Apr 19

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

As Eric C read my research for this post, he had one chilling comment, “Does this mean Iran and Israel could get into a ballistic missile fight? That does frighten me.”

Welcome to the wicked problem of Iran.

Our position at On Violence is clear: America/Israel should not start a war with Iran. It could go very, very poorly, and it almost definitely won’t stop Iran’s nuclear program. At the same time, we don’t want a nuclear Iran. Unfortunately, we don’t have a simple solution to the Iranian nuclear problem.

We don’t have a simple solution to Iran’s ballistic missile inventory either. Iran’s missiles threaten countries from Pakistan to Greece, but sustained air strikes might, inversely, encourage Iran to use them. Jeffrey White explains their capability:

“Missile systems (principally the Shahab 3 variants and Sejjl types) allow Iran to strike targets throughout the Middle East, including population centers, military facilities, infrastructure and U.S. forces based in the region.”

And here’s more from Anthony Cordesman at the Centers for Strategic and International Studies:

“Iran has also created robust nuclear and ballistic missile programs, which have become a focal point of US-Iranian military competition. Iran’s missile program dates to the 1980s, and was fully underway during the Iran-Iraq War. While Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities were initially limited, the range and sophistication of the country’s missiles has increased greatly since its inception in the early days of the Iran-Iraq War. Iran has now created conventionally armed ballistic missile forces that can strike at US allies and US bases in the region with little warning, and could be configured to carry nuclear warheads if Iran can develop them.”

Iran has the largest ballistic missile inventory in the Middle East, most of which can travel 1,000-2,500 kilometers, including a limited store of medium range missiles that could strike southern Europe. More importantly, their missiles could hit Israel, the Green Zone in Iraq, U.S. bases in Afghanistan, and anywhere else in the Middle East.

Fortunately, at this time, Iran’s missiles cannot hit pinpoint targets. Iran is desperately working to change that. Some reports indicate that Iran could have an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (range greater than 4,000 kilometers) by 2015. (Though, with predictions, I advise our readers to read this post about other predictions of Iran’s capabilities.) Iran also claims to have supersonic, guided missiles to use against ships in the Persian Gulf, but the Iranian military tends to exaggerate its capabilities.
And those exaggerations lead to incredible uncertainty. Anthony Cordesman sums the confusion up in one concise paragraph:

“There is no agreement as to when Iran may acquire missiles with homing warheads and the kind of terminal guidance that can hit point targets effectively with conventional warheads. There is no agreement on the reliability and accuracy of Iran’s missiles under operational conditions, there is no agreement on Iran’s ability to deploy systems with countermeasures to missile defenses. There is no agreement on when Iran might deploy a fully functioning nuclear warhead. And, there is no agreement on the future size, character, and basing mode of Iran’s missile forces once its long-range systems are deployed in strength.”

Like all things with Iran, ballistic missiles remain shrouded in secrecy, making it difficult to predict how Iran will employ them if attacked. Two factors determine whether and how Iran will use its ballistic missile inventory. First, ballistic missiles are a “use it or lose it” capability. The moment war starts, U.S. bombers and cruise missile will attack those sites where they can find them. Second, unless Iran’s missiles have guided capabilities the intelligence community doesn’t know about, Iran will fire their missiles at civilian targets broadly, trying to kill civilians and frighten populations (including isolated military bases).

Here are the courses of action:

Fire Long Range Missiles at Israel - Possible (10%-40%), just shy of likely.

Fire Long Range Missiles at Gulf Cooperation Council Countries - Possible, especially if GCC countries support the U.S. military operation. Also possible if Iran tries to hit U.S. naval facilities in Bahrain, Kuwait or other GCC countries.

Fire Long Range Missiles at Europe - 1%. This risks bringing in a host of other countries to join the coalition, and risks a U.N. Security Council resolution.

Fire Missiles at the Green Zone - Less than 10%. If they miss, they threaten local populations and Iraqi support. So it’s a risky option, probably less blowback from other forms of terrorism.

Fire Missiles at Bases in Afghanistan - Most likely. If the IRGC chooses not to escalate, or even if it does, this could provide an excellent diversion. Iran is less worried about the population’s support, and the Taliban might actually support this too.

Apr 11

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Continuing yesterday’s post, we finish with our summary of Iran’s proxy war options.

The Enemy Courses of Action, Afghanistan Proxy War Edition:

Best Case: Iran’s proxies focus elsewhere in the Middle East, and Afghanistan continues its slow slide into chaos without additional help.

