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Opinion: The Problem with Bombing Iran

An undated photo of the reactor building of Iran’s Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. Iranian Students News Agency photo

An undated photo of the reactor building of Iran’s Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant. Iranian Students News Agency photo

Nearly 60 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate are visiting Israel this month to discuss with Israeli political leaders the proposed nuclear deal with Iran. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is attempting to influence these members of congress to vote against the proposed P5+1 nuclear agreement when it comes to the floor in September. 

Top military analysts and proponents of the deal contend that if the deal is derailed, the risk of a military conflict with Iran is greatly increased. In fact many of the deals opponents have vocally supported a military option in lieu of the proposed deal. These opponents to the deal claim that the use of military force “can be managed to avoid escalation.”

Can escalation be managed?

To better understand the potential consequences of a bombing campaign against Iran, I researched and co-authored an article in Proceedings titled Bomb Iran? (May 2013), with my Naval War College colleague Cmdr. Ron Oard USN (ret). The article is an in-depth historical analysis of both U.S. and Israeli punitive bombing campaigns. We specifically focused on the strategic results of these campaigns. The Bomb Iran? article was written in late 2012, a time like today, when many commentators were making claims that military strikes against Iran were both necessary and a solution to the problem. They advised then, as they do now, that airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would not necessarily lead to a wider conflict and that the risk of escalation was “manageable.”

After a careful study of the history of coercive bombing campaigns our conclusions illustrated that those like Senators Tom Cotton, and presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Perry whom have made repeated claims that force can be used against Iran without risking escalation, are perhaps grossly underappreciating the scale and scope of what bombing Iran may entail. Presented here are a few numbers and nuggets of information, many are condensed from the full length Bomb Iran? article. Also included are some insights into the methodology used to support our analysis.

For example, to better understand the scale of a bombing campaign against Iran, we compared the geographic area and populations of Korea (1950), Vietnam (1968), Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). We were startled to discover the results of this baseline inquiry. As it turns out, Iran possesses 632,000 square miles of territory. In short, Iran would geographically represent the largest theater of battle the U.S. has fought in since the European campaign in World War II (Afghanistan, the current claimholder, is 60 percent smaller than Iran). At 78 million, Iran would by far also represent the largest population of a target country since WW II (over double that of Afghanistan, which is again the current post-WW II leader, and comparable to Germany in 1944 which had 75 million). These numbers matter, especially when considering available sanctuary to foil targeting and the near inexhaustible manpower at Iran’s disposal.

In light of the many strategic errors made by U.S. policy makers since the end of WW-II that stemmed from the failure to comprehend the basic geographic, demographic, and cultural variables of countries we have attacked and/or invaded, it seems elementary to understand that the country that some now casually claim can be attacked with “manageable” risk is rather huge, and has a very large population. Finally, it would also be important to note that the Iranian people and culture have lived on this piece of planet earth for more than 5000 years. If the eight years of bloodletting during the Iran-Iraq war is any indication, we can assume that the Iranian people will make great sacrifices to defend this corner of the planet that they have long called home.

But what about the effectiveness of coercive bombings? The 1999 operation against Serbia is perhaps the one example of a successful coercive bombing campaign achieving the desired strategic objectives. However, in terms of “manageable escalation,” the campaign protracted well beyond the planned three-to-four day demonstration of NATO airpower, into a 73 day protracted bombing campaign. Reaching the stated objective required a systematic expansion of the target list that left Serbia’s infrastructure and economy ruins. Most importantly, maintaining the peace in Kosovo required the insertion of NATO ground forces. Does anyone imagine that a similar outcome would be possible with Iran for a limited war objective?

