The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Bomb Iran?


June 19, 2007

Reading Sunday’s NYT, I was somewhat surprised to read about the intensity of debate within senior Administration circles about how to address Iran’s nuclear program.

The debate has pitted Ms. Rice and her deputies, who appear to be winning so far, against the few remaining hawks inside the administration, especially those in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office who, according to some people familiar with the discussions, are pressing for greater consideration of military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities….

But conservatives inside the administration have continued in private to press for a tougher line, making arguments that their allies outside government are voicing publicly. “Regime change or the use of force are the only available options to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapons capability, if they want it,” said John R. Bolton, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations.

Only a few weeks ago, one of Mr. Cheney’s top aides, David Wurmser, told conservative research groups and consulting firms in Washington that Mr. Cheney believed that Ms. Rice’s diplomatic strategy was failing, and that by next spring Mr. Bush might have to decide whether to take military action.

Then, take Joe Lieberman’s statements on Face the Nation:

“I think we’ve got to be prepared to take aggressive military action against the Iranians to stop them from killing Americans in Iraq,” Lieberman told Bob Schieffer. “And to me, that would include a strike into… over the border into Iran, where we have good evidence that they have a base at which they are training these people coming back into Iraq to kill our soldiers.”

Is it time to bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran?

a perfect excuse for some audio and video links below the fold!!–McCain singing it here (youtube), but he ripped it from the Capitol Steps, who did ‘Bomb Iraq’ back in the Clinton years (on this album). Here (MP3) they update the parody, the song is about 2/3 of the way into the clip.

Actually, a friend asked me this very question a few weeks ago, and what follows is our email exchange on the subject.

His question:

Dear Peter,

Seriously, as scholars of international security, is the idea of a U.S. invasion of Iran in the cards at all? I mean, yes, Duncan Hunter mentioned a tactical nuclear strike and Clinton-esque air strikes against Iranian targets could well be a possibility but isn’t all this talk of “war” with Iran pure hyperbole?

How, for example, is this implicated in the current row with Russia over missile defense elements in Eastern/Central Europe and therefore the overall U.S.-Russia strategic relationship?

Inquiring minds want to know. :)


(redacted for privacy considerations)

My Response:

Dear (redacted again)

Its an astute question.
My ‘expert’ analysis: (and if its any good, maybe it will morph into a blog post at some point)
and here it does just that!…

Is war with Iran possible? Sure. We don’t like them, they don’t like us, and we each have been escalating–both diplomatically and militarily– the confrontation between us. So, yes, it could happen, and as such responsible deep thinking planners at State, DoD, and CENTCOM should have an up to date contingency plan for just such an occasion.

The appropriate line, I think, comes from a scene in one of my favorite movies, “Hunt for Red October” where the Soviet Ambassador and US National Security Adviser are discussing the growing naval presence in the North Atlantic and the NSA says– “It would be well for your government to consider that having your ships and ours, your aircraft and ours, in such proximity… is inherently DANGEROUS. Wars have begun that way, Mr. Ambassador.”

Or, to put it another way (and foreshadow the rest of the answer)– never underestimate the role that stupidity and bad luck play in the unfolding of history. Anything can happen.

That said, is a war probable? I don’t think so.

Every major explanatory tool / theory we have in IR / Security, save one, suggests no war. To be clear, this is not a political or policy recommendation against war, but IR theory / Security Studies offering a theoretical prediction on future outcomes. Your base realism / strategic analysis suggests no war. Iran is big and strong (stronger than Iraq pre-invasion), offering a more robust deterrent. The US is weaker–though the US flanks Iran with ongoing military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, those two ongoing wars have stretched the US military about as far as it can go in its current configuration. As any military person around town will tell you, we’re stretched very very thin just to keep up the surge. Troops are on quick rotations, the Army is burning through all its equipment, the carriers are maxed out in deployments– where is the fighting force going to come from? With Iraq, there was never a question of a relatively easy victory (over Saddam’s regime– the post war is a different story). That assurance is no longer there with respect to Iran. Power politics says that it’s not going to happen.

The domestic / liberal explanations similarly suggest no war. When Bush went into Iraq, he had a pliant public, a cheerleader Congress, bureaucratic support within the government, and significant public approval. Today, none of that exists. The public is against the Iraq war, has no appetite for further war, and Bush’s approval ratings are low–historic lows for a president. Congress is now controlled by opposition Democrats, and while, yes, they are not as active as many would like in taking steps to end the current war, you can assuredly bet that any Congressional authorization for a new war is a non-starter. Its one thing to do as Biden claimed in the debate the other night and support troops already in the field, but its another thing to prevent troops from going into a new field. Even the bureaucratic organs of the government seem reluctant to build up for a war. The Intel community, chastened by its failures (and being hung out to dry for those failures) on Iraq would resist, and DoD, really, the career military, particularly senior officers, don’t seem willing to support such adventurism any more. They’ll fight the war in which they are implicated (Iraq) but I don’t see the bureaucracy lining up to support a new war with Iran.

And, the campaign is now on. Who among the R-10 do you see lining up for a full-on war, and how do you see even the most modestly competent D campaign responding? Its one thing to spout campaign rhetoric of I’m the Tough Guy (tough on crime, tough on terrorists, tough on proliferaters)–there are votes to be won there–but its another thing to be the war candidate–there are only votes to be lost there. Contrast the R-10’s tough talk on Iran with the subtle attempts to open some distance between themselves and the President in Iraq.

Plus (to pay homage to my friend’s leanings here), where’s the money in it? The “Special interests” of the ‘war machine’ and oil people have their hands full in Iraq, which has turned out, I would argue, to be less of a payoff (or rather a much more costly investment for a payoff), than anticipated. There’s plenty of oil in Iraq left un-tapped, who can handle Iran’s on top of that? Who even needs it? Even Blackwater probably can’t handle an Iran operation on top of Iraq, they’re very busy as it is.

The only analytical tools in the IR kit that leaves open the possibility of war are the individual / psychological / group-think ones. Its still possible for key actors to misperceive the situation and massively screw things up. More likely, though, is that there remains a core of true believers, blinded by ideology, within the administration that necessarily include the President and VP. These folks, in a group-think situation, could talk themselves into a war with Iran. You do see hints of this– anything that comes out of Cheney’s office (see the lead-in above), Bush at some point saying he wanted to deal with Iran and not leave it for the next president. So, like the Tuesday lunch group, they could decide that a war with Iran is the way to go.

But, again, I consider that highly unlikely. When that happened with Iraq, the decision was a ‘slam dunk’ but the legitimation and justification and bringing the country / bureaucracy along was much easier due to the political alignment at the time and post-9-11 shock of the country that was suddenly in a mood to go after ‘those guys’. Those things aren’t there any more, and even if Bush and Cheney wanted a war, I just don’t see how they could sell it and get the necessary support within the government and within the country to make it work. When you hear that John Ashcroft, of all people, and his senior staff almost resigned en-mass after the president ordered certain domestic spying programs, and you look at the reception Gen. Newbold now gets, its all the sudden plausible to believe that a revolt of the Generals or Senior State / DoD / Intel staff is possible in the event of a proposed War with Iran.

So, no, I don’t see it as likely.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.