Unwarranted Hysteria: The Iranian Threat Is Inflated and Regional War Would Be a Disaster

"The declared policy of the United States should be the overthrow of the mullahs’ regime in Tehran. The behavior and the objectives of the [Iranian] regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself. And that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!"

~ National Security Adviser John Bolton, 2017

America’s president is being advised by unhinged warmongers. Pay attention, folks – war with Iran is what men like Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu want, and, it’s war they might just get; consequences be damned! With President Trump scuttling the Iran nuclear deal and threatening to impose new sanctions – against the advice of every major European ally – war seems like a genuine, if horrifying, possibility.

Here’s a prediction: (though forecasting is always a dangerous game) President Trump will strike some sort of deal with already nuclear North Korea, vie for a Nobel Peace Prize, and then unleash the U.S. and Israeli military on non-nuclear Iran. The results will be catastrophic.

Israel, no doubt, wants war with Iran, and just this past week blasted dozens of Iranian military sites in Syria. If Netanyahu and his far-right cabal in Tel Aviv want a disastrous, destabilizing war, then let them have it. The problem is that Bibi is counting on big brother Donald Trump and the US to back his play and join the fray. But that war, an American-Iranian conflagration, is not inevitable and ill-advised. The president, a man who ran on a platform of no new "dumb wars" – like the Iraq invasion – and ought to stick to his campaign pledge.

Here’s the bottom line: 1) Iran is neither the threat nor the monster it is billed as; and 2) The actual conduct and results of a major war with the Islamic Republic would be disastrous.

Let’s start with the purported threat of Iran. We are told that Iran is a regional ogre, bent on Mideast dominance and the creation of a new Persian Empire. It is staunchly dedicated to the absolute annihilation of the state of Israel. This all makes for excellent propaganda but is just empirically false!

Look, Iran is not a very open or transparent state. There’s no denying its flagrant human rights violations. Still, a little perspective is in order. Iran is far more democratic and open than Saudi Arabia – a US"ally" and one of the last absolute monarchies on earth. Iran, which is purportedly out to wipe Israel off the map, actually has a small but surviving and thriving Jewish community. Can the Saudis say the same? In fact, Iran even sets aside seats for one Jew and three Christians in its parliament. Non-Muslims are barely even allowed in Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, despite the ubiquitous (and disturbing) chants of "Death to America" in the streets, the Iranian population is actually younger, more educated, and more westward-leaning than other states in the region. Why alienate this potentially useful and growing portion of the Iranian populace by pulling out of the nuclear deal and threatening war? Indeed, America’s bellicose rhetoric is pushing Iran into the arms of Russia, a country that is not a natural ally of Iran and has a checkered history with the Islamic Republic. This is bad strategy!

The Iranians also have some genuine grievances. The CIA and M16 fomented a coup in 1953 to overthrow a democratically elected, nationalist prime minister and replaced him with a brutal autocrat. From 1980-88, the US supported Iraq’s invasion of Iran and provided Saddam Hussein with both intelligence and the supplies to produce chemical weapons.

Still not convinced? Well, let’s run through some hard facts and comparisons. Iran spends $11.5 billion on defense – that’s about the cost of a single American aircraft carrier (we have about a dozen, by the way). The US spends more on defense ($700+ billion) than the sum of Iran’s entire GDP ($427 billion). Besides, both the Israelis and Saudis spend more on defense and have more sophisticated militaries than Iran. Each could easily contain the Islamic Republic, or, in a worst case scenario, defeat it in outright war. Heck, Iran still has zero nuclear weapons – and no one ever seems to mention the elephant in the room: Israeli’s illegal (but existent) arsenal of a couple hundred nukes!

If Iran is such an aggressive menace, then why does the Pentagon’s own 2014 report admit that Iran’s military doctrine is essentially paranoid and defensive? These are the sort of facts that don’t make it into the mainstream, alarmist news cycle that perpetuates America’s forever wars.

OK, so Iran utilizes proxy forces to achieve its interests in its own neighborhood. So does the US, and America is thousands of miles away from the Mideast. Besides, the use of proxies by Iran is as much a sign of weakness as of military strength. It’s also exaggerated. For example, Iranian support for the Yemeni Houthi "rebels" is far less substantial than the Saudis would (conveniently) have us believe.

And, though the warmongers running the show in Washington love to declare Iran the world’s "biggest state sponsor of terror," that label is outdated and utterly incorrect. What about ISIS, an Iranian enemy, or Al Qaeda – also ideologically opposed to Tehran? Fact is, from 1975-2015, Iranian-born terrorists inflicted exactly zero deaths in attacks on US soil. Can we say the same about our Saudi frenemies? (Remember: 15/19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals…ouch)

Iran is no angel and must be balanced against and carefully observed. Diplomacy can do most of the hard work there. In actuality, the US and Iran have some (gasp!) common interests that a sober strategist might pursue. We both abhor ISIS and other transnational Sunni terror outfits and desire a relatively stable Afghanistan – which borders the Islamic Republic!

