Iran: the coming war

About the author

Dan Plesch is the author of America, Hitler and the UN (I.B.Tauris 2011) and The Beauty Queen's Guide to World Peace, (Politico's 2004) and Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London.

Do not be in the least surprised if the United States attacks Iran. Timing is an open question, but it is hard to find convincing arguments that war will be avoided, or at least ones that are convincing in Washington.

There are eight arguments currently in circulation. How do they stand up?

First, is it likely that Iran will “do a Libya” – open all its facilities to American and British intelligence officials and surrender any illicit weapons along with its missile programmes? Such a policy would command little support amongst the Iranian public, let alone within the political-religious leadership.

Also in openDemocracy on Iran and the United States:

Charles Grant, “Iran between worlds” (February 2004)

Charles V Peña, “After Baghdad, Tehran” (November 2004)

Paul Rogers, “America’s nuclear stealth war” (February 2005)

Paul Rogers, “Confident Iran” (March 2005)

Second, will the European Union succeed in brokering a compromise in which Iran fully satisfies the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors, the United States and Israel? Privately and not so privately, senior US officials – such as vice-president Dick Cheney, newly appointed undersecretary of state Robert S Joseph, and nominee for United Nations ambassador John Bolton – deride the EU’s efforts as futile.

Third, are the military obstacles too great to permit a successful US attack on Iran? This may turn out to be the case. However for Washington – and indeed for Israel – this conclusion is literally unthinkable.

The military strategy adopted under President Bush’s father, continued under President Clinton and accelerated under the current administration is based on the idea that the US should have “full spectrum dominance” of all aspects of warfare and be so far ahead that, in the words of the current national security strategy, any state will be “dissuaded” from even trying to compete.

An attack on Iran would have to take into consideration a number of risks. But from the perspective of those considering a military option, Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons merely makes all of these problems harder – and in that sense provides an additional argument for pre-emptive action.

Perhaps more importantly, none of the arguments made about the consequences of an attack on Iraq – whether or not they proved true – influenced the decision to go to war; some, such as the need to provide enough troops to prevent the outbreak of disorder, were simply ignored.

Fourth, it is sometimes claimed that the US does not have enough troops to attack Iran. But the US army is engaged in a reorganisation to provide more frontline forces from headquarters and training units, and in any case the US air force is wholly available for the task of blowing up Iran – and it was barely used in Iraq beyond the first few weeks.

Fifth, it is argued that the Iranians may have hidden their activities in inaccessible parts of their huge country. This is likely to be the case – though whether these are banned WMD programmes or permitted activities is an open question. However, as Seymour Hersh writes in the New Yorker, special forces are already in Iran preparing the target list. An aerial attack would not involve a ground invasion and would leave the Iranians to pick up the pieces.

Sixth, could the Iranians cause immense trouble with Iraq’s Shi’a community and through Hezbollah with Israel? Perhaps, but how much stronger would Iran’s hand be if it was believed to have nuclear weapons? Moreover, the Iraqi Shi’a did not collectively defect to Tehran’s side during the Iran-Iraq war, and may be more concerned to develop their own interests than to be drawn into a new war. The present US pressure on Syria in Lebanon is partly related to Syria’s alleged involvement with the Iraq insurgency, but it can also be seen as isolating Hezbollah and clearing the way for action against it, prior to or in conjunction with an attack on Iran.

Iran’s military has considerable experience drawn from the long war with Iraq in the 1980s. It has, no doubt, closely watched US military tactics around its borders. It certainly retains some options to launch counter-missile attacks on Israel, as well as at the US navy and US bases along the Persian Gulf – from Kuwait to Bahrain and the straits of Hormuz.

At the same time, the US armed forces have been preparing for this contingency for many years and it would be hard to be the military commander telling President Bush that Iran is just not “doable”. As the former counter-terror official Richard Clarke has written, a second-world-war-style advance by US armies to Tehran from the Gulf coast is not possible, but this is not part of the planning anyway. As John Pike of the indispensable globalsecurity.org puts it: “they think that they can just blow up what they want to blow up and let the ant-heap sort itself out afterwards.”

Seventh, wouldn’t a war with Iran cost too much and risk plunging the US into recession? US conservatives are quick to point out that as a percentage of gross domestic product, US military spending is barely half the Reagan-era peak of 6.5% of GDP; and of course, military spending is the one Keynesian tool of economic policy that conservatives permit themselves.

Eighth, would US public opinion and US politicians prevent the war? There are few who would come to the defence of what is widely seen as a fanatical religious state that repeatedly calls for the end of the state of Israel. As one of John Kerry’s staff said to me: “why do you disarmament advocates oppose our doing it militarily?”

So when might the attack on Iran occur? The Bush administration has, from its perspective, allowed the Europeans and the non-proliferation diplomats enough time to fail. They will certainly use the UN conference on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament from 2-27 May 2005 as an opportunity to grandstand.

For US domestic political purposes a “crisis” in spring 2006 when the EU and the UN can once more be confronted with their alleged failures, and challenged to support US leadership, would be timely for mid-term elections in which the ultra-conservative coalition will wish to consolidate its gains and eliminate any nascent moderate or realistic Republican candidate in good time for the 2008 presidential election. At present Senators Lugar, Hagel and McCain all see themselves as being able to exploit the president over his ideological policies.

For details of Dan Plesch’s work, and his book The Beauty Queen’s Guide to World Peace see his website

But surely in the aftermath of Bush’s kiss-and-make-up tour of Europe, this analysis is fanciful? Perhaps. One former British special forces officer told me that the visit frightened him more than anything he had seen in the last five years. Something like the Godfather’s last visit to an old family retainer on whom he has just put out a contract.