Worst Case: Iran starts giving or firing surface-to-air missiles at American helicopters. Iran aids Afghan insurgents in launching a coordinated, lethal attack on American soldiers over a period of a few days, including surface-to-air missiles launched at helicopters, improved IEDs and anti-tank missiles fired at American troop carriers. Over a short period, it causes a significant number of casualties forcing the U.S. to curtail its air operations. The war in Afghanistan goes from bad to terrible.

Most Likely (my opinion): Iran continues its contact with the Taliban, and increases smuggling to support their operations. It supplies a handful of SAMs, IEDs or anti-tank missiles to insurgents.

The Iraq Option: Iran focuses only on Iraq, where it has more reach anyways. Technically, the U.S. doesn’t have troops in Iraq. Realistically, America has thousands of contractors and diplomats. I’ll discuss this more when I cover terrorism and ballistic missiles, but Iran could still target diplomats and contractors with IEDs, anti-tank missiles and SAMs.

Most Unique Option: Sniper operations. I lived in fear of these when I deployed to Afghanistan. Fortunately, the insurgents don’t have good marksmanship training, or access to top-of-the-line sniper rifles. The IRGC Quds Force doesn’t have these same limitations. And high-powered sniper rifles, and their bullets, cause much less of a scene than anti-air missiles.

Bottom line: Iran will do something in Afghanistan if only to divide America’s attention. Whether this means dozens of missiles and hundreds of IEDs or handfuls, only war will tell.

Apr 10

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

We continue the IPB for War with Iran today, laying out Iran’s options to fight a proxy war against the U.S. in Afghanistan. Of the options available to Iran, the threat of guided missiles worries me the most. (To understand my historical disinterest in this topic, read yesterday’s post.)

How Iran Could Support Afghan Insurgents

Iran could supply two types of guided missiles to the Taliban: surface-to-air (think Stingers) or anti-tank (think Javelins).

Fortunately, this hasn’t happened yet. Unlike the U.S.S.R., the U.S. hasn’t faced a rival superpower supplying insurgents with missiles; the U.S. hasn’t even lost an aircraft to a surface-to-air missile in Afghanistan. (In one incident, intelligence indicated an SA-7 may have been fired at a plane.) When missiles do show up from the 1980s or Pakistan or Libya, American intelligence operatives usually intercept them, because the U.S. pays more for guided missiles than anyone else, pricing them out of insurgent hands.

And the U.S. hasn’t seen any anti-tank missiles either. Also, Iran has only provided minimal support to the Taliban’s IED operations, nowhere close to the level of support they provided Shia in Iraq.

Why Iran Doesn’t Support Insurgents in Afghanistan

First, the Iranian regime risks America’s wrath if it supports insurgents too heavily. Second, Iran has a limited store of missiles, relying on Russian imports and its own military production system to create guided missiles. However, its young defense industry can only produce so many. Nevertheless, Iran does have a range of man-portable, aging, Russian-built SAMs it could send to Afghanistan. Supporting proxies with SAMs, though, means depleting its own stock, and having fewer missiles to use against an American invasion.
What Iranian Support Could Look Like

At the worst, Iran and the Taliban could launch a coordinated campaign against American aviation assets. To maintain surprise, Iranian agents would try to coordinate their attacks over a handful of days. They could also support a major Taliban offensive, and use SAMs to harass close air support and combat aviation, removing one of America’s biggest advantages from the fight.

If the IRGC Quds Force elements responsible for Afghanistan were smart--I cannot guarantee this--they would target U.S. helicopters. Helicopters--slower, flying at lower altitude, less maneuverable--would be sitting ducks. Without helicopters (or their use severely curtailed), special operations folks would have to limit their missions; U.S. forces would then travel the country by vehicle, dramatically increasing the targets for IEDs (a secondary Quds force target); U.S. forces would also lose close combat aviation and close air support, their single biggest advantage over insurgents.

