After a decade of exhausting and demoralising conflict between the United States and two of the weakest, most impoverished countries in the world, Iraq and Afghanistan, many within the US political establishment are calling for the country to engage in yet another conflict; this time with a relatively powerful enemy in Iran.
In the past week alone, top Republican figures such as John McCain and Joseph Lieberman have called for increasing belligerence towards the Iranian regime, bringing the two countries closer to the brink of armed conflict.
The heightening standoff with Iran over its nuclear programme, curious in itself for its recent rapid escalation given that leading American and Israeli intelligence estimates have both concluded that Iran has neither developed nor is planning to develop nuclear weapons, is leading to increasingly belligerent rhetoric out of Washington calling for war with Iran.
Leading members of the House and Congress from both parties as well as the closest advisers to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney have called for attacking Iran, with some high-ranking GOP advisers even suggesting that the time is now for a Congressional resolution formally declaring war on the country.
Romney and many other leading Republican figures have called for pre-emptive war against Iran, and have continually upped the ante in terms of threats of military action throughout the election campaign. This alarming and potentially highly consequential rhetoric is occurring in a context where the American people are still recovering from the disastrous war in Iraq and winding down the US occupation of Afghanistan, while at the same time coping with the worst economic drought since the Great Depression.
Public statements claiming that the extent of the conflict would be limited to targeted airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities are utterly disingenuous, ignoring the escalating cycle of retribution that such “limited” conflicts necessarily breed. As did the war in Libya start off with calls only for a benign “no-fly zone” to protect civilians and seamlessly turned into an all-out aerial campaign to topple Muammar Gaddafi, any crossing of the military threshold with Iran would also likely result in a far bigger conflagration than the public has been prepared for by their leaders.
War with Iran would be no quick and clean affair, as many senior political and military figures have pointed out it would make the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which cost trillions of dollars and the lives of thousands of soldiers and civilians, seem like “a cakewalk”.
The fact that it is becoming increasingly likely, inevitable in the eyes of many, and that it is high on the agenda of so many leading political figures warrants exploration of what such a conflict would really entail.
Conflict on an unprecedented scale
Not a war of weeks or months, but a “generations-long war” is how no less a figure than former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy describes the consequences of open conflict with Iran. In comparison with Iraq and Afghanistan, both countries with relatively small populations which were already in a state of relative powerlessness before they were invaded, Iran commands the eighth largest active duty military in the world, as well as highly trained special forces and guerilla organisations which operate in countries throughout the region and beyond.
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Retired US General John Abizaid has previously described the Iranian military as “the most powerful in the Middle East” (exempting Israel), and its highly sophisticated and battle-hardened proxies in Lebanon and Iraq have twice succeeded in defeating far stronger and better funded Western military forces.
Any attack on Iran would assuredly lead to the activation of these proxies in neighbouring countries to attack American interests and would create a situation of borderless war unprecedented in any past US conflicts in the Middle East.
None of this is to suggest that the United States would not “win” a war with Iran, but given the incredibly painful costs of Iraq and Afghanistan; wars fought again weak, poorly organised enemies lacking broad influence, politicians campaigning for war with Iran are leading the American people into a battle which will be guaranteed to make the past decade of fighting look tame in comparison.
A recent study has shown that an initial US aerial assault on Iran would require hundreds of planes, ships and missiles in order to be completed; a military undertaking itself unprecedented since the first Gulf War and representative of only the first phase of what would likely be a long drawn-out war of attrition.
For a country already nursing the wounds from the casualties of far less intense conflicts and still reeling from their economic costs, the sheer battle fatigue inherent in a large-scale war with Iran would stand to greatly exacerbate these issues.
Oil shocks and the American economy
The fragile American economic recovery would be completely upended were Iran to target global energy supplies in the event of war, an act which would be both catastrophic and highly likely if US Iran hawks get their way. Not only does the country itself sit atop some of the largest oil and natural gas reserves on the planet, its close proximity to the shipping routes and oil resources of its neighbours means that in the event of war, its first response would likely be to choke off the global supply of crude; a tactic for which its military defences have in fact been specifically designed.
