Wednesday, March 7, 2012
What Would War with Iran Look Like?
by Jeffrey White
Complexity, Uncertainty and War
would have its own coalition. Hizballah in
particular could act at Iran 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 coalition.
The escalation of the Hizballah-Israel conflict could draw in U.S. 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 Syria Iran to its fate,
especially if initial
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. U.S.
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
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. United States
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
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. Iran
Our first consideration in analyzing the likely course of war with
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 Iran United
States and but also a host of allies and
associates. It is therefore disingenuous to try to frame military action
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. Iran
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
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. U.S.
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.3 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
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 from
joining an attack? What would the domestic political situation be in the Israel ?
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 United States
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.
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. U.S.
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
’s ability to defend against
the attack (and subsequent restrikes, if necessary) and reduce its capabilities
for post-attack retaliation. Iran
A regime-change option would require a broad military offensivethat could include nuclear facilities, air defenses,
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 Iran 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
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 Iran United States
at the center of more or less structured coalitions of the marginally willing. Iran
A Western coalition could consist of the
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 ,
depending on where its revolution takes it. Much would depend on whether Egypt U.S. leaders could persuade others to go along,
which would mean convincing them that forces could shield them from
Iranian and Iranian-proxy retaliation, or at least substantially weaken its
Coalition warfare would present a number of challenges to the
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. U.S.
administration would probably
not welcome Israeli participation. But if U.S. Israel
were directly attacked by Iran
or its allies, Washington would find it
difficult to keep
out—as it did during the 1991 Gulf War. That would complicate the Israel 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. U.S.
Read the rest of this informative article at The American Interest