[Marxism] New Republic: Military College prof says no to attacking Iran
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sun Aug 7 14:26:45 MDT 2005
Just a couple comments re Gary. I don't predict a US attack on Iran. I
think the US is moving toward it, and that the inclinations of policy
are in favor of it. Another factor which feeds enthusiasm for attack is
the US ability so far to line up the European powers, the UN, the two
party system, and the liberal media behind this offensive in its early
stages -- all factors that helped give the drive to war with Iraq
unstoppable momentum even when the unity began to wobble or break.
Well, this article from the New Republic -- a gang of rabid Iran-haters
who a few months ago were presenting the former shah of Iran's son as
the Great White Hope -- shows that the issue of attacking Iran must be
very controversial indeed.
Frankly, I think the US cannot settle for a joint US-Iranian condominium
for Iraq, which would register in itself a kind of defeat in the war.
Attacking Iran if successful, is probably seen as a way to force the
Shia leadership to accept US dominance, once it is proven against Iran.
If the US must accept strong de facto Iranian influence in Iraq, they
will be subject to forced withdrawal when Iran feels ready to push for
So, if Washington wants to stay in Iraq and assure its DOMINANCE (and I
think Washington is quite determined), THEY HAVE TO PUT IRAN IN ITS
PLACE. They have to demonstrate to the region that noone can stand up
to the US military and economic power, and that Iran is just a big
talker as many now view Saddam to have been. If Washington is unable to
do this, it is hard to see how they can ever reach the point of having a
stable semicolonial client in Iraq.
I think that Washington is convincing itself that Iran is not
qualitatively stronger than Iraq militarily, and technologically that
may actually be true. But the belief that the regime is as isolated and
unpopular as Saddam had become at the end is a real fantasy. The belief
that the people of Iran are as unprepared, as divided, and disoriented
vis a vis Washington as the Iraqis were in early 1983, also seems wrong.
The calculations seem similar to the ones Iraq, and Washington, made
before Saddam opened his invasion of Iran in 1980. All sections of the
Iranian military performed much better than expected INCLUDING THE AIR
FORCE AND NAVY. While Iran is much further from the fires of the
revolution than it was then, I do think unexpected difficulties are
highly likely, even in the air attacks despite the fact that US (or
Israeli backed by US) air superiority is vast as always. We cannot
assume that antiaircraft staffed by Iranians will be as ineffective as
that of the Iraqis was.
Of course, the complete or partial failure of an attack on Iran (even if
Washington is covered by Israel taking responsibility for the deed in
collaboration with the White House) will be a humiliation of giant
proportions for Washington. That the attack will be an aerial Bay of
Pigs is unlikely, but the differences between Iran today and Iraq in
either 1990 or 2003 are such that it cannot be excluded.
Saddam and Washington expected Tehran to fall within days of he Iraqi
invasion in 1980. Instead, Iraqi forces crossed over the
border-waterway to invade the port city of Khorramshahr, advanced a few
blocks facing massive resistance, and stayed in that location for years
to come -- receiving the Stalingrad treatment in the first days of the
war, which then stalemated for years as Iranian forces tried with little
success to press into Iraq and bring down Saddam.
So the hopes for a repeat of the first weeks of the Iraq war, even if
only from the air, are on a shaky foundation.
But the alternative really is the surrender of Washington's world
position, and possibly unleashing anti-imperialist opposition of every
imaginable kind in many different countries.
Hard choices. Glad I just have to oppose them, not make them.
The New Republic via TruthOut - Aug 6, 2005
By Michael J. Mazarr
Attacking Iran is a bad idea.
With the recent election of arch-conservative Tehran Mayor Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad as president of Iran, many observers expected a renewed
crisis over Iran's nuclear program. And, sure enough, one has arrived
with Iran's announcement that it intends to restart its
uranium-conversion facility at Isfahan, despite an earlier agreement
with European negotiators to keep its nuclear program frozen. The three
EU countries negotiating with Iran have accelerated plans to deliver a
new grand bargain on nuclear issues, offering trade, aid, and a
nonaggression pact in exchange for denuclearization. But Iran has hinted
that it knows the substance of the offer and isn't impressed. "It is we
who should impose conditions on them, and not they on us," Ahmadinejad
At any moment, Iran could withdraw from the talks, move beyond the
Isfahan declaration to restart its enrichment program, or take some
other action that would generate a global crisis. The European Union and
the United States would take the matter to the Security Council and
impose sanctions; Iran would dig in and fulminate about Yankee
imperialism. And the Bush administration would then confront the most
profound national security decision of its tenure - whether to launch
limited air strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities. On this question, the
conventional wisdom is clear: If need be, the United States could strike
Iran's nuclear infrastructure without ruinous consequences. The Iranians
are pragmatists and realists, the argument goes; they know when to take
their medicine. Air strikes would represent a low-risk, intermediate
response - after economic sanctions and before regime change - to
continued Iranian nuclear ambitions.
