Jul 30

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

According to Israel and America, Iran isn’t just opposed to America’s interests in the Middle East. Iran isn’t just a rival power in a regional battle for hegemony. It turns out Iran is actually...

Evil! (Please read “evil” as if you were imitating Dr. Evil.)

I mean, Israel’s President Shimon Peres called their leaders evil, Isreali Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the Syria-Hezbollah-Iran nexus evil, and Iran was an inaugural member of President Bush’s Axis of Evil. But probably most importantly, Tucker Carlson has called Iran itself straight-up evil.

So let’s go to the tape, how evil is Iran, the nation Mitt Romney calls our, “most severe security threat”? Since we can’t define evil in a vacuum, let’s compare Iran to another not-so-random nation in the Middle East.

Consider the following two countries, asking yourself, which is more "evil"?

Both country A and B surreptitiously supported insurgents in Iraq.

Both country A and B surreptitiously support insurgents in Afghanistan.

Both Country A and B have access to vast amounts of oil and natural gas.

Country A is an monarchy with no democratic elections.

Country B is an Islamic republic that cannot elect its Supreme Leader, but elects its President and legislature, though vote rigging definitely occurs.

Country A enforces sharia law on its streets.

Country B does not.

Wealthy millionaires financially support Al Qaeda in Country A.

In Country B, none do.

17 of the 20 hijackers on 9/11 were from Country A.

0 were from Country B.

The last two comparisons should give it away: Country A is Saudi Arabia, Country B is Iran.

Comparing the two countries, I can’t help but ask, what is so bad about Iran that Saudi Arabia doesn’t already do? Iran crushed elections in 2009, but Saudi Arabia doesn’t even have elections to crush. Iran had “Neda” a symbol of oppressed Iranians, but Saudi Arabia doesn’t even let women drive. Iran’s military supports Hezbollah financially, but Saudi Arabia birthed Al Qaeda and wealthy Saudis currently support terrorist organizations. Not to mention, Saudi support for authoritarian governments like Bahrain, Qatar and Yemen encourage regional insurgents that eventually spawn international terrorism.

Yet Saudi Arabia supplies America with oil. Because of that and its friendly relationship with the U.S., it gets a pass and America might go to war with Iran. Would America go to war with Saudi Arabia if it developed nuclear weapons?

Some realist foreign policy academics have suggested that in a true recalculation of America’s interests around the globe, that Iran, not Saudi Arabia, would be the smarter choice for an American ally. This is a vital point to inform the debate over Iran, America and nuclear weapons. And tomorrow it will inform my solution to the Iran problem.

Jul 25

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

I hate a lot of things about the debate over Iran’s nuclear program. I hate the exaggerations of Iran’s threat to America. I hate that no one mentions the costs of military intervention. But of all the things I hate about the debate, I hate one thing above all: the complete lack of unique solutions to the problem.

If pundits and politicians--specifically American Senators--are to be believed, America has three options with Iran: 1. Go to war. 2. Continue negotiations or 3. Sanctions. We--America/Israel/Europe/Iran--have way more options than that, and if we don’t, we need to find them.

Before our break, I did a post on “Unique Takes on War with Iran”. Today’s post is a more important sequel to that post--not just unique viewpoints, but unique solutions to the Iranian nuclear problem. And in the spirit of unique solutions, next week I plan to roll out my solution.
1. “Influencing Iran: A Fourth Way” on the Small Wars Journal

This Small Wars Journal article proposes a semi-non-violent or ”non-kinetic”--more aptly non-military--way to discourage Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons: degrade their electronics via cyber attacks so their society can barely function. I don’t think the U.S. has the capabilities to do this right now, and such an operation would backfire if Iran could trace it back to the U.S. Even if this can’t influence our debate on Iran, it does point to how warfare could look in the near future.

2. “Using Religion to Restrain Iran’s Nuclear Program” on Stephen Walt’s Blog

Nina Tannenwald writes that the U.S. should harness, “moral and religious norms as a source of nuclear restraint”. If the U.S. could use religion (ironically someone else’s religion) to prevent war, I am all for that. (Ironic, to clarify, because America’s primary religion, Christianity, barely constrains America from starting wars. The more religiously minded politicians in America--being blunt, conservatives--openly advocate war.)

