An expert's point of view on a current event.

Mattis’s Last Stand Is Iran

As the U.S. defense secretary drifts further from President Donald Trump’s inner circle, his mission gets clearer: preventing war with Tehran.

By , a senior analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Defense Secretary James Mattis waits for the arrival of German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen outside the Pentagon June 20, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Defense Secretary James Mattis waits for the arrival of German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen outside the Pentagon June 20, 2018 in Arlington, Virginia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Testifying before a Senate subcommittee in early May, Defense Secretary James Mattis reassured his questioners that the U.S. military was ready for a war with Iran. “We maintain military options because of Iran’s bellicose statements and threats,” he said. “And those plans remain operant.” The testimony, which came a day after U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement that the United States would leave the Iran nuclear deal, was classic Mattis: matter-of-fact and confident — but cagey. After all, being ready for a war is not the same thing as actually wanting one — and, when it comes to fighting Iran, it’s clear that an increasing number of senior U.S. military leaders, including Mattis himself, don’t.

The Trump administration’s civilian officials, who increasingly have the president’s ear, are another matter. Most prominently, the administration’s new national security advisor, John Bolton, has long argued that the only way to ensure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon is to force regime change on the country — by bombing it. He’s not alone. Since taking on his new job, Bolton has stripped the National Security Council of his predecessor’s more moderate advisors, replacing them with interventionist hard-liners, including Fred Fleitz, an ex-CIA analyst and a former employee at the uber-hawk and anti-Muslim activist Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy. Fleitz, who is Bolton’s chief of staff, has long claimed that anything other than the adoption of “the Bolton plan” — scrapping the Iran deal and working for regime change — lacks “moral clarity.”

In fact, Bolton has gone much further, as he did in a 2015 New York Times op-ed titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” where he urged the United States. into a military confrontation with Tehran. “The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required,” he wrote. “Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.” Mattis, by contrast, sees things from the perspective of someone responsible for doing the striking.

That’s not to say that Mattis believes Iran’s leadership can somehow be reasoned with. He doesn’t. Like many other Marines, Mattis nurses an anti-Iran grudge that dates from the October 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, which Tehran planned and supported and which cost the lives of 241 Americans. And when, during the Barack Obama years, Mattis was asked to name the three top threats to American security, he gave a short but pointed answer: “Iran, Iran, Iran.” Nor has Mattis dropped his habit of describing Iran as a “malign influence” — a description he uses so commonly that it is identified with him.

But condemning Iran and pushing for a war with it are two different things. Back in 2011, when Mattis served as the head of the U.S. Central Command, he sat silently through a detailed PowerPoint briefing on how the U.S. Navy planned to pummel the Islamic Republic with swarms of carrier-based F/A-18 Hornets, but he dismissed its airy optimism. “I don’t buy it,” he told an aide, then ordered a new assessment. Mattis’s anxiety has increased in the intervening years, senior military officers say, particularly since he’s become secretary of defense — and since the appointment of Bolton, whose arrival at the White House has coincided with his own marginalization in Trump’s national security decision-making.

While Mattis would love to counter Iran’s “malign influence,” his worries about a war are grounded in the latest Defense Department assessments about the state of Tehran’s military — and his own.

According to a December 2017 Rand Corp. report, a major conflict with Iran would require the U.S. to deploy 21 Air Force fighter squadrons, five heavy bomber squadrons, six Marine Corps fighter squadrons, 18 attack submarines, four aircraft carriers, a suite of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance vehicles, six Marine infantry battalions, three Army brigade combat teams, and a crowd of special operations forces — not to mention a host of drones, satellites, cruisers, counter-mine vessels, supply ships, refueling aircraft, and surface-to-air batteries. Put another way, a war with Iran would require the U.S. Air Force (for example), to deploy nearly half of its fighter squadrons (there are 55 in all) to a single conflict. It could do it, but just barely.

“We’ve been in the air and in combat since 1993,” a senior retired Air Force officer said, “and the wear and tear on the force has been considerable. The tempo has been crushing.” This claim is actually an understatement: Nearly 30 percent of Air Force aircraft are not “mission capable,” the service is experiencing a shortfall in experienced pilots by some 2,000, and maintenance crew capabilities have deteriorated. And what is true for the Air Force is true for the other services. In 2016, Army Vice Chief of Staff Daniel Allyn conceded that only one-third of his force is at “acceptable levels of readiness,” and in January of this year, a group of influential Navy officers expressed fears at an American Enterprise Institute war game that “the combination of constant commitments and diminishing resources” may well have left the Navy “too small, too old, and too tired” to carry out its mission requirements, according to a write-up of the event. Meanwhile, in 2016, Marine Gen. John Paxton reported that half of all U.S. Marine units were “suffering from some degree of personnel, equipment, or training shortfalls.”

Despite this, there’s little question that, in the case of a crisis — Iran restarting its nuclear program, for example — the United States would have little trouble destroying the Islamic Republic’s military. “We will need to determine how many and what kind type of aircraft and munitions we need and what facilities to target,” John Allen Gay, the co-author of the 2013 book War with Iran, said. “There’s an aspect of his that’s math: x aircraft dropping y munitions on z aimpoints with this probability of destruction.” Robert Farley, a national security expert at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, agreed: “There’s no question that the U.S. could devastate Iran’s military and nuclear infrastructure,” he told me. “Their Navy and Air Force would suffer extensive damage, despite their air defenses, and while we might not be able to completely degrade their ballistic missile capabilities, we could certainly set them back.”