Iran could complement this anti-air strategy with an influx of anti-tank guided missiles. Several articles in the Jerusalem Post describe Iranian support and training of Gazans in the use of their anti-tank missiles. While Iran hasn’t done this with the Taliban--for reasons I will explain below--Iran could; they make their own anti-tank missiles, which means, unlike surface-to-air missiles, it has plenty to give to insurgents.
Current Relationships in Afghanistan

Iran already has operatives on the ground in Afghanistan, but mostly in predominantly Shia areas, the Western part of the country. They also have strong inroads with Hezara groups, another Shia sect persecuted by the Taliban for years. While Iran has some contact with the Taliban, they don’t like working together; Shias and Sunnis go together like oil and water, bloods and crips, Sith Lords and Jedi Knights. So while Iran may have provided some support to the Taliban, the IRGC Quds Force just doesn’t trust the Taliban. Would you?

Despite news stories with anonymous government officials describing the vast influence of Iran in Afghanistan, Iran doesn’t support the Taliban nearly as much as our ally Pakistan’s ISI does.
How likely is this scenario?

Obviously, Iran has a history with proxies, particularly Hezbollah, which I will discuss in my posts on terrorism. But not that many in Afghanistan. Also, if Iran diverts resources to a proxy war in Afghanistan, it cannot use those resources to defend itself. And any Iranian mission will have to contend with U.S. forces trying to intercept anti-air and anti-tank weapons. Those three reasons provide good incentive for Iran to continue the course in Afghanistan.

I do think, though, that Iranian agents would try to do something if America invaded. Likely, though, it will be a small increase in supplying IEDs to insurgents or supplying a handful of SAMs or anti-tank missiles to insurgents. Not enough to change the war, but enough to kill some Americans, and raise the cost of war.

I’ll finish the IPB tomorrow.

Apr 09

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

The problem with starting a war with Iran is that America is already at war in a country on Iran’s border, Afghanistan. Which brings us to the next section of the War with Iran IPB: proxy warfare. But before I get to my IPB on a proxy war in Afghanistan I need to admit something:

I hate writing about Iran’s support for proxy fighters.
You wouldn’t think politics could infect intelligence at the tactical level, but it can. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, tactical units--battalions, brigades and divisions--spent an overwhelming amount of time on insurgent groups whose names frighten Americans. Ergo, “Al Qaeda in Iraq”--a term I loathe with a passion traditionally reserved for midi-chlorians--became the number one focus in Iraq while Shia politicians created a dictatorship. Awesome!

After AQI, came the Iranians. The U.S. government loved to talk about Iranian (”They were part of the Axis of Evil.”) and Syrian support for insurgents, but never mentioned a peep about Saudi involvement in Iraq. While Iran--specifically Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force members--did supply Shia insurgents with IEDs, specifically EFPs, it didn’t extend this hand to the Sunnis. The Sunni insurgents in Iraq--the so-called “al Qaeda in Iraq”--had to get money from somewhere, and it wasn’t Iran.

*cough* Saudi Arabia *cough*

Iran, meanwhile, supplied the majority of those EFPs to Shia extremists. And don’t get me wrong, plenty of U.S. units went around killing the Mahdi Army and Promised Day Brigade and Asaib ahl-Haq. But the amount of ink spilled to chase “al Qaeda in Iraq” always outweighed their political importance. I mean, the Shia took over, didn’t they?

Iran supported Shia insurgents, but not as much as the hype. This quote from The Atlantic sums up Iran’s actual actions versus what they could have done:

“The Iranians really have not made a major effort to thwart us...If they wanted to make our lives rough...they could make Iraq hell.”

Instead, Iraq generally descended into chaos on its own, and Iranian intelligence monitored the situation because, well, they fought a vicious war with their neighbor less than a generation before.
This Seymour Hersh article makes the case that Iran didn’t even supply the majority of weapons in Iraq. As Hersh writes, “David Kay, a former C.I.A. adviser and the chief weapons inspector in Iraq for the United Nations, told me that his inspection team was astonished, in the aftermath of both Iraq wars, by ‘the huge amounts of arms’ it found circulating among civilians and military personnel throughout the country.”  Same with Afghanistan; they just have tons of weapons from nearly thirty years of civil war. Sure Iranian Quds Force members had influence in Iraq, and still do in Afghanistan. They didn’t cause the insurgency though.
Worse, the administration exaggerated the threat posed by Iran. David Kay continues, “Iran is not giving the Iraqis the good stuff—the anti-aircraft missiles that can shoot down American planes and its advanced anti-tank weapons.” Which is the same point from The Atlantic wargame I mentioned above: Iran has held back on its support of proxies in Iraq and Afghanistan to avoid provoking an overwhelming American response.

But if America (or Israel) starts an extended bombing campaign against Iran...that restraint disappears.

