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Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?

(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?

three comments

Nicely done series so far. Two things, are you guys going to make any guess as to whether strikes on Iran will unify the Iranian people behind a regime they otherwise dislike? Does it strike you that the various pundits etc don’t seem to recognized the existence of emotion when they evaluate what Iranian reactions to a strike will be? You mention the schizoid attitude toward the Iranians but I never see anybody mention that the average Iranian is likely to get simply thoroughly pissed off if we drop bombs on their heads.

We will write about that subject, but not in the next few weeks. I really want to just describe the Iranian response, because the larger media narrative almost completely ignores the Iranian military. So this week and next we will look at the Iranian responses in naval, air, proxy wars, terrorism, and escalating the conflict.

Once we finish all that, then I will probably look at the terrible idea of regime change. As for emotions, we started a whole series last December on how important emotions are. As one of your earlier comments said, “Kill the Right People”. If the Iranian perceive we are killing the wrong people, and it is hard to see how that wouldn’t apply to everyone in Iran, they will rally against America. Also, everyone talks about how isolated Bushehr/Natanz are. Well one facility, the Tehran University center, is in the middle of Tehran. Hitting that facility means dead civilians, and of course Iranians will rally against America. (Which increases the chances of suicide attacks, which are a very dangerous option.)

@ Carl – I think, as far as regime change or invasion or other options, the question of how Iran’s public responds will be a pretty big deal.

From what I’ve learned, and I’m not nearly as studied on this as Michael C, a great many Iranians support the Iranian regime. One of the reasons the Green Revolution didn’t take place is that a lot of people didn’t support the revolution.

I’d be really interested in seeing what the Iranian people, especially the young people, think.

And on the whole, you’re right: people hate countries that bomb them.