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Limited Resources: Iran and US Military Options

With rumors of an Israeli rehearsal for attacks against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure still in the news, advocates of a negotiated settlement to the Iranian nuclear stand-off once again urged diplomacy. And once again the Iranians seem intractable on the issue. From a July 7th Reuters article:

Iran's response to the latest offer of incentives by world powers shows no willingness to meet their core demand for a freeze or suspension of activities that the West suspects are part of a secret nuclear bomb program.

In response to Iran’s intransigence, opponents of a military solution readily cite the prospect of two crucial, and undesirable, consequences of attacking Iran—the increased likelihood of a wider war which could engulf much of the region, and the resultant burdens on an already over-taxed U.S. military. Neither of these should be drowned out by the din of a new military offensive.

On the matter of a wider regional conflict, Iran could indeed enlist the aid of its proxies in Lebanon (Hizballah) and Iraq (Shiite “Special Groups” in Iraq, and the Mahdi Army) to enflame the highly combustible tinder box that is today’s Middle East. Moreover, any strike against Iran, whether by Israel or the United States (or the two acting in concert) would probably engender enough worldwide condemnation to rival that expressed over the present conflict in Iraq. Such discontent with American or American endorsed foreign policy would surely injure any future attempts to bring rogue states to heel through the cooperative efforts of the international community.

Meanwhile, despite the irrefutable fact that the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq has succeeded brilliantly, the strain of that theater coupled with the concurrent burden of waging war in Afghanistan continues to levy a heavy toll on the U.S. military. The wisdom of fighting two wars on two different fronts with a military that was so manifestly ill-equipped for the added exertion ranks as one of the great blunders of the present administration. Former Missouri Senator and Senate Armed Services Committee member Jim Talent touched on the matter in a March 2007 article for National Review.
The ‘operational tempo’ of American conventional forces—the number, intensity, and duration of their deployments—has increased since the end of the Cold War. Yet the forces were almost twice as big in 1992 as they are today. The active-duty Army was cut from 18 divisions during Desert Storm to ten by 1994—its size today. The Navy, which counted 568 ships in the late 1980s, struggles today to sustain a fleet of only 276. And the number of tactical air wings in the Air Force was reduced from 37 at the time of desert storm to 20 by the mid-1990s. i

Together, the prospect of an overextended military confronted by the possibility of an expanded conflict should sober even the most ardent supporter of resolving the Iranian nuclear conundrum through force. On the other hand, what are the inherent risks of not employing military means to eliminate the threat of a nuclear armed Iran? Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “negotiate” succinctly: “to discuss a matter with a view to reaching agreement.”

For years, American officials believed that the application of sufficient force and an avowed willingness to engage in talks would eventually bring North Vietnam to terms. Unfortunately, nothing short of decapitating the regime in Hanoi could have dissuaded the North from seeking the reunification of Vietnam under the yoke of Communism. To some in North Vietnam’s leadership faction, the matter was simply non-negotiable. Brian Jenkins authored an “unofficial” paper for the RAND Corporation in 1972 which explained the North Vietnamese mindset.

The genius of the North Vietnamese people is their tenacity. It is also their most terrible weapon. Hanoi’s apparent determination to go on fighting reflects convictions that in their eyes seem correct—so correct that the alternative of not fighting may be inconceivable. Confucian doctrine imported from China centuries ago permeates the arguments put forth by the Vietnamese Communist. Terms such as ‘just cause,’ and ‘legitimate government,’ dominate the speech of their leaders. Vietnamese Communists firmly believe that they possess the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ to rule all of Vietnam and therefore must emerge victorious eventually. ii

What if Iran feels a similar ‘Mandate of Heaven’ about the acquisition of nuclear weapons and hegemony over the Middle East? After all, as the United States learned to its regret during the Vietnam War, it takes two to tango and each side has to be amenable to tangible and significant concession. The North Vietnamese were not so disposed. Despite the assurances of some well-intentioned area experts, can either the United States or its allies be sure that Iran can in fact be induced to surrender its nuclear ambitions? What if Iran harbors a desire to join the nuclear club with the same fervor as North Vietnam regarded the unification of Vietnam?

Furthermore, what assurance does the United States possess that Iran would never use a nuclear weapon if it ever produced one? Mutually Assured Destruction may have proscribed a nuclear exchange with a devoutly atheistic state like the former Soviet Union. But can it be assumed that such a convention would automatically hold true with a theocracy as well? Is it prudent to presume that every antagonist will necessarily act rationally and in its perceived best interest? By injecting a measure of ambiguity into the matter of disarmament, Saddam Hussein unwisely invited the sequence of events that ultimately ended his decades long reign as dictator of Iraq. What if the mullahs in Tehran view the destruction of Israel as an aspiration worth risking their power over?

While it is absolutely essential that the national discourse include a stark presentation of the hazards of military action against Iran, the aforementioned questions must also be addressed with rigid intellectual honesty. In order to avoid a repetition of the mistakes of the early years of the Iraq War, or those of the Vietnam War for that matter, all options—and their potential ramifications—must be weighed with transparency and on the scale of “what is” rather than what “should be.”

i Jim Talent, “More: The crying need for a bigger U.S. military,” National Review, March 5th, 2007 p. 32
ii Michael Lee Lanning and Dan Cragg, Inside the VC and the NVA: The real story of North Vietnam’s armed forces (NY: Ivy Books, 1994) p. 200-201

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Earlier today, Warren made an observation that I feel compelled to take issue with. In Limited Resources: Iran and US Military Options, Warren wrote: Meanwhile, despite the irrefutable fact that the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq has succeeded bril... [Read More]

2 Comments

What Iran needs more than anything right now is something to lose. We've backed it into a corner and given it few options. We should give Iran an honorable path of retreat. Iran needs to be plugged into the global economy. Once its people are engaged economically, and it will have plenty of internal motivation to play better with others.

Warren Wilkins' essay on the limitations on military actions is tops. Said limitations arise, in the first place, from the difference between maritime/air and continental powers. Yes the U.S.A. can (as in WWII) mount a large army but it will, for natural reasons, revert to a naval-type defense. And yes, Russia or China can, on occasion, build large fleets, but such will remain secondary for a land-mass-centered state's military. Over-reaching may occur when a maritime state embarks on continental ambitions, following,say, Rupert Murdoch's call for a globalized liberal- democratic society. Reciprocally, a Soviet Union bent on oceanic mastery met disaster as it sought to install missiles in Cuba. The present hope is that a public that instinctively senses the nature of its own country will nudge leaders of either party from dangerously expanded military enterprises.