If Iran really wanted to hamper American goals in Afghanistan, they would supply the Taliban with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), like, ironically, America did to the Pashtun insurgents against the U.S.S.R. in Afghanistan. (I know thousands of Americans remain in Iraq as contractors or diplomats. I will address them in “Iran’s Asymmetric Options”.)

Thus far, the NATO mission in Afghanistan hasn’t lost a single plane or helicopter to a guided surface to air missile. Insurgents have shot down allied helicopters with rocket propelled grenades, but an RPG is not a guided missile. Guided missiles scare the bejeezus out of most Army aviators. Stinger missiles alone didn’t cause the Russians to lose in Afghanistan, but they certainly helped.
So can Iran turn the clock in Afghanistan back to the 1980s? I’ll address that possibility tomorrow.

Apr 06

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Yesterday, I laid out a fairly complimentary description of one of Iran’s navies, the IRGC Navy. I made it clear, they cannot beat the U.S. Navy in a straight up fight, but they could possibly sink a ship.

I ignored one obvious component, has the U.S. Navy studied the IRGC Navy?

Of course they have. The Office of Naval Intelligence wrote the key paper used by almost every resource I read--and I used it too. When questioned before congress, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, the top Navy officer, specifically described the “counter-swarm” capabilities the Navy has deployed to the gulf to discourage an Iranian counter-attack.

So I didn’t write anything the U.S. Navy hasn’t studied. Of course, this same Navy designed the Littoral Combat Ship almost specifically for the Persian Gulf, and, well, instead of the dozens we should have, the U.S. Navy has two. Even though U.S. naval forces have patrolled the gulf since the Shah fell, multiple intelligence estimates have declared Iran one of the major U.S. threats, and President Bush put Iran and Iraq into the “axis of evil”, instead of getting lighter and smaller, the U.S. Navy has gotten bigger and heavier, unprepared for sea war in the Persian Gulf. That doesn’t sound like a navy prepared for “asymmetric naval guerrilla warfare”.
Some critics have also pointed out that Millennium Challenge 2002 showed the danger of allowing the enemy the element of surprise and that, now, the U.S. Navy will not let small boats approach it. Except, according to The Weekly Standard, they do:

"In the last few months, Iranian boats have retreated only when U.S. vessels have fired warning shots. While the Pentagon does not publicize such incidents, sailors say there are now near daily occurrences. The proximity of the Iranian boats means that, should any be intent on a suicide plot, American sailors would likely lose their lives."

Anthony Cordesman concurs, Iranian small boats, “give Iran the ability to strike at larger conventional forces with little, if any warning.” So the U.S. Navy knows its weaknesses, but it still might not be able to stop the IRGC Navy.

I want to end the IPB for each domain of warfare (sea, air, proxy war in Afghanistan, and asymmetric--terrorism and ballistic missiles), with a list of some of the possible courses of action available to Iran, and how they could play out. Today’s post lays out the naval war courses of actions available to the two Iranian navies, the IRGC Navy and the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy.

The Enemy Courses of Action, Naval Edition:

Best Case: Iran doesn’t attack back. Or the initial U.S. attack wipes out all hope of counter-attack. Unlikely.

Second Best Case: Iran learned nothing from 1998 and attacks America conventionally. The U.S. Navy defeats Iran conventionally again. Or its swarming attacks have no effect, either because of luck or the US Navy’s preparation. Iran loses thousands of sailors.

Worst Case: Millennium Challenge 2002 in real terms.

Most Likely (my opinion): The U.S. loses at least one capital ship--either through mines, torpedoes, mini-submarines, or anti-ship cruise missiles with damage to multiple other ships. The rescue mission would then become a target of increased Iranian aggression. (Technically, this is the same course of action as above, just differing in degrees of success.)

Suicide Attacks Option: The IRGC recruits fanatics or die-hards to drive multiple suicide ships into U.S. capital ships. The IRGC recently acquired speedboats which could work perfectly for this tactic, and could probably avoid U.S. Navy counter-fire, designed for missiles.

The Escalation Option: Iran chooses to mine the Straits of Hormuz, requiring a costly American-led mine clearing operation. Depending on the state of the war to this point, Iran could choose to re-engage with swarming tactics aimed at U.S. capital ships.

Most Surprising Option: The Islamic Republic of Iran Navy somehow uses a submarine or mini-submarine to attack a U.S. ship in the Gulf of Oman. Essentially, this means the Iranian Navy would score a conventional victory, which would stun me.

