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Opinion: Cowboys and Iranians


By cutting through some of the noise surrounding the most recent debate over Iran — spurred by Benjamin Netanyahu’s pending speech before Congress — two schools of thought emerge that fall into the classic geopolitical camps of hawks and doves.

The hawks promise to double-down on sanctions against Iran and increase American military presence in the region. The doves hold out hope for the existing coercive sanctions and the ongoing diplomatic effort with the six party (P6) talks. Which of those approaches is more likely to allow the United States and its allies to achieve their objective—a nuclear free Iran, and an Iran that is a more responsible member of the world community?

No fewer than eight times since 2008 has the specter of armed conflict with Iran been raised by the hawks. In one of the more peculiar instances it grew to a fever pitch in the waning months of the Bush administration as hawkish pundits urged that “this was our last chance to stop Iran.” They noted that we had the forces in place in the region, and a president with the moxie to recognize and deal with the imminent threat of a nuclear capable Iran. After all, they argued, he singled out Iran as a member of the “axis of evil.”

Many of those same pundits argue now, as they did then, that a few precision guided munitions would be all that is needed to delay or destroy Iran’s nuclear ambitions. President Bush was not swayed, and military action (a.k.a. war) with Iran did not happen in 2008, or at any other point since, when “Breaking News” announced the latest reason for rising tensions with Iran.

Netanyahu aligns with the hawks in America, and it is at their invitation that he will speak before Congress on March 3rd. For years now Netanyahu has been part of the push to get America to eliminate the threat that Iran presents to Israel. If we won’t join him, he has often threatened to act unilaterally against Iran. A quick look at the map of the region shows why this threat, while not impossible, is a daunting operational challenge for Israel.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s say Israel pulled it off. There would ensue a Pandora’s box of consequences in response to such an attack (i.e., massive rocket attacks against Israeli and U.S. targets in the region). Rather than delve into that quagmire of possibilities, the more important question is what evidence does history offer that bombs can deter or destroy a nuclear program, or a nation’s ambition?

Here are two recent examples, from Israel’s own experience, of the limits of coercive military operations. The first is taken from Time magazine writer Joe Klein’s recent article “The Path to Peace.”

Klein’s piece looks at the changing landscape in the Middle East and even the growing possibility of a true Arab and Israeli alliance against the new forms of extremism threatening the entire status quo in the region. Klein also notes an important occurrence that is relevant to this discussion when he writes, “The deterioration began with Israel’s 50-day war in Gaza last summer, which increased the popularity of Hamas in the West Bank.”

Last summer, the world witnessed the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) pound every Hamas target possible in the West Bank. Entire neighborhoods in Gaza were reduced to rubble, yet the enemy Hamas emerged from the conflict more popular than ever.

How is this possible?

A funny thing happens when you attack a proud nation—the people unify and demand vengeance. Every American who witnessed the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks can understand that unifying effect. This is the same illogically frustrating situation that the cowboy tough-guy approach with Iran is likely to yield.

As it is often said, the enemy gets a vote. America most recently learned that lesson in Afghanistan and the second Iraq War (2003–11); and Israel experienced it during their 2006 campaign to oust Hezbollah from southern Lebanon. The Gaza and Lebanon invasion examples show that even the vaunted IDF has its limits. If these small wars in compact geographic spaces can get very costly and messy, what would a war against Iran with the largest population, and largest geographic area confronted since World War II yield? Why would the IDF have a more decisive outcome versus a massive nation-state like Iran than it did the insurgent forces of Hamas or Hezbollah? For that matter, why would the United States?

The enemy will not follow your script. It is highly unlikely that Iran would just sit back and take it if the United States or Israel resorted to the “military option.” The second Iraq War and Israel’s latest incursion into Lebanon should remind hawks in both nations that the outcome and course of a war is entirely unpredictable. While the military option may provide some degree of short-term visceral satisfaction for the cowboys that want to teach Iran a lesson, every American should be aware that that option has a high potential for both escalation and protraction.

Turning now to the other side of the conversation, the diplomatic doves know that military action is both unlikely to deter or destroy Iran’s nuclear program. Nor will it bring Iran into the mainstream of responsible nations. There is an interesting group called “The Iran Project.” The individuals in it are the leading voices of the cautious doves; they include Richard Armitage, Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, Adm. William Fallon, Lawrence Wilkerson and 30 other prominent individuals from both conservative and liberal points of view. In an effort to inject informed and reasoned analysis into the debate about Iran, “The Iran Project” has produced a series of publically available documents that have been left on the desk of every serving U.S. senator and representative.