3. “Five Tips for Obama on Nuclear Negotiation with Iran” on Time

In this article, Trita Parsi gives five “lessons” to help U.S. diplomacy with Iran, and they all make sense. American negotiators should especially heed lesson number two to, “Broaden the agenda beyond the nuclear program”. We need a dialogue with Iran on as many fronts involving as many people as possible. The more connections we can make with Iran, the less chance we will blunder into a war. However, Parsi’s first point is as correct as it is impossible to implement, “Don’t allow the domestic politics to define your strategy”. So yes, this solution is basically “continue diplomacy”, but it is a much more expansive diplomacy than the U.S. has so far pursued.

4. “Where Congress Can Draw the Line” on The Atlantic

James Fallows makes a plea in this article (whose date I can’t find, but I believe it comes from the late Bush administration) that the U.S. Congress could stop war with Iran if it specifically passed a resolution forbidding war with Iran. His advice is as timely now as it was then, but it will never happen with the current Republican congress. In fact, most recent resolutions on Iran have gone in a completely opposite direction, making war more likely, not less.

5. “Preventing a War: What You Can Do” on Stephen Walt’s Blog

Stephen Walt--who I keep linking to in my Iran posts because we completely agree on this issue--has a simple, and not very novel solution: sign an online petition. I don’t think it will work, but if politicians do listen to voters, maybe it has a chance. Unfortunately, too many Americans want war with Iran, a different issue.

6. “Why Iran Should Get The Bomb” by Kenneth N. Waltz on Foreign Affairs

Always willing to push the envelope, Kenneth Waltz’s most recent Foreign Affairs comment certainly fits the bill. I love this “solution” because it wildly redefines the problem. For Waltz, power “begs to be balanced”, so a nuclear Israel threatening the rest of the Middle East is a much bigger problem than a beleaguered Iran trying to get a nuclear weapon. While personally, I think the world needs to move towards the goals of the Global Zero campaign (more in a future post), at least Waltz is trying to avert another disastrous war in the Middle East that probably won’t even solve the problem.

Jun 11

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

At On V, we ascribe to the “Jim Rome Theory of Pontificating”. For the uninitiated, Jim Rome, a sports talk show host, tells his listeners to “have a take.” So don’t call him and say, “I like the Lakers.” He has thousands of listeners who could say that. Tell him something unique. Propose a novel trade idea. Explain why you hate a player with new statistics to back you up.

Have a take.

In our last “On V Update to Old Ideas”, I praised Thomas J. Bounomo’s Small Wars Journal article “Changing Iran’s Cost-Benefit Analysis of its Nuclear Program” because it put forward--in my words--“a unique solution to the crisis”. To be clear, I don’t necessarily agree with a unique take just because it’s unique, but I appreciate articles, blog posts or op-eds that do more than just say, “I agree” or “I disagree”. But that doesn't provide new ideas or takes.

In the case of Iran, I don’t find much use for articles that simply say either, “We should attack Iran” or “We shouldn’t attack Iran.” So I want to gives props to the articles, posts, or op-eds which evolve the debate about Iran. (As a side note--though I cannot analytically prove this--I believe compared to the Iraq War, the debate over war with Iran has had many more thoughtful pre-war ideas.)

1. “In Iran Standoff, Netanyahu Could Be Bluffing” by Jeffrey Goldberg

Though he has since distanced himself from this article, I still appreciate Jeffrey Goldberg’s initial Bloomberg View column that speculated that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was bluffing. While it is probably more wrong than right--Netanyahu could be both bluffing and serious at the same time--it does explain the paradox of the seeming inevitability of Israeli air strikes that never actually materialize.

2. Iran Wants War by Internetocracy

This graph pretty much sums up why Iran does not present a “Germany a la World War II” threat to the U.S.:

It also completely debunks the idea that to deter Iran the U.S. will have to devote considerable resources to the Middle East. We already do. (H/T to Battleland.)