If Iran chooses the worst case or suicide attack options, and successfully sinks a large, U.S. capital ship, Iran could conceivably inflict as many casualties on the U.S. as it has suffered since 9/11 in a single day.

That’s why Iran’s naval options terrify me.

Apr 04

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

My father often told me, “Generals always fight the last war.” And he’d give examples, from General Montgomery steadfastly avoiding frontal charges in World War II because of his experience with trench warfare in World War I to generals in the Civil War marching their troops in lines.

This aphorism doesn’t apply to every war. When it does, though, it applies in a big way.

Before I start my “Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield” with Iran’s naval options, I need to make a larger comment on disruptive technological change. So permit me a little license as I dive surface-deep into the history of American naval warfare as it relates to the saying that opened this post.

We start at the civil war, when the entire world learned that iron ships and heavy artillery would now rule the waters. Before that war, proponents of wooden ships controlled the world’s navies.
Through the next few wars, the Spanish-American and World War I, iron battleships dominated the seas, adapting technology as needed. This included rifled barrels on their guns, adding coal and then gasoline-fired engines. The Germans perfected the U-boat, or submarine, but it didn’t prove decisive in World War I.

The next change would. Prior to World War II, combatants on all sides generally considered battleships the key to victory at sea--as they had since the Civil War. As a result, with some simplification for readability, the Japanese attacked U.S. battleships during Pearl Harbor hoping to knock them out of the war in the Pacific, while leaving American aircraft carriers generally unharmed.

Aircraft carriers would go on to win the war. They constituted a paradigm shift in warfare; a disruptive technological change the U.S. ultimately used to overwhelm and crush Axis forces.

This brings us to the most stable period of U.S. naval operations of our history. Despite fielding the largest or second largest navy in the world since the Korean War, the U.S. has only fought a handful of major naval engagements. Each of these engagements pales in comparison to any battle during WWII. (To give you an idea, the Gulf of Tonkin crisis and an accidental attack by Israel’s navy qualify as major military engagements.)

Why did I just spend 300 words on naval history? To show that, despite some changes, America has a navy--an untested navy--based on naval principles from World War II. The idea of an aircraft carrier battle-group, with its gigantic aircraft carrier at center, came out of World War II.

Has the day of the aircraft carrier come and gone? And if it had, how would we know? Only the crucible of war can prove military technology is outdated, and the U.S. Navy hasn’t faced that test. At most, the American navy has swatted away all of the technologically-bereft up and comers who tried to fight us conventionally.

If one single invention, manned flight, transformed warfare at sea, what has the digital age done? Since World War II, the world went through its most creative and innovative technological period ever, inventing computers, missiles, guided missiles, the transistor, nuclear power, satellites and countless smaller innoventions, and drastically perfecting everything (radios and wireless communication especially) from before. (Yes, rockets existed in World War II, but the post-war arms race transformed them into something entirely different, like the difference between monkeys and humans.)

Can/Have those inventions transformed war at sea and the U.S. Navy doesn’t even know about it?

I can’t prove it has, but two wargames (H/T to On V fav Malcolm Gladwell.) should give all sailors and navy watchers at least a pinch of doubt about America’s purchasing decisions during the last fifty years.

In the first example, from the appropriately titled article, “How David Beats Goliath”, a computer scientist, Doug Lenat, competed in a simulated naval war game. Instead of designing his own fleet, though, he fed the rules of the competition to a computer program to see what type of fleet it recommended. Instead of big, traditional, slow, well defended ships, his navy had scores and scores of small, lightly defended ships with gigantic weapons. He won the simulated battles in a landslide. He did it again the next year too.
Yet that example has the rightful air of surreality about it compared to my next example: General Paul Van Riper’s legendary victory in Millennium Challenge 2002. I first read about it in Gladwell’s book, Blink, but multiple articles covered it. While Gladwell used Riper to discuss making split second decisions, I find it hard to look past how Riper’s small boats, cruise missiles and torpedoes swarmed and sank dozens of U.S. ships.
Reading these two simulations, I worry: have we missed any other disruptive technological changes?
Has the guided missile--whether sea launched, land launched, or torpedo--replaced aircraft carriers, battleships and missile frigates? Is smaller and more maneuverable better? Will swarms beat giants?

Most importantly, does Iran know any of this?

