Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The Pentagoner: No illusions about Iran

The American public should have no illusions about where Netanyahu's vision ultimately takes us: right into the middle of another Middle Eastern war.


By Sharon E. Burke

Best Defense staff columnist

In his extraordinary speech to the U.S. Congress, the Prime Minister of Israel lectured the United States to be tougher on Iran. But his ultimate audience, the American public, should have no illusions about where the Prime Minister’s vision ultimately takes us: right into the middle of another Middle Eastern war.

By Sharon E. Burke
Best Defense staff columnist

In his extraordinary speech to the U.S. Congress, the Prime Minister of Israel lectured the United States to be tougher on Iran. But his ultimate audience, the American public, should have no illusions about where the Prime Minister’s vision ultimately takes us: right into the middle of another Middle Eastern war.

As Americans consider for themselves whether a war with Iran is in their own best interests, they need to focus on what Senator John McCain calls “the follow up.”

“You can win militarily,” he told a D.C. audience at a New America event on the future of war last week, “but if you don’t have the follow up, you are going to lose every single thing that you’ve gained through force of arms.”

I hope President Obama is listening to that advice, when he considers how to best protect American security from the Iranian threat. Because, as the push for negotiations intensifies, it’s important to understand that military action against Iran would likely mean the beginning of a war, not the end of a nuclear program. This is all about the “follow up.”

Iran is a country of 77 million people, larger and more populous than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. This is an ancient civilization with a young population; 42 percent of Iranians are under the age of 24. The armed forces number about half a million, with 40,000 in well-equipped paramilitary units. The country is both rugged and mountainous with a long coastline, which spans the 21-nautical mile wide Strait of Hormuz, through which one quarter of the global oil trade passes. With the world’s fourth largest reserves of oil and the second largest reserves of natural gas, Iran’s hydrocarbon sector accounted for about 80 percent of its exports, with its largest trading partners being China, India, Turkey, South Korea, and Japan. It is worth noting that all of those nations are either important trading or military partners for the United States.

Clearing away the political rhetorical clutter, there’s widespread agreement on the core issue, which is that Iran is a malignant actor on the world stage, a state that arguably acts in no one’s best interests, including that of the Iranian people. In addition to its nuclear ambitions, Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism with an abysmal human rights record at home and a history of destabilizing interference in the affairs of its neighbors.

These facts should shatter any illusions we have about what a conflict would be like with Iran: The reality is that the United States can’t make “surgical” strikes from a high-altitude bomber on a few well-chosen, nuclear targets, leaving a chastened Iran. Such strikes may well set back the Iranian nuclear program, but likely not for long, and will almost surely provoke retaliation. And while the United States should never fail to defend the country out of fear, we should also be realistic about what the use of force will mean in this instance.

This is what the “follow up” looks like in this case: not only to a sustained American military campaign but also economic turmoil, particularly if Iran closes the Strait of Hormuz. Iranians periodically threaten this, even though doing so would hurt their own economy first and worst. And yet, they do have the means to do so, and a motive if they have nothing left to lose. According to the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Iranians have considerable asymmetric capabilities they could bring to bear, including maritime mines and patrol boats armed with anti-ship cruise missiles. If Iran were to mine the Strait, the U.S. Navy would have to respond, and just as the Improvised Explosive Device has proven to be a challenge for powerful U.S. ground forces, maritime mines would be a challenge for the mighty U.S. Navy.

While it might seem that the U.S. domestic energy boom frees us from the risks of relying on Middle Eastern oil, that is not really the case. The United States remains part of a global oil market, and any disruption in that market will affect the price of gasoline here at home — even more so for our most important trade partners. No one really knows how much a closure of the Strait would drive up prices, but in every instance where the price of oil has spiked in the past 40 years, there has never been an actual supply shortfall. There has always been enough overall oil supply in the global market to cover any gaps. If 25 percent of the world’s supply suddenly came off the market tomorrow, however, there is not sufficient global supply to replace it quickly. Prices would very likely hit historic highs. For Europe, it would be even harder to replace the natural gas that transits the Strait, especially given that turning to Russia to make up the difference is not palatable at the moment.

And then there’s the question of what comes next. If the United States is able to rout the Iranian military and destroy their economy, are we then prepared to eventually reach a peace agreement and enforce it? How exactly will we do that? Through a proxy government, which would surely be unpopular? Or maybe through some kind of U.S. or multinational occupying force? Although recent U.S. experience with occupation has not been terribly successful, that has not always been the case. But for such an occupation to succeed, we would need to commit significant national resources, in terms of people, money, and time. It is not clear how many countries would stand with the United States in such an occupation, and while the Iranian people may not much like their own government, they would like an occupation force even less.

Of course, we could just wage war and then leave the country to its own devices, but it is hard to see how another failed state in the heart of the Middle East will be helpful for U.S. security and prosperity.

There is no guarantee that the current negotiations will succeed in limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, let alone succeed in bringing them into the community of nations as a responsible actor. But there is an opportunity today to try to reach an agreement that will improve the security situation without a war, at least for now. Why in the world would we not give that a try?

The United States should, of course, keep military options at the ready, should Iran prove totally intransigent. If they cannot be persuaded to halt their nuclear program, the United States must be prepared to defend its interests and those of its allies, and Iran should have no illusions about that, or about the very heavy price that country would pay for the use of any such weapons. Getting a nuclear capability will gain them nothing — not security and not a better economy.

At the same time, Americans should have no illusions about the long-term efficacy of a strike on Iran’s nuclear program or the heavy burden of the follow-up of such a use of force. It won’t just be the .5 percent of the American population that serves in the military that would bear the brunt of such a war – we all would.

Sharon E. Burke, a senior advisor at New America, served as the assistant secretary of defense for operational energy from 2010 to 2014.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.