3. “Top Ten Media Failures in the Iran War Debate” by Stephen Walt

We quoted this Stephen Walt article in our post evaluating Iran’s military. While I have a healthy dose of fear about the IRGC, Walt rightly points out that militarily, Iran cannot approach the American armed forces. (To clarify our point, the U.S won’t lose a war with Iran, but we could lose thousands of soldiers and billions in military equipment.)

But Walt makes another excellent point about the lack of media coverage about Iranian civilians casualties in any hostilities. Walt rightly asks, “What about the human beings?” Eric C would and has argued that the American media almost completely ignored Iraqi casualties during the opening months of the Iraq war. The U.S. should remember, as war looms, that innocent people will die.

4. “Walt Still Doesn’t Get It (Iran)” by Bernard Finel

I’ve linked to Stephen Walt a lot in this series, which is a bit surprising because, as a liberal idealist in foreign affairs, I tend to mostly disagree with him. But not on Iran. Bernard Finel, though, makes a compelling argument that the problem with Iran has more to do with domestic politics than the compelling international relations logic of deterrence.

Basically, it doesn’t feel very good. As he says, “muddling through or living with risk” aren’t policy options the American people want to embrace. Compare those policies with, “go to war and win”; they don’t look very attractive. That’s why, according to Finel, the Iraq war started and why an Iran war will likely follow it.

5. “Sanctions Will Lead to War” by Trita Parsi

Trita Parsi generally writes well on Iran and I completely agree with his take that sanctions will probably do more to start war than prevent it with Iran. His logic makes sense; sanctions isolate a country and signal to it that it should prepare for war. Preparing for war makes war more likely. Parsi specifically uses the Iraq example (which we discussed here) and though analogies don’t always work, it probably does in this case.

6. “China’s Fast Growing Middle East Problem” by Michal Meidan

Michal Meidan describes the inevitable problem of China’s economic: soon it will start making enemies. As Meidan says, “as China’s commercial ties to the Middle East increase, it will inexorably become more involved in the region’s politics.” Thus any war with Iran will affect China, and China’s decisions will affect the outcome.

7. “Like U.S. Hezbollah Caught in the Middle of Israel-Iran Conflict” by Andrew Exum

Andrew Exum’s article describing how Hezbollah will be “caught in the middle” of an Israel and Iran war speaks to the difficulty of predicting how war will play out. Perhaps Hezbollah really will sit out of an Iranian counter-attack, severely diminishing one of Iran’s counter-strike options (and ironically diminishing one of the more commonly cited reasons for war). Or maybe it will launch missiles. In either case, a war with Iran is more likely to be messy and global than contained and localized in the Persian Gulf.

8. “This Week At War: Iran’s North Korea Scenario” by Robert Haddick

I don’t usually agree with Robert Haddick, but comparing Iran with North Korea might might make more sense than comparing Iran to Iraq, World War I or World War II, which I mentioned here. He paints a picture where sanctions cripple the economy, and Iran remains isolated. It therefore pursues nuclear weapons with even more vigor, while becoming a police state.

Jun 05

When Michael C told me about Molotov Mitchell and his video defending the Ugandan law to execute homosexuals, I kind of shrugged. I told him he was probably exaggerating. (A note on verbiage: Eric C and I stopped using the term “capital punishment” because we hate politically correct euphemisms.)

Then I watched the video.

The next morning I called Michael and told him that we had to write about this guy and this video. Instead of writing a dozen posts on this subject, we agreed to limit it to one post each, highlighting a handful of points. Here are my thoughts:

1. We refuse to debate the “Kill the Gays” bill.

As Raymond Gaita makes clear in this “Philosophy Bites” episode, you can judge a society by what it chooses to debate. Gaita made the point about torture, child abuse and slavery; we would extend it to killing homosexuals for their religious beliefs.

For us, a law that doesn’t just make it illegal to commit a homosexual act but makes it punishable by death is beyond the pale. We won’t discuss or debate it. Period. We will be a better society for it.