As to the question of whether a military option will deter or destroy the threat, their extensive research and analysis concludes that, “Israel could not replicate the success of its earlier surgical strikes against single reactors in Iraq [1981] and Syria [2007], since Iran’s nuclear sites are numerous and widely dispersed, with one buried deep underground,” according to The Iran Project’s, Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran.

As to the likely cost of such a military action, “The Iran Project” concludes, “If the U.S. decided to seek a more ambitious objective, such as regime change in Iran or undermining Iran’s influence in the region, then an even greater commitment of force would be required to occupy all or part of the country. Given Iran’s large size and population, and the strength of Iranian nationalism, we estimate that the occupation of Iran would require a commitment of resources and personnel greater than what the U.S. has expended over the past 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.”

Hawks have been reporting for the past seven years that Iran was within months of building a nuclear weapon. In 2008, Iran was reportedly “months away,” seven years later in 2015 they are apparently still months away. One possible conclusion that this persistent delay in building a nuclear bomb suggests is that the combination of sanctions and diplomacy (perhaps aided by the STUXNET virus) has worked to slow Iran’s nuclear program.

Other encouraging signs produced by the dove course of action include: Iran elected a more moderate leader in 2013, it agreed to U.N. inspections, and is currently engaging in serious discussions with the P6 negotiators. These are all steps in the right direction that present a very real possibility of achieving the objective of permanently halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program and building the trust needed to bring Iran into the mainstream.

As a final thought, do the hawks, such as Netanyahu and his like-minded hosts in Washington, really believe that getting tougher with Iran will make them yield to our desired conditions, or is playing cowboy just political meat for their constituents to feast upon? Netanyahu, and many in the GOP both have to appeal to their hawkish constituents, but where does their path lead? If the conclusions of “The Iran Project” are accurate and the hawks bomb Iran, America may be at war with Iran for 10 years, spend trillions, and tens of thousands more people will die. The already unstable Middle East will be smoldering with chaos for years to come. In Iran, every paranoid prophecy of the Israeli-American conspiracy that was preached from podiums in Tehran, by the likes of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, will have been fulfilled. And if attacked, Iran will have every reason and all the motivation needed to try to build a nuclear weapon.

Perhaps playing cowboy with the Iranians may not be in America’s best interest?

  • PolicyWonk

    Excellent article.

    One of the items that is alluded to, but isn’t mentioned directly, is that one of the major assumptions being made by the so-called “hawks” who enthusiastically support military action against Iran, is that after we’re done bombing facilities all over Iran, the Iranians will be ready to throw in the towel.

    The US military leadership, to its credit, has mentioned that this assumption is (in effect) asinine, and hopelessly naive. The US JCS has been unanimous in opposition to military conflict with Iran, and part of the reason for that might very well be the unfortunate results of a war game that went very poorly indeed for the “good guys”.

    The Iranians aren’t nearly as dumb as these “hawks” seem to think they are, and have been quietly preparing for such an eventuality ever since former POTUS George W Bush added Iran to the so-called/now-infamous “axis of evil” segment of his SOTU address. This was after Iran had: been the first Muslim nation to condemn the 9/11 attacks; immediately offered aid in recovering survivors (having a lot of earthquakes, they’ve had lots of practice); gave the US huge amounts of actionable intelligence w/r/t Afghanistan (they had no love for the Taliban, who had killed a number of Iranian diplomats and their families), and offered use of bases/hospitals and logistical support; and, offered to put all issues of the past on the table with the goal of re-normalizing diplomatic relations.

    The so-called “hawks” would also be well served by simply looking at a map of the Persian Gulf (its not called that for no reason!). A shooting war with the Iranians could mean a collapse of the global economy if the Persian Gulf is closed or turns into a war zone.

    It is also notable, that these “hawks” are the SAME PEOPLE who advocated invading Iraq and pushed this nation into a totally optional war, at staggering cost to the US taxpayers, only for the Communist Chinese to get the lions share of the major oil deals. The costs weren’t merely in money and lives: that invasion also caused arguably the worst foreign policy and national security disaster in American history – for virtually zero benefit to the nation at large. Hence – if one looks at who these “hawks” are – they’ll quickly realize that their judgement regarding foreign policy (and/or use of our military), to be very generous, would earn them failing grades with highest honors, at most disreputable educational institutions (let alone the good ones!).

    • On Dre


  • Russ Neal

    So our only options are to continue phony negotiations until Iran gets the bomb, (and probably Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt etc in response) or an ineffective bombing campaign? What about a sustained effort at isolation, not just weak sanctions, coupled with supporting separatist factions within Iran? Remember the Iranian people already tried to vote the Mullahs out only to be beaten down and abandoned by the U.S. The Mullahs’ internal strength may not be so great. This article seems to present a rather artificial choice between two straw men.