That brings me back to my naval history: the largest naval operation since World War II occurred in the Persian/Arabian Gulf in 1988, during the last year of the Iran and Iraq war. Called Operation Praying Mantis, I hadn’t even heard of it until I started researching war with Iran, and most Americans have forgotten it too. In this naval battle, U.S. military warships completely obliterated Iran’s conventional navy. If Iran paid attention, it would have learned a lesson: fight conventionally and you will lose, while inflicting hardly any casualties on the Americans.

I believe Iran learned the lesson of that battle, and this makes them very dangerous.

Tomorrow I will explain why.

Mar 29

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

In Charles Krauthammer’s world, if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, it will hang a “sword of Damocles over Israel”, threatening it with “a second holocaust” and “annihilation”.

When it comes to war with Iran--which, to clarify, we mean something as small as a limited air strike to something as large as a full-on invasion--proponents for war with Iran clarify the threat: nuclear armageddon. However, when it comes to the costs of such a war, they muddle their words more than Obi Wan Kenobi trying to claim Darth Vader murdered Anakin Skywalker. (Which is true, from a certain point of view.)

For example, take Matthew Kroenig’s defense of his Foreign Affairs article on Stephen Walt’s blog:

"I was also surprised that Walt accused me of glossing over the risks of a military campaign. As other readers of the article know, I fully engage with the many negative consequences of military action, including possible Iranian missile and terror attacks against U.S. bases, ships, and allies in the region..."

A teacher once told me that you win a debate by defining the terms. In this case, frame the war with Iran as a possible nuclear holocaust while ignoring the very real threat to US and Israeli troops by using phrases like “many negative consequences”. More importantly, under no circumstance actually put numbers to any possible military operation. Kroenig, Krauthammer, et al understand this. They mention “Iran missile and terror attacks” without clarifying those could mean hundreds or thousands of dead Americans, Israelis, Iranians and Arabs, soldiers and civilians.

As we wrote last Thursday, the American people favor war with Iran. If pundits, politicians and academics specified the costs of war, I believe its support would plummet. With the war drums beating louder, why don’t pollsters ask Americans what price they will pay to prevent a nuclear armed Iran?

Pollsters usually frame this question straight up, “Do you support military intervention in Iran?” I say we should change it to: Would you support military intervention in Iran...

...if it meant the deaths of 4,000 sailors in a two week period?

...if it meant Iranians dragging U.S. airmen through the streets of Tehran?

...if it meant a series of terror attacks on U.S. travelers and business people in the Middle East? Or possibly terror attacks on our home soil?

...if it meant gasoline prices rising to $10.00 a gallon?

...if it meant losing your job?

...if it meant doubling the number of casualties in Afghanistan for U.S. troops for the rest of this year?

I know one reason why pundits, pollsters and politicians avoid the costs: in most cases, they don’t have enough experience with war to properly judge the Iranian response or guess how war with Iran could unfold.

I do though. In the second half of my military career, I practiced intelligence, focusing on the Middle East (beyond Iraq). Moreover, the Army provided me with the perfect tool for this task: the intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB). A well-put together IPB looks at various scenarios: the best cases, worst cases, unique cases, and the possibilities. In other words, the perfect tool to answer the question, at what cost?

For instance, take my hypothetical questions above. Based on my analysis of the relative military strengths of America, Israel and Iran, I believe each of the above events is possible (say over a 1% chance of occurring). Some are probable (over 50%); some are not (between 1% and 50%).

One final caveat before I start: this is not a doctrinal IPB. I am not using specific doctrine--I could, if I wanted to; I could doctrine off with anyone anytime; I’ll go doctrine all over you--because it would bore our readers. Instead, I will use the same ways of thinking about the problem, but transform them into prose. I mean, planning for war with Iran is being and has already been done by staffs of hundreds of people. I am just one guy with writing on the back of an envelope, so I won’t/can’t reach the same levels of detail.

With war looking increasingly likely, it makes sense for me to dust off my IPB skills. (I did it once before for Iraq.) We won’t definitively predict the course of war with Iran, but hopefully we’ll help Americans answer that key question, is the juice worth the squeeze?

Mar 28

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

As I dived deep into academic research on Iran’s nuclear program, I swear I entered a militarized version of Groundhog Day. If you aren’t familiar with the movie (and how can you not be?), a sarcastic weatherman, played perfectly by the Bill Murray, finds himself reliving the same day over and over. No matter what he does, he wakes up on Groundhog Day, February 2nd.

