The Cavalier Crusade for a War With Iran
Opposition to a nuclear deal just won’t go away — and it was always, in large part, about regime change
This story originally appeared on July 15, 2016.
One year ago, opponents of the Iran nuclear agreement blasted the landmark accord as ushering in the Apocalypse. They are still at it.
“After doing everything they could possibly think of to subvert and undermine the nuclear negotiations before their successful conclusion — even an outrageous letter urging Iranian leaders to listen to Republicans instead of our President, the Republicans today continue to refuse to accept peace as the better course to safeguard our families,” Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) warned during a House floor speech on July 12.
“Through today’s debate, they launch yet one more partisan attack on the successful Iran nuclear agreement. They have advanced more than 20 pieces of legislation to destroy this agreement.”
Why? What is behind these efforts? Partially it is pure politics, a continuation of efforts to block any advance by a Democratic president. But there are deep ideological forces at work here; a fundamental divide over whether U.S. national security interests are better addressed through diplomacy or war.
Members of Congress are egged on by fiercely ideological staff and a well-funded network of neoconservative organizations with a long list of grievances against Iran. To be sure, the United States and our allies will continue to have major issues with Iran. But whatever Iran’s role is in fomenting regional turmoil, one thing is certain: Iran will not have a nuclear bomb to back up its actions.
That threat has been removed for at least the next 15 years and, with hard work, forever.
Before the accord, Tehran could have produced enough material for a nuclear weapon within weeks. Now if Iran broke the agreement and sprinted to a bomb, it would take at least a year.
Iran has ripped out almost 14,000 centrifuges, filled the core of its plutonium reactor with concrete, shipped out all but a token amount of the tons of uranium gas it produced, and put itself under the most intrusive nuclear inspection regime on the planet.
Trita Parsi reminds us in a new Foreign Affairs article that:
Only four years ago, the Iranian nuclear program was consistently referred to as the United States’ number one national security threat. Senior U.S. officials put the risk of an Israeli attack on Iran at 50–50, a confrontation that the United States would quickly get dragged into. A war that was even more destabilizing than the Iraq invasion was not just a possibility; it seemed likely.
Today, that threat is gone. The crisis was solved, not through military force, but by diplomacy.
Seventy-five senior national security leaders recently wrote to Pres. Barack Obama lauding the success of the “landmark diplomatic agreement” formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA:
As a result of the JCPOA all pathways to an Iranian nuclear weapon have been blocked, thereby providing greater security to our friends and partners in the region and to the world … You have shown that well-conceived and tough-minded diplomacy can protect U.S. national security interests.
Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yalon said that Iran’s nuclear program:
has been frozen in light of the deal signed by the world powers and does not constitute an immediate, existential threat for Israel … At this point, and in the foreseeable future, there is no existential threat facing Israel. Thus it is fitting that the leadership of the country stop scaring the citizenry and stop giving them the feeling that we are standing before a second Holocaust.
But many of the die-hard opponents of the Iran agreement continue to try to “scare the citizenry.” That is because their fundamental goal was never to remove the threat of an Iranian bomb, but to remove the Iranian regime.
At top — an F/A-18F Super Hornet takes off from the carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf. U.S. Navy photo. Above — an AH-64 Apache takes off from the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf. U.S. Army photo
The peaceful resolution of this issue is a problem for them, not something to celebrate as the most significant non-proliferation victory in 25 years. No, for them, the nuclear issue was just the latest excuse to launch a war with Iran that many have championed for years.
Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol urged war with Iran in 2006, when Tehran had just a few hundred centrifuges spinning. He wanted the United States to overthrow the government of Iran as part of “the global struggle against radical Islam.”
In a column, “It’s Our War,” he urged America to back up Israel’s ill-fated military campaign in Lebanon by attacking Iran immediately.
The right response is renewed strength — in supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, in standing with Israel, and in pursuing regime change in Syria and Iran. For that matter, we might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will negotiate in good faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather than later. Yes, there would be repercussions — and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.
He was dead wrong.