As to the question of “manageable” risk, the historical success record is very poor. For example, Benjamin Lambeth wrote in Learning From Lebanon (2012), about Israel’s 2006 campaign into southern Lebanon that “What most accounted for the frustration felt throughout Israel as the conflict unfolded was the fact that at no time during the thirty-four days of combat were [Israeli Defense Forces] forces able to stem the relentless daily barrage of short-range Katyusha rockets…”[i] Despite more than 19,000 Israeli Air Force tactical sorties, a ground invasion of Southern Lebanon, and more than 173,000 artillery shells fired, the tide of rocket attacks on Israel was not stopped. Over the course of the 34-day conflict, Hezbollah launched an average of 170 rockets a day into Israel and on the day before the conflict ending cease-fire was enacted they launched a total of 250.[ii]

My Bomb Iran? co-author and I concluded that “the important point to be drawn from this non-US historical case is that like NATO’s 1999 operation against Serbia, Israel had hoped to limit this operation to a two-to-three day precision application of power that would coerce Hezbollah to surrender two IDF soldiers (whose abduction had sparked the conflict). Israel employed devastating stand-off precision attacks against every known enemy weapons cache, Hezbollah forces, and leadership locations—but the rocket fire into Israel continued unabated.” Here in this case, Israel’s perceived “manageable” risk of escalation soon protracted into a very costly escalation for Israel.

A comparable escalation with Iran would result hundreds of far more lethal and precise ballistic missiles being launched against US bases in the region, and Israel. Additionally, Iran’s vast array of anti-access/area denial weapons would disrupt the maritime commerce in the Persian Gulf with a ripple effect on the global economy.

The advanced arsenal of Iran’s missile forces will find ample sanctuary in the rugged landscape and coastline of Iran. Targeting dozens, if not hundreds, of mobile missile batteries in Iran’s vast landscape will certainly prove to be much more challenging than those confronted in the compact battle space of Southern Lebanon. To put it bluntly, the risk of escalation poses such extreme and costly risks, that few in the profession of arms recommend this course of action for achieving the limited objective of destroying Iran’s nuclear program. Iran can hit back, and they can hit back hard.

We also concluded that a point relevant to any potential conflict with Iran is that the “pulse of power expertly delivered by the Israeli military did not bring a rapid conclusion to the conflict or completely achieve any of Israel’s stated objectives for the war. Hezbollah was weakened but still exists as a capable enemy. Considering these results, it should be surprising that Israel believes it can achieve better results against a far more challenging target set in Iran.” Perhaps this is why they are working so hard to urge the US to do the fighting for them?

Finally, the most puzzling number that seems to be overlooked by the opponents to the deal is 6-12 months. This is the amount of time Iran will need to produce enough fissile material for a bomb if the deal falls through. This stands in stark contrast to the 10 years – to never expert prediction if the deal is implemented. Members of the profession of arms, and students of military history should shiver when they hear proclamations of “manageable risk” from political leaders against a country as large and powerful as Iran. This echoes the fateful proclamations of wars past that “the boys will be home for Christmas.” Such boastful and confident expressions of success fail to measure up to critical historical analysis. The enemy always gets a vote, and in this case, there is little reason to believe Iran will acquiesce to coercion after having come so far to strike a deal with the worlds six most powerful nations.

[i] Benjamin Lambeth, “Learning From Lebanon: Airpower and Strategy in Israel’s 2006 War Against Hezbollah,” Naval War College Review 65/3 (Summer 2012): p.83.

[ii] Ibid, p.91

  • On Dre


    “Members of the profession of arms, and students of military history should shiver when they hear proclamations of “manageable risk” from political leaders against a country as large and powerful as Vietnam.”

    • Curtis Conway

      The very discussion of describing letting a terrorist state even have nuclear aspirations on the horizon is not acceptable as a “manageable risk”. Particularly when a Fail Safe requirement exist.

      • On Dre

        Why are you bringing Pakistan into this?

        • Curtis Conway

          I guess Iran will ‘double the trouble’. JUST . . . what the American tax payer is looking for!

  • muzzleloader

    So, then use nukes.

