Wednesday, March 7, 2012

What Would War with Iran Look Like?

by Jeffrey White

The debate over what to do about an Iranian Islamist regime apparently bent on acquiring nuclear weapons has been on or near our front burner for at least six years, and is now almost a settled feature of the policy landscape. There is general agreement in the United States on two points. First, an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is “unacceptable”, as both the Bush and Obama Administrations have put it; and second, we prefer getting to an acceptable outcome without using force. The debate gets testy when we consider that means short of force, such as sanctions and covert technical sabotage, might not work.

It may be too simple to reduce the argument to just two sides—those who fear the regime’s acquisition of nuclear weapons more than the consequences of a war to prevent it, and those who fear the consequences of a war above all else—but in this case simplicity has the virtue of capturing the essence as observers ponder which set of unpalatable risks they would rather run. What is remarkable, though hardly surprising, is that the two sides usually put forth very different assessments of what using force would entail. Those who fear Iranian nukes above all else tend to minimize the risks of using force, while those who fear war tend to exaggerate them. Neither side, however, has persuasively spelled out the reasons for their assessment, leading one to suspect that much of the argument rests on less than rigorous analysis.

What would an honest assessment of the risks of military conflict with Iran look like? How should we think about it? These are difficult questions even for those who are not partisans of one side or the other. Wars are notorious for yielding unintended and unexpected consequences; for reasons explained below, a war against Iran is even harder than usual to bound, analytically.

Complexity, Uncertainty and War
Our first consideration in analyzing the likely course of war with Iran is that a U.S.-led attack would be merely the first phase of a war, the opening act of an extended drama whose scenes would unfold, not according to any script, but to an emergent logic of its own. Given the political context in which military engagement would rest, even a minor attack would likely become a major test of strength involving not only the United States and Iran but also a host of allies and associates. It is therefore disingenuous to try to frame military action against Iran as a simple “raid” or even a broader “operation.” We are talking here about war, with attendant potential high costs to all combatants in terms of military casualties, civilian damage and economic disruption.

At least three concepts are key to any coherent discussion of a U.S.-Iranian military engagement: complexity, uncertainty andwar itself. By complexity we mean the number of moving parts in a given situation: actors, processes and the connections among them. By uncertainty we mean structural uncertainty—that is, not just ignorance of the magnitudes of agreed casual factors, but the ignorance of the causal factors themselves, and their mutual relations. For example, not only may the U.S. government not know, say, the technical status of the Iranian nuclear program, or the actual state of readiness of Iranian forces. It may not know (or worse, have wrong) the decision-making and implementation protocols of the Iranian government, how the Iranian people and military would react to an attack, what Tehran would ask its allies and proxies to do, and what in fact they will do.

Enemy disinformation, as well as simple error, can also set us on the wrong track. The enemy acts not just on the battlefield but also through an ability to influence our understanding of the situation by means of denial and deception. In this and other ways complexity reinforces uncertainty.1 The large number of actors involved in the Iranian situation would make it very difficult to discern clearly what is happening once the shooting starts, and the scene would remain very fluid as long as the fight persisted, and very likely for a good while afterward.2

As to the meaning of war, it may hardly seem worthwhile to probe something so self-evident, except that it is not self-evident anymore, if it ever was. A simple definition of war is the waging of armed conflict against an enemy, but this is too limited a concept in the 21st century. War in our time involves simultaneous conflict in the military, diplomatic, economic and social domains on four levels: political, strategic, operational and tactical.While a war with Iran might begin in the military domain, it would likely expand to others, and while it might begin at the operational or tactical level it would soon encompass strategic and political levels as well.

How these twin expansions would take place has everything to do with context. All wars have one. Would a U.S.-Iran war break out during a protracted diplomatic process, or in the absence or abeyance of one? Would it happen during a period of increasing tension and military readiness, or out of the blue, after one party thinks that the dangers of war have subsided? Would the U.S. government assemble a broad “coalition of the willing”, just a few close allies-in-arms at the ready, or go it alone, even actively dissuading Israel from joining an attack? What would the domestic political situation be in the United States? Would there be an internal political consensus to act, or would there be an active, acrimonious debate? Would the American people be prepared for the aftermath of an initial attack, including rising oil prices and falling stock values? What would the economic situation be like in the United States and beyond? The answers to these questions would have a substantial impact on the war’s course, conduct and outcome.4

Whose War, for What Purpose?
Perhaps the most critical contextual element concerns how senior U.S. decision-makers, the presumed initiators of war in this case, would construe their war aims.5 These aims must somehow affirm that force can be employed to achieve reasonable political and strategic objectives, but those objectives could range from the limited to the expansive. Three sets of objectives come readily to mind.