2. Christianity is, at its core, non-violent. Molotov Mitchell is not.

We grew up in Orange County. During our sophomore year of high school, the WWJD bands--acronymically asking, “What would Jesus do?”--became really popular. While a bit overly simplistic, the question can provide moral guidance.

Take, for instance, violence. Jesus constantly, consistently and thoroughly promoted non-violence, in both word and deed. (Though we’ve assiduously avoided discussing the issues of Christianity and violence so far on the blog, we’ll briefly touch on it here today.) Jesus lowered Peter’s sword and went willingly to his own torture and death. Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, that those who lived by the sword die by the sword, and to love our enemies. Jesus declared, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Most appropriately, Jesus stopped a crowd from stoning an adulteress to death, famously counseling, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Molotov Mitchell promotes violence, supports the Uganda “Kill the gays” bill, and teaches Krav Maga. His production company released a movie about killing abortionists in February. He savagely mocks and despises his enemies.

What would Jesus do? Nothing Molotov Mitchell does.

3. The scariest part? This guy is crazy charismatic.

Not to take this post off the rails, but watching one of Mitchell’s video, you understand how autocrats seize power. The style of the video, the soundtrack and video effects, and just sheer vocal charisma, Mitchell charms the viewer. You almost agree with him because of his rhetorical abilities. He should have a radio or TV show.  It wouldn’t surprise me if he becomes very popular and influential--in an Ann Coulter sort of way--in the future.

None of this changes the fact that his ideas scares the crap out of me.

4. Finally, can we stop citing Leviticus?

Twenty-nine seconds into this video, Mitchell says that the bible is anti-homosexual, and cites Genesis 9.6, Leviticus 20.13 and Exodus 22.19.  


Yes, people still cite the Old Testament to condemn homosexuality, and to be fair, the Old Testament is anti-homosexual. But it’s anti- a lot of things. Leviticus and Deuteronomy forbid the Israelites from...

...eating shellfish. (Actually, Michael C is allergic to shellfish so he’s cool with this rule, but I love shrimp, crab, lobster, prawns and oysters. Hell, I eat snails.)

...eating pork. (Hmm, bacon.)

...mixing meat with diary products. (And we love Beef Stroganoff! And cheeseburgers.)

...letting a man with a broken penis or testicles into church. (How do you find out?)

...wearing clothes made of wool and linen. (I’m doing it right now.)

...allowing Ammonites into church. (To be fair, no one does this anymore.)

And it allows slavery of non-Israelites, and the stoning to death disobedient sons, non-virgin brides and adulterers. Women are unclean after giving birth or having a period, and to atone for sins, you must sacrifice animals. Finally, you can’t shave. Leviticus 19:27, “Do not cut yourselves or shave the front of your heads for the dead.” And yet, pictured right here, Molotov Mitchell does not have a full beard. Uh oh!

Mitchell asks the viewer, in his video, to find the passage where Jesus abolished the law. And frankly, I don’t want to wade into thick, murky theological issues--we’ve mostly avoided this issue on the blog so far--but I will point out that if we have to execute everyone in America who doesn’t follow the laws of Moses, whose going to do it? (Makes you wonder, which executioner in Rwanda will “cast the first stone”?)

If only someone came to forgive us of our sins. And forgive those of others.

Jun 04

Recently, I saw the most offensive video I’ve ever seen posted on the interwebs. Andrew Sullivan’s provocatively--and accurately--titled, “Hipster Zealots” links to a video where a young man named “Molotov” Mitchell defends an Ugandan law that makes homosexuality punishable by death. (He also pulls off the rare  “use Martin Luther King Jr. to defend murdering people” trick.)

I called Eric C and told him that the video is literally the most offensive thing I have ever seen on the Internet. Oddly, “Molotov” is in good company; Socrates made the same argument.

Yeah, I’m going there. (Eric C plans to handle the rest tomorrow.)

At the end of the most offensive video on the Internet, the “hipster-Christian” Molotov Mitchell argues that if Ugandans (specifically, the gay Ugandans) don’t like the “kill the gays” bill, they can leave Uganda. In other words, if you don’t like a law, then you “can get the f*** out.”