    • tms5510

      Sure Russia China will follow your lead. Iran has been hesitant to go to Russian camp . These nego, are the last chance that west has to prevent Iran from joining Russia. If nego. fails and west tries to isolate Iran more than now you can be sure Iran will turn to Putin and Putin would be glad to have a country with 80 million people and vast resources in its camp (Eurasia union)

      • Persian and Russian animosity goes way back. They may danse with bear but they won’t ever be in Russia’s camp willingly.

  • Poor Richard

    Excellent analysis. Now tell us what happens when (not if) Iran gets the bomb.

    • SixSixSix

      Mutually Assured Destruction. Gosh, what an a novel idea never before mentioned in the nuclear age, no? Israel, hundreds of nuclear war heads on ships, submarines, aircraft and cruise missiles. And basically the ability to end Persian/Shiite civilization forever. Iran, nukes on missiles, submarines, ships, aircraft, and Hezbollah ground forces. The ability to end Israeli and Palestine civilization forever, the two being physically inseparable. The Israelis may be seriously disrespectful and the Iranian antagonistic but neither wants to tangle with the nuclear over equipped US either. So guess what, a nuclear stand off as stable as any (sure eventually the human race nukes itself but look on the bright side, maybe they do it before non-biological intelligence (AI) displaces us any way). Worry about Pakistan because there is true instability and potential for catastrophic misbehavior where MAD might actually go mad.

      • For MAD to work, the players must be rational. Truthfully, there is no need for Iran to fear Israel. That is a bogus foe for Iran to whip on. There is no rational need for Iran to hav a nuclear bomb.

        If the US were going to invade Iran it would hav done so alreddy. What good will a bomb do Iran. They must be willing to use it on their neighbors but such a use would bring hellfire and destruction on them. So if they can’t use it without being destroy’d, then why hav it?

        They cannot effectivly threaten the US with it. And the US is not threatening them with it … unless they set one off. So again, what good would a bomb do them? Look at N. Korea … has the bomb done them any good? No, for true, the Japanese hav whisper’d about making their own to counter the N. Koreans if the US withdraws.

        There are sore few scenarios that having a bomb might work out. None of them fit Iran.

  • James Bowen

    Good article.

  • Pingback: Falsely Framed Debates about Our Options on Iran - American Security Project()

  • Bill

    Early in the article, it’s mentioned in passing that “hawks” wanted the Bush administration to act militarily – that it represented the last chance. I think it’s fairly clear they were correct – it was the last chance. Israel may indeed not have the capacity and their attempt may indeed open Pandora’s Box. The U. S. possessed in 2008 and possesses now B-2’s, F-22’s, and refueling assets; electronic warfare platforms; carrier battle groups; and penetrating munitions. Obama will never use them.

    Finally, the author’s sympathy clearly lies with those he calls “doves” yet this piece is mostly written as if it were neutral on the issue. Until the end, that is.

  • tms5510

    Finally a sane view

  • Jim Valle

    The Iranian negotiating style has been a constant since before the days of the Shah. They bargain very hard and when it looks like an agreement is almost achieved they repudiate the process and agitate to start all over again from the beginning. Clearly they intend to end up possessing nuclear weapons and they’ll keep stalling and baiting and switching until they get them. As we’ve already discovered in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war option is totally unpredictable, extremely costly and, with the advent of global terrorism, actually risky to our own civilian population. Consider what an Iranian nuclear weapons capability would actually mean. It means that they would now enter the realm of Mutually Assured Destruction ( MAD ). A nuclear strike by Iran would now be answered by massive retaliation from powers that have a much larger capability than they could ever posses. That’s a very sobering realization. This whole problem has no ideal solution. Perhaps things just have to run their course. If that sounds cavalier, just remember the consequences we encountered the last time we rather cavalierly decided to go to war.

  • Fred

    Commander Dolan, have you ever read Paul Bracken’s “The Second Nuclear Age” and considered the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran? It seems to me that you are substituting ideological preference for analysis here. I hope this is not emblematic of your teaching at NWC.

  • Bill Daugherty

    Thanks for the informative article and news about the Iran Project. I would just note that it was about 1992-93 that Israelis first began warning that Iran was 3-5 years away from having nukes. And that’s how it’s been for almost all of the past quarter-century. I suppose that some point in the future, they may have it more or less right.

  • Ctrot

    The author lost credibility when he started discussing how many ground troops it would require to occupy Iran. In what fantasy world has that ever been considered a possibility? Even the most hawkish of hawks, myself being one of them, have never called for a ground invasion of Iran.

    • True. Altho I do think that we’d crush their arm’d forces, the guerilla aftermath would make the Iraq insurgency look tame. Having said that, in my novel, there are ground troops in Iran. It can be done but only in a way that few would be willing to do … outside of fiction that is.