Many observers of the Iranian nuclear issue seem to hold these views. As
Franklin Foer catalogued in these pages ("Identity Crisis," December 20,
2004), conservative writers like Charles Krauthammer, Gary Schmitt, and
Reuel Marc Gerecht have referred to a preemptive strike as, in Gerecht's
phrasing, the "only option that offers a good chance of delaying Iran's
production of nuclear weapons." In a recent Atlantic magazine-hosted war
game on Iran, the consensus was that the United States could get away
with limited attacks. For their part, President Bush and Vice President
Cheney have separately insisted that diplomacy is the right way to
handle the nuclear issue - but warned that, if diplomacy does not work,
"all options are on the table."
When skeptics of strikes do talk about Iranian retaliation, it's of a
limited sort: moves to deepen the instability in Iraq, further
repression of reformists at home. The idea that Tehran would inaugurate
a final showdown with the Great Satan seems too remote to contemplate.
But contemplate it we must, because the conventional wisdom is wrong.
Iranian leaders would have very real reasons to respond to "surgical"
strikes with an all-out assault on U.S. interests designed to provoke
the sort of decisive clash that everyone assumes Iran wants to avoid.
And the resulting conflict would have far worse consequences for the
United States than Iran's ability to create weapons-grade nuclear
One reason to believe that Tehran might respond violently, it turns out,
is that they have said as much - again and again, in fairly unambiguous
terms. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently promised to "wear
battle fatigues and be ready to sacrifice myself at the head of the
nation." Revolutionary Guards Commander Mohammad Zolqadr has threatened
destruction of Gulf oil production in response to U.S. strikes; Defense
Minister Ali Shamkhani said, in August of 2004, that Iran would
"consider any strike against our nuclear installations as an attack on
Iran as a whole, and we will retaliate with all our strength."
Ahmadinejad has fumed about Iranian nuclear concessions and boasted that
"a popular and fundamentalist government will quickly change that,"
confident that "no country, no matter how powerful they are, can attack
Such bluster is usually dismissed as saber rattling. But this assumes
that the only sensible Iranian response to U.S. attacks is restraint -
when, in fact, a strong argument can be made that its best strategy
would be to lash out. To understand why, we need to see the strategic
situation as it might look from Tehran, and especially to the
hard-liners who now dominate its government.
Begin with two assumptions that an Iranian strategist might well make.
First, Iran's nuclear program must continue - slowly, perhaps covertly,
but continue nonetheless. Second, the United States (in league with
Israel) is determined both to end that nuclear program and to dominate
the greater Middle East. Typical were the comments of Foreign Minister
Kamal Kharrazi, who, in 2002, said that the United States was planning
to invade Iraq to impose its "hegemony on the whole region and its
resources." The Stanley Foundation recently concluded that, after five
years of interviews with Iranian officials and scholars, many in Iran
today fear that the United States "has never accepted the idea of an
Islamic Republic and never will."
Given such views - and also given the intense pride, regional ambitions,
and sense of cultural superiority characteristic of the Iranian mindset
- hard-liners in Tehran continue to see their two leading
responsibilities as defending the Islamic Republic and thwarting U.S.
ambitions. A sense of fatalism broods deep within both Iranian culture
and radical Islam - the fear that world forces, led by evil cabals, are
conspiring to destroy Iranians and Muslims. For hard-line Iranian
strategists, then, the question is not whether to choose a war with the
United States. A conflict is all but inevitable. The question, instead,
is whether Iran picks the battles or allows the Americans to do so. And
choosing the battle on Iran's terms could mean choosing it now: It makes
far more sense to fight an overextended, exhausted, nearly bankrupt,
internationally unpopular United States today than a possibly rested,
rejuvenated, more militarily flexible enemy in the future. If Iranian
leaders are indeed thinking along these lines, a limited U.S. air strike
would simply invite them to manufacture a decisive engagement. The
longer Iran waits, on the other hand, the worse its position might
We need to keep in mind, too, what we mean when we talk about "Iranian
reactions." Iran's government has been a crazy quilt of competing
factions and power centers, with hard-line groups like the Iranian
Revolutionary Guards Corps and conservatives in the parliament owning
most elements of state power. To imagine an intemperate response to U.S.
strikes, we don't need to presume that all Iranian leaders would endorse
it - only that the most radical ones would. On their own, they have the
ability to stage a sweeping retaliation, regardless of what pragmatic
conservatives or reformers might want.