Honestly, the idea that if you don’t like a law, you should just leave a country is nonsensical, impractical and simplistic. In fairness to Molotov Mitchell, my brother and I have made this same argument before, about immigration, except at the time we were...in middle school. And we hadn’t learned logic or rhetoric. And we were immature because most middle schoolers are...immature.

As tempting an idea as it is impractical, for the vast majority of the world, you can’t just pack up and leave your home country on a whim. Your home country, in most cases, speaks your native tongue; it’s your birth place; it’s usually the home of your family, your work; your whole life is your home country. People who leave their homeland tend to have extremely--extremely--compelling reasons to do so, and never do it lightly.

I know you are saying, “Go ahead. Connect this to Socrates.”

Well, Socrates made nearly the same argument in support of his own death. I’m not joking either. In the dialogue “Crito”, one of Socrates’ followers, the eponymous Crito, visits his teacher and asks him why he will let the Athenians kill him, telling Socrates they could escape and go live in Thessaly. Socrates counters that by coming to maturity and choosing to live in Athens, he accepted the rules of his home city. He abides by their rules, so he will follow the community, even in injustice. In other words, Socrates is saying, “If I didn’t like it, I should have gotten the f*** out.”

Though both Mitchell and Socrates (really Plato, who wrote the dialogue) make a bad argument, Socrates/Plato at least intended a positive message. Socrates advocates a sense of civic duty and civic engagement to change unjust laws, while “Molotov” Mitchell uses a silly argument to defend a terrible law that would immorally execute homosexuals.

More than anything, Socrates’ argument relies on an idealistic version of the world. Which makes me wonder...

1. If the world did operate like Socrates’ ancient Greece, would it be superior to the world we have now?

Imagine that all governments of the world could do/act whatever/however they wanted, with one enforced caveat: if someone wanted to leave your country, you had to let them. Further, whatever country they went to had to take them in.

Wouldn’t this destroy autocracies? I mean, who would stay in North Korea? “Brain drains” already cripple autocracies today. Imagine if countries had to essentially act like a “free-market” competing for people. It’s an impossible world, but would that be a better world?

2. If leaving your country shows the level of disgust with the political system, then Iraqis sure hated post-invasion Iraq.

In post-invasion Iraq, people voted with their feet. Millions of Iraqis fled as refugees, many of whom will never return. If we accept that people will not leave their country unless they really, really have to, then why did so many Iraqis leave after the U.S. invaded, but not before? The massive exodus of people before, during and after the Iraq War shows that the people of Iraq hated the U.S. occupation.

In math terms, post-invasion Iraq < Saddam-era Iraq.

3. I still don’t see how opposing homosexuality jives with libertarian politics.

That’s my whole comment. Molotov Mitchell supports both the Tea Party and this “kill the gays” law, which just confuses me, since the Tea Party claims to want the government out of our lives. I think the easier explanation is this one from Foreign Affairs: the Tea Party is formed mainly from members of the Religious Right, not libertarians.

4. Christians should not endorse this policy.

I mean for practical, not religious reasons. From Nigeria to Pakistan, fundamentalists of other religions have oppressed Christians. (See this Economist article on it or this NPR article on Indonesia.) Should the same advice apply to the Christians? If you don’t want the state or vigilantes to murder your family for their religious beliefs, then get the f*** out? Of course Molotov Mitchell wouldn’t agree to that proposal.

5. Mitchell’s beliefs could end partisan gridlock in America.

If Mitchell follows his own advice. See “Molotov” really hates a lot of things about America like the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), all democrats and social security. Well, Molotov, if you don’t like it, why don’t you “get the f*** out!”

You don’t like gays either? Why don’t you move somewhere else that shares your irrational hatred?

I hear Uganda is nice this time of year.

May 21

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

Whether or not the U.S. decides to attack Iran--or whether it supports Israel in a similar attack--boils down to which historical analogy we (or the decision-makers) choose to frame the situation.

Unfortunately, if we go by the current debate, only two analogies matter: the war in Iraq and the appeasement of Nazi Germany.