While Iran is no military behemoth, you can bet that an attack or invasion of the Islamic Republic would be a costly disaster, for the region and for the already overstretched US military.

The invasion of Iraq kept just about the entire US Army and Marine Corps busy, and fully committed, for nearly 8 years. By now that should be an incontrovertible fact. Here’s the problem: Iran would be even more difficult to invade and occupy. The Islamic Republic is larger, and more populous, mountainous, and fiercely nationalistic than Iraq.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, US military forces (including my units) got too used to uncontested entry to the theaters of war, often flying into Kabul or Kandahar on chartered civilian airliners. In case of a war with Iran that simply won’t work. Iran has invested heavily in Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) weapons which would create standoff and threaten incoming American ships and planes. It’s not that these defenses could not be overcome – they certainly could. Only the casualties would be significant. Iran also utilizes "swarms" of small patrol boats (often loaded with bombs) to overcome more advanced US Navy ships.

Need proof of the potential effectiveness of Iranian defenses? In 2002, the Pentagon put on a wargame, Operation MILLENIUM CHALLENGE, in which US forces practiced an invasion of country remarkably similar to Iran. The retired Marine General acting as the enemy leader, managed to stymie US invasion efforts and sink nearly an entire fleet in the exercise’s first iteration. The response of the military: to replace the general and rerun the game with a weaker enemy force. We military types don’t take well to bad news!

The bottom line is the US military would win a war against Iran. The problem is that the costs and casualties would be enormous and that the occupation would (history being any guide) undoubtedly result in a lengthy, bloody counterinsurgency. America’s All-Volunteer Force (AVF) is simply too small and overburdened to get the job done.

Think of what the US Army, in particular, is already doing: fighting hot wars in Somalia, Niger, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan; balancing against Russia in Eastern Europe; containing North Korea in East Asia; and all the while trying to rest, refit, and retrain after 17 years of ongoing warfare.

Ask yourself, is the risk of war with Iran either reasonably warranted, or worth the risks?

A prudent observer would undoubtedly think not, only we’re not led by judicious foreign policy strategists, now are we?

With all that said, allow me to get personal for a moment. I do not take the (modest) threat from Iran lightly. On January 25, 2007, two of my soldiers – Alex Fuller and Michael Balsley – were gruesomely killed on the streets of East Baghdad by what was most likely an Iranian-supplied explosive device. Sure, I could allow my emotions to rule and call for war – and I doubt anyone would blame me. Only serious analysts and powerful policymakers must make rational calculations, see the world as it is, and conduct tough cost-benefit analyses.

The evidence and the weight of history tell this author that Iran is not a clear-and-present danger to the United States and isn’t worth a preventive war’s cost in blood or treasure. Period.

Of course, the truth is, nothing I or other analysts write is going to influence Trump’s decisions on war or peace. War-making and overall foreign policy decisions are increasingly centralized in an imperial executive branch. The president and his unelected advisers will make their decisions and wield military power however they choose. Congress will neither be consulted nor take a stand. The system is broken.

Still, the time for critical discourse on the real and imagined threats before us is now! Americans must be citizens, assert themselves, and pressure the powerbrokers. Say it loud and clear: no more unnecessary, unwinnable wars!

Iran seems like easy target to the warmongers running the show in Washington. It has no nuclear weapons and is easily vilified. Only remember the last regime changes the US attempted, in Iraq and Libya. How did those turn out?

In Iraq, the US used ground forces to topple a dictator and then spent 15+ years trying to remake a society. The output was catastrophic.

In Libya, President Obama tried a new formula, and ousted a dictator – Gadhafi – without sticking around to rebuild the nation. The results there, too, have been calamitous.

Maybe external regime change itself is the problem. Perhaps, starry-eyed invasion fantasies are usually doomed from the start. Iran, at least, is neither a military powerhouse, nor is it a pushover. It is not a malevolent monster, and presents only the most tangential threat to the homeland.

So, before Americans acquiesce as another president moves our lionized soldiers around like so many pieces on a chessboard, let us ask if the reward is worth the risk. A look at recent history ought to tell the tale well enough: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria – these were all disastrous morasses.

Iran will make Iraq – which this president (rightfully) called "the worst foreign policy decision ever" – look like the "cakewalk" it was billed to be way back in 2003.

Then again, I might be wrong – perhaps the fifth time is the charm.

Are you ready to bet American lives on that?

Danny Sjursen is a US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]

Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen