—Jonathan SwiftSummarizing the confrontational trend in U.S. relations with Tehran, an anonymous blog commenter recently concluded: "...it all leads in one direction: war with Iran."
Just last week, John McCain received some rare bad press after he provocatively declared that it's "common knowledge and has been reported in the media that Al Qaida is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that's well known." This gaffe was quickly corrected by his consort, Joe Lieberman (I-CT, or "R-CT" to be more accurate).
As the campaign intensifies, there's little doubt that this kind of counterfactual rhetoric from McCain and the administration will increase. After all, a confrontation with Iran would appeal to McCain's alleged strengths in national security and foreign policy. Fear, along with tax cuts for the wealthy, is the foundation of the Republican party's dwindling appeal.
So the bombast from the right is likely to intensify. But an actual war with Iran? Regime change in Tehran? Absent some startling new development, followed by a military mobilization on the scale of Vietnam, it's simply not going to happen.
In the context of all the neocon bluster and the hysteria that it has incited among liberals, few things could be clearer than this reality: the U.S. lacks the military capability to launch a ground invasion or regime change in Iraq. In fact, force levels in Iraq are so precarious that Bush has been pressuring the U.K. to engage its small residual force near Basra to aid the Maliki government in the current fighting there.
The catastrophe in Iraq has amply shown that Bush, Cheney, and McCain are capable of defying overwhelming realities by favoring ill-prepared military adventures, and of course they should be constantly challenged for any displays of bellicosity. But it takes more than rhetoric to launch offensive operations on such a scale: you need to have the military infrastructure to accomplish it.
Iran's military has been weakened by lack of spare parts due to sanctions, but it's still quite formidable compared to Saddam Hussein's vestigial army in 2003. Here are seven reasons why a U.S. ground invasion or forcible regime change are not likely to happen:
- Military resources: Iran could quickly mobilize a well-armed force of one million, not to mention another 12 million in the Basij paramilitary groups. Due to sanctions, Iran has been forced apply its prodigious oil revenues to the development of its own armaments industry, which has produced thousands of missiles, many of them quite sophisticated.
- Popular resistance to invasion: While the Ahmadinejad regime of fanatical clerics certainly lacks the wholehearted support of the population, there's little reason to believe that Iranians wouldn't rally to vigorously resist a U.S. invasion. By contrast, Iraq's resistance in 2003 was limited to a few loyal units of the Republican Guards.
- Population and size: The population of Iran is three times that of Iraq and its landmass is nearly five times larger (and about three times the size of Texas). The scale and duration of operations would need to be adjusted accordingly.
- Iranian terrain favors defense. The invasion route from Kuwait to Baghdad crossed the flat floodplain of the Tigris-Euphrates — ideal terrain for an armored blitzkrieg. The most likely overland route to Tehran, starting at Abadan (east of Basra), travels some 500 miles through a vast 11,000-foot mountain range whose passes could easily be defended by relatively small forces. (Recall Italy in 1943-44, when a mere 23 German divisions were able to stall the allied advance and inflict horrendous casualties.) An assault from Afghanistan isn't an option, nor is an amphibious landing from the Persian Gulf. A massive airborne assault in sufficient strength wouldn't be feasible, either, since much of the Pentagon's transport capability is heavily committed to resupply in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- Vulnerable supply lines: Iran has enough missiles, aircraft and heavy artillery to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, and access to the Persian Gulf, indefinitely. This would not only complicate the task of supplying a U.S. invasion force along lengthening supply lines: it would also have devastating economic effects by interrupting the flow of much of the world's crude oil.
- International opposition: Despite occasional confrontational rhetoric from Paris and London, it's very unlikely that the U.S. could expect any military or diplomatic support from its traditional allies. In fact, a full-scale U.S. invasion of Iran would generate massive worldwide condemnation. The U.S. would be entirely on its own, without the military or political support of even such former "Coalition partners" as the British, Australians or Poles.
- Decentralization of Iran's nuclear program: Like the North Koreans, the Iranians learned the obvious lesson from the crippling Israeli attack on Iraq's nuclear facilities at Osiraq in 1981. Those facilities have been dispersed across the landscape in "hard" targets to minimize the damage from airstrikes, special-forces incursions and other kinds of attacks. The U.S. would likely have to seize most of the Iran in order to eradicate its nuclear infrastructure.
First, it bears repeating that there's always a risk of limited military operations against Iran despite the severe strains on U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. A short-term aerial campaign or special-forces incursions, for example, would not be out of the question. Those risks needs to be taken very seriously, as Iran certainly does, but such time-limited attacks are a very different matter than the kind of large-scale "regime change" operation that failed so dismally in Iraq.
The endless threats and bluster are part of a larger dynamic that falls into the realm of psyops — psychological operations. As Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon demonstrated in the Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972, U.S. policy is often designed to cultivate the perception that our leadership is dangerous, unpredictable, irrational and likely to grossly overreact to any provocation. From that perspective, the administration's (and McCain's) extreme bellicosity is intended to serve as a plausible substitute for thirty assault divisions poised on the Iranian border.
While it would've been clinically insane and militarily out of the question to launch a third war on Iran or North Korea, Bush/Cheney (and now McCain) seek to create a credible perception that they're capable of anything. The clear purpose is to intimidate both the "axis of evil" and anyone else who might challenge the administration's basic operating principle: "Don't mess with the U.S." This hegemonic strategy can be risky and provocative, but McCain and his neocon advisors have clearly embraced it in their threats against Iran.
Finally, the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq was an extension of the longstanding Israeli policy of responding to terrorism by attacking a known enemy, even if there's no evidence that this enemy was associated with the original incident. There's little reason to believe that McCain would be less likely to resort to retaliatory attacks of this nature.
For the overstretched U.S military, the bottom line is clear enough: no one in authority anticipated the demands of extended counterinsurgency campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan. There already aren't enough boots to put on the ground in those conflicts. No one in Washington seems to be developing any plans that will elevate force levels to the point where forcible "regime change" becomes a realistic goal in Iran.
A renewed draft, or vastly increased financial incentives for recruits, would be necessary to create a force sufficient to take on the mullahs in Tehran. Even if the political will existed for such a mobilization, it's likely that at least 500,000 troops — equal to the number that invaded Iraq in 1991 — would be required to invade Iran. In fact, the invading force would almost certainly need to be much larger .
It would take years to recruit, train and equip a force to undertake "Operation Iranian Freedom." Even if the regime in Tehran could be forcibly overthrown, there's no reason to believe that Iranians would be any more accepting of a U.S. occupation than the Iraqis.
Even if Bush/Cheney/McCain are convinced of the need to undertake regime change in Tehran, these realities are inescapable — as they need to be constantly reminded by citizens, voters, rational voices in the Pentagon, and possibly even the mainstream media.
NOTES It hardly needs to be mentioned that another devastating attack within the U.S. could transform these political calculations, possibly generating support for conscription, a general mobilization to a long-term war footing and a major escalation in the "clash of civilizations" with Islam.
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