Analogy 1: The Iraq War.

Based off faulty and scant evidence, the Bush administration invaded Iraq, overthrew Saddam Hussein, and spent eight more years trying to reestablish order. Skeptics of war with Iran--like myself--point to the horrendous disaster of intelligence that led to war with Iraq and ask, “Again?”

Iran seems eerily similar: the same warnings about “weapons of mass destruction”...the same warnings about Iranian involvement with terrorist organizations...the same warnings about crazed, unreliable, irrational dictators who do not listen to reason (War hawks have repeated this last point going back to the Cold War and the leaders of the U.S.S.R. and China, but don’t worry about that now.)...the same “failure” of the U.N. to handle the country in question...the same worries about how war will affect gas prices or stability in the Middle East.

Except that the differences loom just as large: Iraq was a secular government headed by the religious minority; Iran is a religious theocracy led by the majority. Inspectors could not verify in any way if Iraq had a nuclear or biological or chemical weapons program; the world knows that Iran has a nuclear energy program, just not if Iran has a nuclear weapons program, a crucial distinction. Iraq has 30 million people and is about the size of California; Iran has nearly 80 million people and is about the size of Alaska.

Iran will probably fight the U.S. much harder than Saddam Hussein’s forces, but Iran also has a nuclear program, something Hussein didn’t even have. In other words, the consequences of inaction or action with Iran are higher than they ever were with Iraq.

If America decides to go to war with Iran--with all the terrible consequences that will entail--the analogy of our previous failure in the Middle East doesn’t really matter; it will be a bad decision on its own.

Analogy 2: The appeasement of Adolf Hitler by Neville Chamberlain.

Ah, Chamberlain, the most vilified Briton in the 20th century. The analogy goes--and war hawks make it relatively easily--that appeasing Iran will lead directly to World War III. In the most worrying association with World War II, the end result is not a long bloody war like World War II, but a nuclear holocaust over Israel which will certainly happen--the arguers say--if the world negotiates with Iran.

But I mean, rational debaters in America wouldn’t just casually throw out this accusation against Barack Obama willy-nilly, would they?

I won’t even try to torture out similarities between Iran/Germany and Barack Obama/Chamberlain. Instead, the gaping chasms of differences stand out. Germany spent the years before World War II building up its military and taking territory. Iran’s military cannot, according to Anthony Cordesman and any coherent military observer, conquer any nation around it. Moreover, if Iran attacked Israel, Israeli submarines would fire nuclear weapons back in retaliation, destroying Tehran and countless other cities. America looms over Iran like a thousand Englands facing Germany.

So which analogy should we choose?

Easy. Neither.

I agree with George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Not a quote behaving badly...if you cite Santayana.) But “the past” or its paraphrase “history”, have many more examples than World War II and Iraq. Iraq wasn’t the first time America went to war for bad reasons. Think the Vietnam War, the Spanish-American war, the Mexican-American War, or World War I. Hitler isn’t history’s only appeased dictator, merely history’s current personification of evil.

Instead, the comparisons with Iraq or Chamberlain turn these historical analogies into anecdotes, paralyzing the debate with emotionally charged connections. As I said above, we don’t need historical analogies when it comes to Iran: going to war will be a terrible decision all on its own.

Apr 20

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

I generally agree with Michael Rienzi, who writes “If this war were to ever to take place, it would be conducted mostly from the air and sea, something the Iranians fully understand.”

That said, I’m going to devote fewer words to Iran’s response to our air campaign than any other domain. Having made that analysis themselves, the Iranians long ago chose to devote their resources to naval warfare, the domain with the biggest bang (dead U.S. sailors) for Iran’s buck (a rial). (I touched on my skepticism about air power’s ability to destroy Iran’s nuclear program here.)
Let’s start with air defense. Suffering from a broad arms embargo by Western nations, and since Russia doesn’t support proxies like it used to, Iran’s air defense weapons have withered. Anthony Cordesman, take it away:

“Iran has extensive surface-to-air missile assets, but most are obsolete or obsolescent. All of these systems are poorly netted, have significant gaps and problems in their radars and sensors, and are vulnerable to electronic warfare. Once again, Russia is Iran’s only current potential source of the modern weapons Iran needs, and it would take major deliveries of a new integrated air defense system based around the S-300 or S-400 surface-to-air missile to change this situation.”