    • Steve Rodo

      Without russia and China’s consent everyone should be assuming they would be backing iran particularly russia. iran is well known to have influence in alot of regions in the world with sleeper cell terrorist groups waiting for the word.. if an american or israeli bomb hits iran its completely justifiable and realistic to assume some form pf terrorism or attacks would be done in america and american ally nations. Iran will be destroyed but the hate will grow and be much stronger ultimately making the situation far worse

      • muzzleloader

        The hate will grow? Those who hate us have done so for ages, Steve. Are we watch idly while those who threaten “death to America!” obtain the means to do so? I really could not care less what Russia and China think of us, they are not our friends and never will be. What I care about is the removal of a potential threat of a magnitude we cannot imagine.

        • On Dre

          Find the Iraqi WMDs first.

          • RB

            We know where the Iraqi WMD were/are…trucked into Syria before we invaded. That 43 didn’t share this with the world is inexplicable.

          • greatnesslostislegend

            Correct about the WMD, General Sada pointed this out. Any attack on Iran must use nuclear weapons. It has gone past conventional now. It must be a full scale attack with the aim of destroying Iran’s infrastructure, and ending its ability to influence the region permanently. There is no reasoning with the type of Islam that is in control of Iran. It is terrible to say what I just did, but having been in the region, seeing what they are, I conclude there is no choice.

          • Curtis Conway

            The Israelis took care of it in 2008.

          • Capt Woody Sanford

            Was that Iran or Syria?

          • Curtis Conway

            It was Syria then, it will be Iran next, and this administration will usher them back to the ovens. Until this administration united the major powers in contemplating an Islamic Bomb in the hands of Radical Islamic Terrorist who sponsor suicide bombing around the planet a reasonable prospect, we were at least delaying Armageddon. this administration ushers in Armageddon with malice of forethought because they ……….. EHHH going to get myself in trouble here….. AR overscore.

        • Steve Rodo

          Well its because everyone does the exact same thing over and over again though out history. If you want to remove an imaginable threat then you should want every person i the world education is far more effective way. When your well educated your veey rational and would recognize how stupid that kind of behavior is.

          I have a question tho.Did you ever consider the kind of economic, environmental and catastrophic disaster would be if iranian nuclar plants are constantly spewing out toxic redioactive waste into the atomsphere. It wont be pretty with iran bomb into the ground i can grantee you that. The nuclear plants in Japan were contained and didn’t blow up. Id imagine thats something that won’t be and cant be avoid with bombs being drop on a nuclear facility rather then just a really bad eather quake and a few ways from a tsunami

          One nuclear reactor melting down is so so dangerous and so toxic considering bombing that kind of facility ( usa and israel would be bombing multiple nuclear facilities and is fair to assume their would be multiple meltdowns ) would be a horrifying event. Any jew arab Muslim Persian or arab that valued thier life would probably not be living in the middle east after that.

  • Once implemented this deal won’t be so easy to unravel, let alone provide an opportunity for the West to bomb the Iranian nuclear plants. Let’s remember that the deal is just the tip of the iceberg of the process that will unfold in the coming months and years by which U.S. and European businesses will get involved in the Iranian economy. Once sanctions are lifted, re-imposing them won’t be easy. Snapping them back, as Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry promised would be part of any deal, won’t be a realistic option. What Obama has done is to set in motion a process by which the West is, in essence, a partner with the Iranians on their nuclear project. The deal grants it virtual immunity and has already put Israel — the only other power that has any ability to use force against Iran — in a position where it would be very difficult, it not impossible for it to consider bombing.

    • Tim Dolan

      Sanctions were close to falling apart anyway, The USA can’t impose sanctions unilaterally and have them work. Russia wants to sell them weapons, China wants their oil and the EU countries want to sell them lots of other products. Most importantly Germany is actually the leader for the deal not the USA, we are just following in this case. We might have had a stronger case, but some idiot senators send a letter to Iran undermining our position.

      • Old Salt

        Oh, stating the obvious about the Constitution? I get it.

