(This is an op-ed we tried to submit to the New York Times and Washington Post. For the full story, check out yesterday’s post. With the P5+1 agreeing to a deal on Iran’s nuclear program last week, war with Iran seems much less likely, so we are running the opinion piece here.)
Writing in the Washington Post on March 13, foreign policy analyst Joshua Muravchik told America that the only realistic option to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would be to bomb Iran. On March 26, former ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton repeated this argument in the New York Times, under the straightforward headline, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran”.
Neither man mentioned the primary cost America would bear in such a war: dead soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
While the US would very likely win a war with Iran, it could easily claim tens of thousands of American lives. Any advocates of war--from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Muravchik to Bolton--shouldn’t just talk about going to war; they should mention the cost, the likely thousands of dead Americans it could take to win. As a veteran who deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq and who knows that over 6,000 Americans died in those two fights, I don’t think this is too much to ask.
Yes, a war with Iran could claim thousands of U.S. lives. In August 2012, I published a paper called, “The Costs of War with Iran: An Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield,” where I used my experience as a former Army intelligence officer to describe the possible options available to Iran in a war with America. While Iran likely couldn’t “beat” the United States, Iran could kill large numbers of U.S. troops and civilians. It could do so in a matter of weeks. And this is something war-hawks never mention.
How could a war with Iran kill 10,000 US soldiers? After studying the U.S. for the last 30 years, Iran learned its lesson: anyone who fights America traditionally will lose. Iran will use asymmetric tactics, including cheap, light weapons to defeat more expensive, heavier conventional U.S. weapons, waging this war across multiple fronts. For example...
...Iran could sink a U.S. aircraft carrier. It learned during Operation Praying Mantis in 1988 that it has little hope of conventionally defeating the U.S. Navy. Instead, it will use shore-launched cruise missiles, fast attack boats, mini-submarines, torpedoes, mines and even suicide boats to cripple, set fire or sink as many American ships as possible. The IRGC Navy can’t beat the U.S. Navy, but it could inflict thousands of casualties in a few hours.
...Iran could fire ballistic missiles at our bases in the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Iraq. They could fire ballistic missiles at Israel or even southern Europe. Iran has the largest ballistic missile inventory in the Middle East. Most of these missiles aren’t very accurate, but they could still kill hundreds if they land in population centers or crowded military bases.
...Iran could launch terror attacks. Iran has funded irregular insurgent groups (like Hezbollah) around the world. It could encourage these types of forces to attack the Green Zone in Iraq, which still houses thousands of American diplomats and civilians. It could use proxies to wage a terror campaign across the Middle East. And, though I think it is unlikely, Iran could use proxies to try to attack Americans or Europeans on their home soil.
...and Iran could escalate the conflict. It could temporarily close the Straits of Hormuz, spiking gas prices. It could foment Shia revolts in Sunni dominated countries, like Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, causing unrest in oil producing nations.
But one option scares me above all else: if Iran provokes the U.S. to invade. Iran knows that an invasion will likely cause the most U.S. deaths since Vietnam. In both landmass and population, Iran is larger than Iraq and Afghanistan put together. Iran has better irregular forces than either of those two countries as well. In short, a ground invasion would quickly become a quagmire.
Anyone advocating for war should have to answer tough questions. I encourage every journalist from every network, from CBS to CNN to Comedy Central to ask the one tough question I implied above: how many lives will this cost? As a voting population, we deserve to know how many lives certain pundits and politicians are willing to sacrifice to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
In my analysis, I believe that every pundit advocating war should be prepared to say this statement, “I believe going to war with Iran is worth the cost of 10,000 American lives.” If they can’t say that, then they don’t have the strength of their own convictions.