Despite Anthony Cordesman’s doubts, the U.S. Air Force still worries about Iranian air defenses. In a post about the Air Force’s desire for a new long range bombers on Time's “Battleland”, General Norty Schwartz specifically mentioned Iran’s improvements to their anti-air weapons. This article by On V fav David Axe quotes Jamie Morin, an Air Force assistant secretary, saying that air defense technology is, “proliferating very rapidly” and “widely available and comparatively cheap.” On the one hand, defense experts doubt Iran’s abilities to down U.S. aircraft, and the Pentagon generally believes it would triumph easily in an Iranian campaign, but the U.S. Air Force still worries about the threat Iran poses. (Hmm. I smell weapons acquisitions...)

The bottom line on Iran’s air defenses: the U.S.S.R. at the height of the Cold War this is not. Iran has invested heavily in ground-based air defense, but not enough. The equipment it has, it cannot repair. Its long range surface-to-air missiles will remain a threat, and could down several aircraft, but can’t fundamentally defeat the U.S., or kill nearly as many people as a destroyed/sunk U.S. capitol ship. Iran will keep investing in air defense weapons, but will lag behind the U.S. for years/possibly forever.

(Iran could use Man Portable Air Defense (MANPAD) surface-to-air missiles (SAM)--think Stingers, but made in Russia--in a proxy fight against America as I addressed two weeks ago or in the case of a U.S. ground attack. Unfortunately, only an invasion could tell whether or not they have learned enough to really hamper an armed invasion.)

The Iranian Air Force fares even worse. Weapons embargoes have prevented it from modernizing, and Iran’s Air Force struggles to keep the planes it does have flying. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Air Force has scant support compared to the IRGC Navy, and focuses on unconventional capabilities like UAVs, not fighter planes.

While a war with Iran will start at sea and from the sky, I believe Iran cannot stop a U.S. aerial bombardment. With a thorough “wild weasel” or “suppression of enemy air defenses” mission, U.S. planes could fly with near immunity. So here are the possible courses of actions and outcomes:

Best Case: We don’t lose a single aircraft.

Worst Case: Iranian surface-to-air missiles and radar technology have increased considerably as Iran tries to build its own weapons. Iran successfully shoots down several American or Israeli aircraft. About a 2-5% possibility.

Most Possible Deadly Option: Iran shoots down a single aircraft, like an F-15 or F-16. (What about our F-22? Could it crash? In an ironic twist of Pentagon purchasing, the second most expensive plane in the Air Force arsenal, the F-22, hasn’t flown a combat mission in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, and it probably wouldn’t in Iran either. F-15s and F-16s cost less to fly, and they can hit ground targets the F-22 can’t. Why do we build planes we refuse to fly?)
Most Costly Option: Somehow a B2 bomber malfunctions over Iran and crashes. Iran inevitably gives credit to its air defenses. This scenario will remain shrouded in secrecy for decades.

Most Likely Option/The Fog of War: In all honesty, planes crash all the time. Combat jets even more often. With multiple sorties on many more targets than Iraq, the odds of a few planes critically malfunctioning could happen. This happened during Libya remember.

One final question, can the combined U.S. and Israeli mission wipe out the Iranian nuclear capability in a two week period? (My guess for the “over/under” Las Vegas would set for the campaign.) That I don’t know.

Bonus Thought:

While Iran cannot currently challenge U.S. hegemony in the air, I know how another super power could:

Build cheaper planes, and build a lot of them.

Much like the U.S. Army out-built the Germans during WWII--four or five Sherman tanks for every Tiger tank--if China wanted to defeat the U.S. it would do this. China would build twenty (or more) cheap airplanes for every U.S. F-22. Then, if it came to an air war China would simply outnumber America in the sky. But Iran cannot hope to employ this strategy, because it doesn’t have the money.

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.