The election of Ahmadinejad has now delivered the last major state organ
to the conservatives - and, even among hard-liners, Ahmadinejad stands
out. One of the original student revolutionaries in 1979 and later a
senior Revolutionary Guards officer, he has promised to oppose Western
"decadence." His supporters have a specific agenda. As one of them told
The Washington Post, "I picked Ahmadinejad to slap America in the face."
Informed by such thinking, Iran's leaders could decide to respond to
U.S. air strikes with an elaborate, ferocious, global provocation
designed to draw the United States into a protracted conflict. Iran
could expand financial and other support to Hezbollah and other
terrorist groups and encourage new attacks on Israel designed to wreck
the fragile momentum toward peace with the Palestinians. It could
activate agents and cells it has been developing inside Iraq to
destabilize the country, tie down U.S. forces, and disrupt the supply
lines necessary to enter Iran from the west in the event of a ground
war. "If Iran wanted," Iraq's Deputy Foreign Minister Hamid Al Bayati
said in February, "it could make Iraq a hell for the United States."
Meanwhile, with its limited air and naval assets, Iran could strike at
U.S. military forces throughout the region. Tehran's regular military
has aging equipment - but, as the Center for Strategic and International
Studies' military expert Anthony Cordesman pointed out in a December
2004 analysis, the Revolutionary Guards represent a more skilled
military-within-a-military, with ground forces, naval units, missiles,
and other forces under its command; a leadership composed of die-hard
conservatives; and a mission to protect the Islamic Revolution at all
costs. The Guards could flood thousands of troops in small units across
the porous border with Iraq with orders to link up with Iranian cells or
insurgent groups and assault U.S. bases and forces. Meanwhile, Iran
could launch as many of its missiles as possible at Iraqi cities, U.S.
air bases, and U.S. allies on the Arabian peninsula.
Iran could also strike boldly at world oil supplies, disrupting traffic
in the Strait of Hormuz - through which 15 million barrels of oil flow
daily - with air and naval attacks. According to Cordesman, for example,
Iran is believed to have more than 2,000 naval mines, some of them very
modern, and the potential to deploy them from either large mine-laying
ships or hundreds of smaller craft. Iran could hit Saudi Arabia, and its
oil production, directly - including the huge export terminals at Ras
Tanura and Ras Juaymah. Combined with an end to Iran's own oil exports
(of three to four million barrels a day), these attacks would send the
world economy into a tailspin.
Iran could then trigger the special international units of the
Revolutionary Guards - the so-called "Quds" forces. They reportedly have
a large secret budget, officers working out of many Iranian embassies,
and strong links with organizations in areas ranging from Iraq,
Afghanistan, and Pakistan to Turkey, Europe, and North America. This
organization could generate a wave of terrorist attacks against U.S.
embassies, military bases, companies, and allies all over the globe.
Faced with the indefinite disruption of the international system and
widespread attacks on its forces and interests - and perhaps its
homeland as well - the United States might be forced to intervene with
ground forces, with the goal of regime change. Gathering the
concentrated forces necessary for a large-scale move into Iran would
take months - time during which oil prices would continue to surge,
world economic growth would continue to stall, and Iranian-sponsored
terrorists would continue to hit U.S. targets. Washington would have to
draw every available Army and Marine unit not already in Iraq, as well
as many naval and air assets, into the region for an Iranian campaign;
the global U.S. military presence would be essentially on hold until the
Once the invasion did begin, the Iranians could rely on their rugged
terrain to hold up U.S. forces in the mountain ranges that run along the
western corridor of the country. Tehran could also disperse its military
into small units, marshal the efforts of millions of members of its
civilian militias, and undertake an arduous guerrilla campaign. A
military analyst based in Tehran told a Western reporter in early 2005
that Iran had spent the past year developing "their tactics of
'asymmetrical' war, which would aim not at resisting a penetration of
foreign forces," but instead at waging a guerrilla campaign once the
Americans had arrived. Tehran could generate a rebellion many times more
destructive, and more legitimate in the eyes of its people, than the one
To be sure, lashing out carries major risks for Iran: It would place the
physical security of the country and regime in danger. But many Iranian
leaders may believe that their power is already at risk and might see
U.S. air strikes as confirmation that a final reckoning is at hand.
