
Assume, however, that we win. What then? Kill or imprison the religious leaders who currently run Iran? Attacking religious leaders has unique costs. See Charlie Hebdo. Create a democracy? This is an electorate that has chanted “Death to America!” from infancy. Older Iranians are still angry that we overthrew their last freely elected government in 1953. The chances that they would elect a government friendly to the United States are small. Perhaps a dictator? Who? And how would we keep him in power?
To our political leaders, I say this: Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps this will be short, easy, and inexpensive – just as you promised before taking us to war in Iraq. Before you clap too wildly for Mr. Netanyahu, however, please take off any political blinders you may have and make a realistic, carefully reasoned assessment of the long-term costs and benefits, including an exit strategy. Mr. Netanyahu is not paid to think about our welfare. You are.

Professor Theodore Seto teaches law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

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