  • Jay Mollenkopf

    The window of opportunity to influence Iran was slammed shut by the inaction of the Obama administration following the February 14, 2011 Iranian uprising when
    clashes between Iranian police and hundreds of thousands of protesters wracked
    central Tehran hoping to evoke Egypt’s recent popular uprising.

    In the final days of Egypt’s unrest, Obama aligned himself with
    the demonstrators’ demand for a new government. With Iran he has not been so
    bold. His call on Tuesday Feb. 15th, 2011 for Iran’s Islamic government to
    allow peaceful protest echoed the one he made after the opposition Green
    Movement emerged on Tehran’s streets in June 2009 following a disputed
    presidential election, a response many conservatives criticized as tepid.

    “We were clear then and we are clear now that what has been true in Egypt
    should be true in Iran – that people should be allowed to voice their opinions
    and their grievances and seek a more responsive government,” Obama said.
    “What’s been different is the Iranian government’s response, which is to
    shoot people and beat people and arrest people.”

    Yet he did nothing then and hear we are just over three years
    later faced with a nuclear Iran poised to press forward with their deadly dream
    of a one world Caliphate.

  • Secundius

    Israel has had plans for the Bombing of Iranian Nuclear Facilities since 2010. The ONLY reason they don’t what to do it, is because they don’t have Support Assets in the Persian Gulf and WE (the USA) DO…

    • On Dre

      That and a shitload of people within the IDF told Netinyahoo that bombing Iran was horrible decision.

      • Secundius

        @ On Dre.

        So, it’s a BAD VENTURE for Israel to do it. But, A GOOD VENTURE for the USA too do it. CIRCULAR LOGIC…

  • Tim Dolan

    I think this is the most important statement.

    “Finally, it would also be important to note that the Iranian people and culture have lived on this piece of planet earth for more than 5000 years. If the eight years of bloodletting during the Iran-Iraq war is any indication, we can assume that the Iranian people will make great sacrifices to defend this corner of the planet that they have long called home.”

    Iran (or historically the Persians) have a different mentality than Iraqi’s or Afghans we have been fighting, they have a core identity as a single group, while both Iraq and Afghanistan are far more tribal in nature. Iran is going to be a tougher fight, if we go that way and will not tolerate a limited bombing campaign, which means if we attack, even in a limited fashion, we should plan on WAR.

    Also, I really hate doing Israel’s bidding, I don’t mind supporting them, but the USA should look after its own interests first, because Israel won’t be actually backing us materially if we do the hard work.

  • CAPT Jhn F Ferguson

    Agree with most of the comments and would only add that with all the CDR’s perceived intellect and strategic knowledge…why is it retired as a CDR and not a Flag officer?

    • Danger_Dan

      CAPT, Thanks for reading and commenting on my article. In the long tradition of USNI’s publication of articles written by a wide range of individuals regardless of rank or station, I am proud to be a contributor to this forum. Although, I did not make flag rank, I was promoted 11 times in my 32 year career, at least I have that in common with an Admiral 😉 My full bio can be found on the Naval War College website.

  • bigjet

    The world CANNOT let Iran/mullahs have fissle material PERIOD. A country bent on taking over the world that does not give one wit about mutually assured destruction cannot be allowed to exist in its current form. They want to bring about a holocaust that is part of 12 Imam plan. I will guarantee if allowed to have nuclear weapons they will be used anywhere on the globe that does convert to Islam and yes America as well delivered by a capable ICBM of which that have the delivery vehicle ready. They are evil,vile and maniacal way worse than Hitler and will stop at nothing to achieve their means and goals. When they tell you what they are going to do believe it!