In my Iran War version of Groundhog Day, Iran remains perpetually stuck one to five years away from having a nuclear weapon. By my calculations, in 1992, 1995, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2010 and this year, 2012, either a pundit or politician warned the world about an imminent nuclear armed Iran. In the worst example, current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed Iran would have a nuclear weapon in one year...twenty years ago.

With this prediction of imminent Iranian nuclearity comes the perpetual Israeli threat to strike Iranian nuclear facilities...and pundits guarantee an attack will occur almost every year.

(I mentioned in an earlier post that war with Iran comes up almost every calendar year we hold an Olympics. Researching this post, I double down on that idea. Something about athletic competition must get the juices flowing in Israel.)

Here’s a quick timeline for how doomsaying on Iran’s nuclear program and whether Israel or the U.S. will attack Iran:


Time Away: 3-5 Years.
Source: Then Parliamentarian, now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Did Israel threaten war?: Yes.
Quote: Then Israeli parliamentarian Benjamin Netanyahu tells his colleagues that Iran is 3 to 5 years from producing a nuclear weapon – and that the threat had to be "uprooted by an international front headed by the US." (Also that year, then Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, told French TV that, “Iran was set to have nuclear warheads by 1999.”)


Time Away: “Could be less than five years”
Source: “Several senior American and Israeli officials” in the Old Grey Lady
Did Israel threaten war? Yep.
Quotes: “Iran is much closer to producing nuclear weapons than previously thought, and could be less than five years away from having an atomic bomb, several senior American and Israeli officials say.”

Time Away: No estimates, but everyone repeats the talking point, “Iran is aggressively pursuing WMD.
Source: President Bush, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham
Did Israel threaten war? Not exactly, but President Bush added Iran to the “axis of evil”.


Time Away: Three years...if not sooner.
Source: Sam Gardiner Colonel (Ret.) in The Atlantic
Did Israel threaten war? The war game in the article all but assumed this scenario.
Quote: The Atlantic runs a war game on war with Iran, something reporter James Fallows describes as, “barely mentioned in America's presidential campaign”. Using the most accurate reports at the time, Fallows reported that, “The [intelligence] community believes that Iran could have a nuclear weapon in three years.”


Time Away: 5-10 years.
Source: The Bipartisan Policy Center using a National Intelligence Estimate
Did Israel threaten war? Not in this report.
Quotes:  “Portions of a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate leaked in August 2005 reported that the Iranian regime was between five to ten years away from acquiring a nuclear bomb”.

(Actually, The Bipartisan Policy Center is pretty funny on this issue. Look at these titles ranging from 2008 to 2012: Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Policy Toward Iranian Nuclear Development then Meeting the Challenge: Time Is Running Out and then Meeting the Challenge: When Time Runs Out and then Meeting the Challenge: Stopping the Clock. Oh my, time has been running out since 2009! Eep!)


Time Away: No estimates.
Source: Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker
Did Israel threaten war? Yes, imminently.
Quote: Seymour Hersh reports that a strike is imminent. He also speculates that the U.S. military may use nuclear weapons to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.
(For the next three years, Seymour Hersh would write an article each year characterizing Israeli attack as “unavoidable” or describing Iran as “five years away” from a nuclear weapon.)


Time Away: Soon, but no estimates.
Source: Former U.S. Ambassador to U.N. John Bolton
Did Israel threaten war? Bolton predicted war before 2009.
Quote: “Then-US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton predicts that Israel will attack Iran before January 2009.”

Time Away: 1-3 years.
Source: Secretary Robert Gates, Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic
Did Israel threaten war? Goldberg predicts war in spring of 2011.
Quotes: Secretary Robert Gates, “Most people believe that the Iranians could not really have any nuclear weapons for at least another year or two. I would say the intelligence estimates range from one to three years.”

Jeffrey Goldberg said, “Iran is, at most, one to three years away from having a breakout nuclear capability”.

Time Away: 1-5 years.
Source: See our post from Friday and Jeffrey Goldberg.
Did Israel threaten war? Absolutely.

I am not the first person to point out this unique trend. The Christian Science Monitor has a great roundup, so does Jeff Emanuel on Redstate, and this blog post’s 26,000 words, no kidding, probably round up every mention of Iran ever. Finally, this Wikipedia article shows the limits to crowdsourcing research: tons of research, poor organization and even worse writing.