The Strait of Hormuz, located in the Persian Gulf is the shipping point for more than 20 per cent of the world’s petroleum. Iran is known to have advanced Silkworm missile batteries buried at strategic points around the strait to make it impassable in the event of war, and has developed “swarming” naval tactics to neutralise larger, less mobile ships such as those used by the US Navy.
While Iran could never win in straightforward combat, it has developed tactics of asymmetrical warfare that can effectively inflict losses on a far stronger enemy and render the strait effectively closed to naval traffic.
The price of oil would immediately skyrocket, by some estimates upwards several hundred dollars a barrel, shattering the already tenuous steps the US and other Western economies are taking towards recovery. Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has said a war with Iran could drag out years and would have economic consequences “devastating for the average American“; but these facts are conspicuously absent in public discussion of the war.
Every conflict has blowback, but if US politicians are attempting to maneouver the country into a conflict of such potentially devastating magnitude, potentially sacrificing ordinary Americans’ economic well-being for years to come, it would behoove them to speak frankly about these costs and not attempt to obfuscate or downplay them in order to make their case.
Conflict across borders
Finally, a war with Iran would be not be like conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya where the fighting was constrained to the borders of the country in question. Despite widespread resentment towards the country due to the perception of it as a regionally imperialist power as well sectarian animosity towards it as Shia Muslim theocracy, Iran maintains deep links throughout the Middle East and South Asia and can count on both popular support as well as assistance from its network of armed proxies in various countries.
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In a report for Haaretz, Ahmed Rashid noted that an attack on Iran would likely inflame anti-American sentiment throughout the region, across both Shia and Sunni Muslim communities. Despite Iran’s poor human rights record and bellicose leadership, polls have consistently shown that Iranian and Iranian-backed leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Nasrallah remain among the most popular figures throughout the Arab and Muslim world.
This popularity comes not necessarily out of respect for Iranian ideology, but from a perception that Iran is the only assertive power in the region and is the target of aggression from the United States and its allies.
In Rashid’s analysis, both the Middle East and South Asia would become unsafe for American citizens and their interests for years to come; popular anger would reach a level which would render these area effectively off-limits and would cause grave and immediate danger to both American businesses and troops based in the region.
Again, this would be a situation quite different from the other wars of the past decade, fought against isolated regimes without the ability to call upon large and often well-funded numbers of regional sympathisers; a fact also rarely mentioned by war advocates.
Not a political game
Going to war with Iran would be an elective decision for the United States, but it is for too grave and consequential a choice to be left up to the whims of politicians seeking to win the approval of lobby groups and one-up each other to appeal to influential campaign donors who would like to see a war with Iran.
Make no mistake, the possibility of war is very real and has become eminently more so in recent months. Many of the same politicians and political advisers responsible for engineering the Iraq War have returned to public life and are at the forefront of pushing a new American conflict with Iran.
Mitt Romney’s closest foreign policy advisers include leading hawks from the war with Iraq, including John Bolton, Eliot Cohen and Dan Senor. Many of them have enthusiastically and publicly expressed their desire to engineer a US military confrontation with Iran and have already begun to tout the inevitability of this action in a Romney presidency.
What few figures on either end of the political spectrum are doing however is giving Americans an honest picture of what such a war would mean for them and their future. Not coincidentally, some of the leading voices against military escalation with Iran have come from high-ranking figures within the US military, including even the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey who has expressed his desire that the US not be “complicit” in any attack against Iran.
This reticence is reflective not of goodwill towards the Iranian regime, but of a recognition that such a war would be catastrophic to American interests and would have serious implications for continued global stability. Americans are being goaded and misinformed by cynical political maneouvering which is attempting to steer them into another disastrous and assuredly bloody war for the sake of interest group politics and short-term political expediency.
If there is to be another pre-emptive war of choice, this time with Iran, American politicians must openly and honestly acknowledge what this would mean for Americans and for the world and allow them to make their decisions thusly.
War is never a choice to be taken lightly, but the potential consequences of a war with Iran would be unprecedented – the dangerous game being played at present by many US politicians is one which could take Americans down a ruinous path without their informed consent.
As the rhetoric continues to dial up, it must be remembered that this is an issue bigger than politics and it is the pressing interest of the American people that it be treated as such.
Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst, his work has appeared at Salon.com.