If, on the other hand, Iran sits back and absorbs an attack,
tough-minded thinkers in Tehran are likely to argue, Washington will
believe that it can assault Iran at will. Many Iranians (not just
hard-liners) would see a passive response as weak, cowardly, and
unbefitting a proud people. Persian culture has a strong tradition of
glorious defeat in service of a sacred cause. If we offer the
hard-liners a chance to martyr themselves in the name of cultural
heroism, they might just take us up on it.
Comparing the Iranian and North Korean cases is instructive. The reason
the military option seems nonsensical in Korea is not because it
wouldn't work (though that might be true). It's because of the North's
presumed reaction, which would be to destroy Seoul. In the Iranian case,
the opposite assumption seems to be in play - that Iran has no similarly
catastrophic responses available to it. But that assumption is based as
much on hope and wishful thinking as on any form of analysis.
A war against Tehran and its allies in the Islamic world would pose an
even greater threat to U.S. national interests than a continued Iranian
nuclear program - at least one under International Atomic Energy Agency
(iaea) inspections, and one in which the Iranians publicly reject the
idea of building bombs. The proposed EU deal aims to halt Iran's
uranium-enrichment program but not all of its civilian nuclear
activities - Iran would be allowed to operate its reactors and conduct
other research under international supervision. Even if a small part of
Iran's enrichment program continued, it could be limited to civilian
purposes by inspections, including short-notice challenge visits under
the iaea's so-called "additional protocol." There is some evidence that
Iran is amenable to such terms - that the sticking point is not
inspections as much as preserving the sovereign right to a civilian
nuclear fuel cycle.
Such a fuel cycle need not present a military threat, assuming strict
inspections. To get from there to a bomb, Tehran would either have to
build a parallel, secret enrichment program or rashly toss out the iaea
regime. The first route would be slow and risky; the second would
clearly demonstrate that Iran sought nuclear weapons and trigger an
international crisis that would leave Tehran confronting not just the
United States, but also the combined weight of world opinion. Either
way, the risk isn't
immediate: According to a report this week in The Washington Post, the
latest U.S. National Intelligence Estimate puts an Iranian bomb at least
a decade away.
An Iran under iaea watch would possess a nuclear program but no
significant bomb-making capability. Tehran's hard-liners could claim a
victory and begin hinting about a "virtual" nuclear deterrent but would
know that, if they deployed an open arsenal - or, worse, gave fissile
material to terrorists - they would likely face every ounce of "shock
and awe" that Washington could muster.
Reducing Tehran's nuclear program to a latent, ambiguous capability
would achieve basic U.S. interests: no public, tested, clearly
weaponized Iranian arsenal; too little fissile material in Iranian hands
to allow Tehran to give much away (and enormous dangers to its regime if
it did so); and a reaffirmation of the basic iaea system of inspections.
Meanwhile, this process could lay the groundwork for the only long-term
solution to the problem of Iranian nuclear aspirations: integration into
the world economy and a gradual return to reform.
Ahmadinejad is hardly a reformer and reportedly favors socialist-style
government planning to deal with his country's manifold economic
problems. But most Iranians still want reform. Ahmadinejad's support
seems to have come from conservative voter turnout drives and his
populist appeal to widespread anger at economic stagnation, lack of
opportunity, and corruption in Tehran. When his state-run, autarkic
economic program fails, the same demands that ushered him into power
will prove his undoing - if the West doesn't gift-wrap a nationalist
rallying cry for him in the meantime.
Engaging an autocratic regime in order to buy a tentative cap on its
nuclear ambitions and hoping that political reforms will outpace
bomb-making are hardly neat and tidy solutions or ones likely to warm
the hearts of those who crave bold statements of U.S. global supremacy.
But we Americans are always seeing the world as a series of problems to
be solved rather than challenges to be managed. Impatience with Iran is
likely to become self-defeating; patience, meanwhile, offers no
guarantee of success. It remains, however, the best option we have.
[Michael J. Mazarr is a professor at the US National War College. The
views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the
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