America Cannot Afford a War With Iran
Last week, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard shot down a U.S. surveillance drone. The U.S. military was prepared to retaliate, but President Trump canceled the operation because he “didn’t think it was [a] proportionate [response].” The larger, more important issue, however, is how to avoid an unrecoverable spiral that leads to war. President Trump said, “I’m not looking for war.” But instead of threatening “obliteration like you’ve never seen before,” he should be taking concrete steps to reduce the risk of conflict.
While the U.S. military is the superior force, that doesn't mean war with Iran would be quick and easy. Remember there were those who predicted that invading Iraq would be a "cakewalk" and we all know how that turned out. The U.S. was able to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, but then found itself mired in an insurgency. The U.S. military formally ended its mission in Iraq after eight years in 2011, but was re-dispatched in 2014 and are still there today. We shouldn't expect anything less in Iran.
A critical difference between Iraq then and Iran now is that Iraq's air defenses had been rendered virtually ineffective by ten years of no-fly-zone enforcement such that U.S. aircraft could fly with relative impunity to conduct air support for ground operations. In contrast, Iran has more modern Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems that would have to be suppressed and degraded. The U.S. military could take out Iran's air defenses; however, because many sites are located near population centers, there is a very high likelihood of collateral damage and civilian deaths.
Iran’s ballistic missiles would also have to be destroyed. Including command and control, the number of aim points is likely several hundred. Moreover, Iran has underground missile sites located in cities—raising the prospect of civilian deaths and casualties. But if the U.S. did not take out Iran’s ballistic missiles, Tehran would have some 500 Shahab missiles at its disposal for retaliation. There is also the question of whether Iran’s nuclear facilities would be targets, of which there are probably at least a dozen consisting of reactors; power station; production, conversion, and enrichment; mining; waste management; and research and development. Previously, in a war game run for The Atlantic in the fall of 2004, retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner identified 14 locations for Iran’s nuclear-related facilities but developed a pre-emptive strike target list of 125 nuclear, chemical, and biological facilities with approximately 300 aim points—20 of which would require penetrating weapons or bunker busters.
The financial cost of a war in Iran also cannot be ignored. If Iraq is any indication, such a war will likely exceed $1 trillion.
There is also the human cost. More than 4,400 U.S. military personnel have been killed and 31,000 wounded in Iraq. No one knows with certainty how many civilians have been killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion, but one estimate is at least 182,000 and probably at least as many wounded.
The operational difficulties, cost, and human toll are not reasons not to go to war—if U.S. national security and survival were at stake. But that is not the case with Iran.
As a conventional military power, Iran does not have force projection capability to be a direct threat to the United States. Even if Iran were to eventually become a nuclear power, the reality is that the vastly and far-more capable U.S. nuclear arsenal is a powerful deterrent (as is Israel’s unacknowledged nuclear arsenal). The mullahs in Tehran are not suicidal and would not risk total destruction by launching a nuke. We have deterred the likes of Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung in the past, both of whom were considered "crazy" in their time. North Korea's Kim Jong-un is also deterred. So too can the mullahs in Iran.
If President Trump really doesn’t want a war with Iran, he should re-calibrate his policy and rhetoric, which don’t offer Iran the prospect of a successful resolution—short of total capitulation—and are pushing Iran towards taking actions that could lead to war. Rather than continuing to ratchet up sanctions and inflict pain on Iran, he should take a page out of his own playbook and agree to a summit with Iranian President Hassan Rowhani. Such a summit wouldn’t result in President Trump’s desire for Iran not to have nuclear weapons, but it could result in his desire not to have a war. The former would be a welcome luxury, but the latter is of essential importance.
Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. He has more than 25 years of experience as a policy and program analyst and senior manager, supporting both the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. Peña is the former Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute.