War has been an important component of the Bush administration’s Iran policy. The administration began its tenure with a call for regime change in Iran, and since it became public knowledge that Iran was pursuing a nuclear capability and was supporting Shia militias in Iraq, Washington has considered veiled military threats as a realistic option to end Iran’s ambitions and to persuade it to change course. Talk of war has intimately shaped U.S.-Iran relations during the course of the past five years. Influential voices close to the administration have depicted Iran as an apocalyptic version of Nazism, looking for nuclear Armageddon and world domination. Until a recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report weakened the administration’s case for war, the potential for a military conflict was real. The NIE has only put into question a war to stop Iran’s nuclear program. But as will be discussed below, although it is the most obvious and urgent casus belli, Iran’s nuclear program is by no means the only cause of war, nor the one that could lead to the most grave and prolonged conflict.
Iran’s deterrence strategy has relied on a host of signals to showcase its capabilities and how it might fight back. Two war games in 2006 – exporting lethal IEDs and EFPs to Iraq, and the use of sophisticated Iranian-made weaponry in Lebanon during the summer war in 2006 – were designed to convey Iranian strategy and capability. The Mahdi Army’s surprising capability in April 2008 to fend off attack by Iraqi Security Forces on its position in Basra and to subject the Green Zone to mortar attacks with notable precision further highlighted the Iranian strategy. These asymmetric tactics exhibited the IRGC’s newlyacquired ability to wage an insurgency-style campaign on a national scale, using irregular units, motorcycles, and small boats, in addition to missiles, tanks, and ships.
The message to the United States was clear: Iran would be a repetition of Iraq. Rahim Safavi noted that in light of the U.S. threat, Iran had changed the “structure of its armed forces. The training methods, war strategy, and military doctrine of the armed forces, and especially the three branches of IRGC, have been revised. We have designed arms and equipment suitable for extra-regional warfare. We have named this strategy comprehensive defense, Alavi battle, and asymmetrical warfare.” Later he added that the IRGC can turn into a guerilla army in forty-eight hours.
To show what an asymmetrical tactic might mean on the narrow waters of the Persian Gulf, IRGC speedboats routinely circle and harass American ships. The IRGC claims that it can rapidly launch large numbers of such boats from hundreds of small piers built along its Persian Gulf coast. As a gauge of what this approach might accomplish, in a Pentagon simulation exercise in 2002, the U.S. Navy lost “16 major warships—an aircraft carrier, cruisers and amphibious vessels—when they were sunk to the bottom of the Persian Gulf in an attack that included swarming tactics by enemy speedboats.
A war against Iran may become inevitable, but it certainly should be contemplated in light of the costs and constraints that it will entail. It will not be quick and decisive. It will not extricate America from the Middle East; rather, it will commit the United States to a long and costly presence in an increasingly inhospitable region. This will not be a war in which the United States can assume steadfast support of its united Arab allies; Washington will have its hands full managing a fractious and unpredictable Middle East in which divergent interests will surface to push conflicts in unexpected directions. War with Iran will not make success in Afghanistan or Iraq more likely, but less so. It will also put desired outcomes in the Global War on Terror and conflicts in Palestinian Territories and Lebanon out of reach. Democracy, moderation, and lofty goals for setting the Middle East on the right course will be overshadowed by anger and extremism. A Pax Americana in the Middle East will not be built upon the foundation of breaking Iran— not any time soon, and not without significant cost.