No Good Options: Why the war on Iran will fail

natanziran.jpgOn Friday, April 14, the CNN program, “Your World Today” had as a guest Retired US Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner, speaking about US options in Iran. Gardiner, a former lecturer in military strategy at the National War College, has specialized in war games focusing on decision-making at the Presidential advisor level.

Speaking about military options towards the Iranian nuclear threat, Gardiner said, “I think the decision has been made and military operations are under way.” When asked to explain why, he pointed to the recent New Yorker article by Seymour Hersh as one reason — indicating that Hersh’s unnamed source is known to the New Yorker‘s editors who will have verified that he made the statement. He continued:

…the Iranians have been saying American military troops are in there, have been saying it for almost a year. I was in Berlin two weeks ago, sat next to the ambassador, the Iranian ambassador to the IAEA. And I said, “Hey, I hear you’re accusing Americans of being in there operating with some of the units that have shot up revolution guard units.”

He said, quite frankly, “Yes, we know they are. We’ve captured some of the units, and they’ve confessed to working with the Americans.”

The evidence is mounting that that decision has already been made, and I don’t know that the other part of that has been completed, that there has been any congressional approval to do this.

My view of the plan is, there is this period in which some kinds of ground troops will operate inside Iran, and then what we’re talking about is the second part, which is this air strike.

This is the same pattern used by the military in our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. CIA and Special Operations Forces were first on the ground in Afghanistan, gathering intelligence, making contacts with opposition parties and providing targeting information for airstrikes. In Iraq, there were reports that Special Forces and CIA were operating inside Iraq as early as August of 2002, three months before the Congressional Authorization to Use Military Force, and seven months before the war officially began.

While planning and preparation are vital to the success of a military campaign, the similarity to our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to indicate that we are approaching this potential conflict in a manner that may not be appropriate to this situation. Iran has four times the land area and three times the population of Iraq. It has missile technology capable of delivering a chemical, biological or nuclear warhead as far as southern Europe or Western India. It is also much further along in its nuclear weapons development program than Iraq was in 1981 when Israel destroyed the French-built Osirak reactor outside of Baghdad. All indications are that Iran has learned from the action against Osirak and has both scattered and hardened its nuclear development facilities.

Although it has discussed plans to do so, Israel is unlikely to undertake a mission against Iran similar to the Osirak mission due to the much longer distance to Iran and the necessity of traversing either Saudi Arabian airspace or Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi airspace. Another big difference is that Osirak was one target, while Iran has 14-20 nuclear development facilities. During the 1981 raid against Osirak, Israeli fighters flew over Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis have much more sophisticated air defenses today, including AWACS planes purchased from the US in late 1981. If Israel were to fly over Iraqi airspace, that would indicate to Iran and the rest of the world US complicity and approval in the attack, therefore the US is most likely putting great pressure on Israel to stand down. In return for Israel’s self-restraint, the US has promised support, as Bush made explicit in Cleveland on March 20, 2006, when he said,

“I made it clear, and I’ll make it clear again, that we will use military might to protect our ally Israel…”

Although, unlike in Iraq, it is clear that the case for Iranian possession of WMDs is beyond dispute, the problem with our current situation is that, as Gardiner showed in a war game he designed and ran for The Atlantic magazine in 2004, that there is no good scenario for an attack on Iran. Any attack on their nuclear facilities would certainly spark reprisal actions which could cause great difficulties for us and our allies. Our forces in Iraq have benefited from Iran’s lack of strong participation in the insurgency; were Iran to act, they could easily incite the Shi’ia in the relatively quiet southern part of the country, with whom they have strong cultural and religious ties. With the current price of oil over US$60 per barrel, any disruptions in the flow of oil could easily send the price up over US$100 per barrel. By blockading the Straits of Hormuz or curtailing their own flow of oil — 4 million barrels per day — Iran could easily wreak havoc on the US and world economies. Then there are the known ties between Iran and Hezbollah, as well as recently reported ties between Iran and al-Qaeda, and other reports which claim that Iranian groups are signing up potential martyrs for attacks against British and American interests worldwide. As Richard Clarke and Steven Simon, former counterterrorism coordinator and senior director for the NSC say in today’s New York Times:

Iran could use its terrorist network to strike American targets around the world, including inside the United States. Iran has forces at its command that are far superior to anything Al Qaeda was ever able to field. The Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah has a global reach, and has served in the past as an instrument of Iran. We might hope that Hezbollah, now a political party, would decide that it has too much to lose by joining a war against the United States. But this would be a dangerous bet.

The discussions and plans for an attack against Iran, Gardiner believes, will, despite the experience in Iraq, call for regime change. The feasibility of such an action is near zero, due to many of the factors ment
ioned so far. But supporters and former members of the government seem not to have learned anything from the difficulties faced in Iraq due to too-optimistic planning. Richard Perle, leading neo-conservative and former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, said at the 2006 AIPAC Policy Council Middle East security roundtable discussion on March 5:

Those of you who see The Washington Post will have seen in the Washington Post a couple weeks ago a map laying out the critical facilities in Iran that are supporting their nuclear weapons program. I trust we know where we are. If we don’t know where they are, what should we think about a diplomatic solution? So, either we know where they are, or we don’t, and if we know where they are, let me tell you that with six or eight B-2 aircraft… those facilities could be eliminated in a single evening, and I hope we are making it clear to the Iranians and to our European allies and to others that if the choices between standing by and watching Iran become a nuclear weapon state, and the President commanding B-2 aircraft to eliminate those facilities, we will not hesitate to eliminate the facilities. Finally, when I say I hope it doesn’t come to that, I hope that before that becomes necessary, we will see a regime change in Iran, and the best way to do that is to support the millions of Iranians who want to see the regime change. We haven’t been doing it… it took a year from last year to get the announcement the other day that we’re going to invest $75 million in supporting the opposition. It should be a lot more money and it should be spent with enthusiasm—not by a bureaucracy that’s not eager to undertake the task.

The danger to our mission in Iraq, the danger to the safety of our people and institutions around the world, the likelihood of financial crisis if oil prices skyrocket, the danger of increased terrorism and instability in the Middle East and in Islamic enclaves around the world, the uncertainty about the number and position of likely targets — all these factors make military action unwise. The probability that any such attack will increase Iran’s resolve to rebuild its nuclear program quickly, more secretively, and with the intention to use it before it can be pre-empted again, makes military action not only unwise, but ultimately futile and self-defeating. At the end of his war game exercise in 2004, Gardiner distilled the lessons of the exercise into advice for the Administration, which he still subscribes to today:

When I finished the wargame for the Atlantic Monthly, I summarized what I had learned in the process. “After all the effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers. You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work.” I have not changed my mind.

When US policymakers say the military option is on the table. I don’t think it’s rhetoric. I don’t believe US policymakers understand the military option won’t work.

(Crossposted from my column at Newsvine)

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