The outline of such a campaign is already well known. “The initial attack would undoubtedly be conducted with stealth aircraft,” Gay said, “while follow-on attacks would feature non-stealth aircraft. At some point, and early on, we would have to attack Iran’s air defense systems. They have sophisticated S-300s [surface-to-air missiles] from Russia, so they would need to be destroyed.” The air campaign would involve hundreds of aircraft, last weeks, and target Iran’s nuclear infrastructure — as well as “air bases, naval bases, and ballistic missile installations,” Farley said — with primacy given to the facilities at Fordow (“We would have to use B-2 bombers, a stealth aircraft, armed with Massive Ordnance Penetrators,” Gay noted) and Natanz. “There would be some personnel deployed in Iran,” Gay added, “because we can assume the Iranians would exact a cost — downed aircraft, pilots on the ground — and we would need people to do search and rescue, paint targets, and do bomb damage assessments.”

At the end of the air campaign, Iran’s nuclear and military capabilities would be in ruins. But the worry for senior military war planners is that the end of the U.S. campaign would not mark the end of the war, but its beginning. Retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and a former professor at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program (and one of the Army’s most sophisticated strategic thinkers), argued that a conflict with Iran would not be confined to a U.S. attack — or Iran’s immediate response. Tehran, he said, would not surrender. “We should not go into a war with Iran thinking that they will capitulate,” he argued. “Al Qaeda did not capitulate; the Taliban did not capitulate. Enemies don’t capitulate. And Iran won’t capitulate.” Nor, Dubik speculated, would the kind of air campaign likely envisioned by U.S. military planners necessarily lead to the collapse of the Tehran government — a notion seconded by Farley. “There is very little reason to suppose that anything other than an Iraq-style war would lead to regime change in Iran,” Farley said. “Even in a very extensive campaign, and absent the use of ground troops in a major invasion, the Iranian regime would survive.” That is to say that, while Iran’s military would be devastated by a U.S. attack, the results of such a campaign would only deepen and expand the conflict.

“Shaping and executing an exit strategy after an attack is likely the most difficult task we will face,” Gay said. “While an overwhelming airstrike may end the war for us, it will not end it for Iran. Our conventional capabilities overawe theirs, but their unconventional capabilities favor them. Assassinations, terror attacks, the use of Hezbollah against Israel, and other options will likely be used by them over an extended period of time. All of this has to be factored in: Even if we destroy their nuclear capabilities, we will have to ask whether it will be worth it.”

That question, as it turns out, has been asked before. After the terrorist truck bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in June 1996, which cost the lives of 19 Air Force personnel and one Saudi, a team of high-level U.S. war planners met to plan a response, shaping an extensive air campaign targeting Iran’s military infrastructure. “After the Khobar Towers, there was a deep and detailed planning effort aimed at Iran,” a senior Pentagon official noted, “and after a few weeks of this, the Air Force suggested that perhaps it simply couldn’t do that job. It was overdeployed, and the war plan asked them to do too much. That’s the truth. I’m not saying that that is the truth now, but I think it’s an open question.”

The question is, in fact, still open — and discussed, albeit privately, by senior military officers, which is a cause for concern for the secretary of defense. Earlier this year, rumors circulated among defense reporters that Trump had placed a gag order on the Pentagon, directing the military to keep their views on readiness issues to themselves. The rumor was false. The gag order didn’t come from the White House — it came from James Mattis, who argued that in discussing readiness shortfalls, military officers were signaling American weakness. “While it can be tempting during budget season to publicly highlight readiness problems,” a memo from Navy Capt. Jeff Davis to the Pentagon’s senior public affairs officials that was first obtained by the Military Times noted, “we have to remember that our adversaries watch the news too. Communicating that we are broken or not ready to fight invites miscalculation.”

In truth, the unease over any future conflict goes much deeper — and is seeded by what one senior and influential military officer called “an underlying anxiety that after 17 years of sprinkling the Middle East with corpses, the U.S. is not any closer to a victory over terrorism now than it was on September 12.” It is this anxiety that undergirds military doubts about going to war with Iran — that the United States would be adding bodies to the pile and not much more. For Mattis and his closest advisors, Bolton’s muscular vision that one day the Islamic Republic’s mullahs will do the equivalent of an international perp walk, as he once so whimsically promised, is a fantasy. Or to put it more starkly (and to quote the 2017 Rand report), they believe the continued deterioration in force readiness — units that cannot deploy, aircraft that cannot fly, and ships that run into each other — could mean that the U.S. military could “lose the next war they are called on to fight.” Including, presumably, a war with Iran.

“Oh, come on,” the senior and influential military officer with whom I spoke says. “Lose? We’re not going to lose — no way.” But then the officer hesitates, reflecting. “But, you know we might not win either. Which, come to think of it, might be the same thing.”

Mark Perry is a senior analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of 10 books on foreign policy and military history.