First, a war could aim to simply delay the Iranian nuclear weapons program through the physical destruction of key facilities and human assets: a Peenemünde option, so to speak.6 Second, war could aim to effectively end the Iranian nuclear program by inflicting broad damage on its components and other key regime assets, military, infrastructure and leadership, combined with the threat to re-strike as necessary: a submission option. Third, war could aim to topple the regime through a concerted campaign against its assets and supporting mechanisms, coupled with support to its presumably less WMD-desirous opponents: a regime change option.

The U.S. government has military options corresponding more or less to these aims. A Peenemünde option would presuppose a narrowly focused, short duration strike largely limited to nuclear facilities. It would aim to inflict serious damage, but also to restrict the scope of conflict. Such an attack would rely on U.S. stealth systems, electronic warfare, cruise missiles and air power. U.S. allies could play a supporting role, especially in dealing with an Iranian response, but American forces would carry the brunt of the action.

A submission option would call for a sustained air and navalcampaign against nuclear associated facilities, air defense systems, command centers, offensive missile forces, naval forces and the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Republic (IRGC), the regime’s praetorian guard and shock troops. This campaign would aim to severely damage the nuclear program, limit Iran’s ability to defend against the attack (and subsequent restrikes, if necessary) and reduce its capabilities for post-attack retaliation.

A regime-change option would require a broad military offensivethat could include nuclear facilities, air defenses, Iran’s retaliatory capabilities, leadership targets, regime supporters, and national infrastructure and economic targets. This could include putting some forces on the ground to collect intelligence and neutralize specific targets that are difficult to strike effectively with air power. No large-scale ground operations are likely, but they cannot be ruled out at some levels of conflict and in some scenarios, such as those that posit a need to open and secure passage through the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf.

In general, the more expansive a war’s goals as a plan escalates from strike to campaign to broad offensive, the greater the force needed to achieve those goals, the greater the uncertainty in achieving them, and the greater the consequences of both success and failure. Moreover, a war’s goals at the outset of conflict may not remain stable. Early sudden successes or unanticipated failures can lead to the escalation of initially limited goals, particularly if terminating hostilities proves difficult. Lateral expansion as well as escalation is also possible: Iranian leaders might surrender or agree to a truce but be unable to enforce a similar decision on Hizballah leaders or terror agents around the world. This leads to yet another layer of complexity and uncertainty: Whose war would this be?

A U.S.-Iranian war would probably not be fought by the United States and Iran alone. Each would have partners or allies, both willing and not-so-willing. Pre-conflict commitments, longstanding relationships, the course of operations and other factors would place the United States and Iran at the center of more or less structured coalitions of the marginally willing.

A Western coalition could consist of the United States and most of its traditional allies (but very likely not Turkey, based on the evolution of Turkish politics) in addition to some Persian Gulf states, Jordan and perhaps Egypt, depending on where its revolution takes it. Much would depend on whether U.S. leaders could persuade others to go along, which would mean convincing them that U.S. forces could shield them from Iranian and Iranian-proxy retaliation, or at least substantially weaken its effects.

Coalition warfare would present a number of challenges to the U.S. government. Overall, it would lend legitimacy to the action, but it would also constrict U.S. freedom of action, perhaps by limiting the scope and intensity of military operations. There would thus be tension between the desire for a small coalition of the capable for operational and security purposes and a broader coalition that would include marginally useful allies to maximize legitimacy.

The U.S. administration would probably not welcome Israeli participation. But if Israel were directly attacked by Iran or its allies, Washington would find it difficult to keep Israel out—as it did during the 1991 Gulf War. That would complicate the U.S. ability to manage its coalition, although it would not necessarily break it apart. Iranian diplomacy and information operations would seek to exploit Israeli participation to the fullest.

Iran would have its own coalition. Hizballah in particular could act at Iran’s behest both by attacking Israel directly and by using its asymmetric and irregular warfare capabilities to expand the conflict and complicate the maintenance of the U.S. coalition. The escalation of the Hizballah-Israel conflict could draw in Syria and Hamas; Hamas in particular could feel compelled to respond to an Iranian request for assistance. Some or all of these satellite actors might choose to leave Iran to its fate, especially if initial U.S. strikes seemed devastating to the point of decisive. But their involvement would spread the conflict to the entire eastern Mediterranean and perhaps beyond, complicating both U.S. military operations and coalition diplomacy.

Read the rest of this informative article at The American Interest

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