  • Old Army Guy

    It’s nice to know that finally, someone is willing and able to state what should obvious to those who oppose the “Deal”. Cmdr. Dolan’s opinion piece isn’t just an opinion, it is based on sound historical fact and sound military logic. However, I have found the comments I have read to be less than what I would expect from those who belong to a professional body such as the USNI. Those posted by Capt. Ferguson and redgriffin are just cheap shots unworthy of a member of the USNI. Many of the other commenters are more interested in blaming the current administration for the problem, completely ignoring the fact that the situation existed long before the current administration came to power, than discussing the merits of the article. These folks I have a question and a statement. First, if a tree fell in the woods and no one was there to hear it, is it still Obama’s fault? Second, if President Obama could walk on water, the Republicans would criticize him for being unable to swim. Let’s keep this site professional and focused on our military!

  • Larry Reid

    It is always important to put things in historical perspective and learn from it rather than repeat its mistakes. However, Commander Dolan overlooks several important aspects in the overall equation.

    First, I seriously doubt Israel expects the United States to fight its battles for them. Quite the contrary. They would like to have the strategic and tactical support of a strong, traditional ally but the current administration has proven that impossible at best. If one thinks for a moment that Israel does not stand alone at this point in time, there is no need to continue the discussion.

    Secondly, no matter how many members of Congress visit Israel or any nominally friendly nation in the region, there is NO POLITICAL WILL to deal with the Iranian problem. Just another congressional junket at taxpayer expense to accomplish nothing more than excessive hotel room service charges. Like Jimmy Carter’s Camp David Accords, the Barack Obama Iranian Nuclear “Deal” is intended for legacy purposes only. Does anyone really believe the problem of a nuclear Iran will not rear its ugly head again and again for any number of future U.S. presidents and that this same discussion or a slight variation of it will be going on for a generation to come?

    Clearly, the risk of Bomb Iran? is unmanageable and unrealistic for all the reasons Commander Dolan so aptly points out. What IS manageable are the economic sanctions that drove Iran to the one-sided negotiating table in the first place. These “negotiations” failed to achieve even a footnote of freeing hostage American citizens as the proverbial “player to be named later.” The United States achieved NOTHING in this exercise. NOTHING. It is the NOTHING that prompts the visit to Israel with or without recognizing the magnitude of the military task being advocated. It is the NOTHING that prohibits bipartisan agreement among political executives (the term political leaders is an oxymoron) to pursue and execute any action in the long term interests of the United States as a whole rather than any number of politically divided special interests.

    Well done, Commander Dolan, to bring the lessons of history to the analysis. An important piece of the puzzle to be certain. However, the last time I checked, this is a WORLD economy and economic “bombs” carefully targeted CAN be used in a campaign of political coercion. Alas, the ineptitude of the current administration in foreign policy unquestionably prevents “bombs” away!

  • old guy

    FIRST. Iran HAS a device, but it is too big to be deliverable; about the size of FATMAN. They have had it for 4 years. The work is on a TACNUC; such as our DAVY CROCKET, portable and concealable.
    SECOND. Hasn’t anyone read, “MEIN KAMPF” and analogized it to the present situation?

    THIRD. We are clueless (both parties),in how we approach the problem.
    Maybe we do need an unpredictable guy like TRUMP to confuse the world.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    So the message, and the ‘logic’ behind it, is accept a deal everyone knows is bad! Some articles have appeared on these boards recently advocating for accepting the ‘deal’ (the open letter from the retired flag officers is one such example). They state that there will be no better one possible, so better to have it than nothing at all. Gee, that sounds like Chamberlain in Munich in 1938 all over again. At least he was smart enough to know that he had to do something to BUY TIME so Great Britain could start arming itself for the inevitable conflict they all knew was coming. The reasons presented about bombing, or actually, NOT bombing Iran, appear sound indeed. But the best option I see here is go back to the sanctions that were in place. If our so-called allies stab us in the back about all that, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate our relationship(s) with them. The US gets NOTHING from the ‘deal’, but it appears that everyone else does. BUT, it will be OUR responsibility, and onus, to engage Iran in any military confrontation going forward. It’s long past time to change that!

  • Secundius

    2 September 2015:

    Just herd, that Obama got his 32 Vote Boost for the Approval of the Iran Nuclear Deal…