Thankfully, the Bush administration did not listen to his advice. But when we and many others warned last year that deal opponents wanted war with Iran, we didn’t have to rely on years-old articles. Hawks were more than happy to call for military strikes. It was never about getting “a better deal.” War was always the goal for some.
Former Bush administration official John Bolton, one of the Iraq war’s biggest cheerleaders, said “if the real objective is stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, preemptive military action is now inescapable.”
Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz agreed, “if the objective remains preventing Iran from getting the bomb, the only way to do so is to bomb Iran.”
Former American Enterprise Institute fellow Joshua Muravchik — who predicted that invading Iraq would unleash a “democratic tsunami” through the Middle East — also wrote that we wouldn’t have to worry about Iran rushing to build a bomb after our first attack because “we can strike as often as necessary.”
In case this was too subtle, the former senior advisor to the Marco Rubio presidential campaign, Matthew Kroenig, devoted an entire book to the issue: A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat. He spun off a series of articles, including “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option,” and “Still Time to Attack Iran: The Illusion of a Comprehensive Nuclear Deal.”
Many of our most respected national security officials warned us of the dangers of this new war as clearly as they could.
Robert Gates, the former Secretary of Defense under both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said in 2012 that, “If you [thought] the war in Iraq was hard, an attack on Iran would, in my opinion, be a catastrophe.”
Amb. William J. Fallon, Sen. Chuck Hagel, Rep. Lee Hamilton, Amb. Thomas Pickering and retired Gen. Anthony Zinni added, “Without large numbers of troops on the ground, we doubt that U.S. military attacks from the air — even if supplemented by other means such as drones, covert operations and cyberattacks — could eliminate Iran’s capability to build a nuclear weapon, unseat the regime or force it to capitulate to U.S. demands.”
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen said that “it is worth remembering that any strike, even if successful, would by all accounts only delay a nuclear breakout capability by one to three years at most while fully galvanizing the Iranian people against the U.S. and in favor of developing nuclear weapons.”
Hawks tried to counter these seasoned veterans, casting a potential war with Iran as a strong, powerful and permanent solution — and promising it would be quick and easy.
“It would be something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox. Several days of air and naval bombing against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction facilities for exactly the same kind of behavior,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK) said, “All we’re asking is that the President simply be as tough in the protection of America’s national security interest as Bill Clinton was.”
The destroyer USS Sterett sails with British and U.S. mine-clearing vessels in the Persian Gulf. U.S. Navy photo
But even a limited strike by U.S. air and naval forces would have been a massive undertaking, according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
It is not a simple mission of bombers flying in and out of Iran, this is a complicated Offensive Air Strike that will involve many aircraft, each with its own role, such as Combat Aircraft whose role is to suppress enemy air defenses along the way, aircraft that fly fighter escort with the bombers, aircraft that carry specialized electronic warfare equipment to jam enemy radars and communications, plus probably air‐to‐air refueling along the way in and out of Iran.
depending on the forces allocated and duration of air strikes, it is unlikely that an air campaign alone could alone terminate Iran’s program. The possibility of dispersed facilities complicates any assessment of a potential mission success, making it unclear what the ultimate effect of a strike would be on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
In short, a quick and dirty limited strike that would roll back Iran’s nuclear program was a pipe dream. Zinni broke down the reality of a war with Iran for hawks back in 2009. He said:
After you’ve dropped those bombs on those hardened facilities, what happens next? What happens if they decide, in their hardened shelters with their mobile missiles, to start launching those? What happens if they launch them into U.S. bases on the other side of the gulf? What happens if they launch into Israel, or somewhere else? Into a Saudi oil field? Into Ras Laffan, with all the natural gas? What happens if they now flush their fast patrol boats, their cruise missiles, the [unclear] full of mines, and they sink a tanker, an oil tanker? And of course the economy of the world goes absolutely nuts. What happens if they activate sleeper cells? The MOIS, the intelligence service — what happens if another preemptive attack by the West, the U.S. and Israel, they fire up the streets and now we got problems. Just tell me how to deal with all that, okay?
Because, eventually, if you follow this all the way down, eventually I’m putting boots on the ground somewhere. And like I tell my friends, if you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you’ll love Iran.
This is the hard truth. This was the real choice.
“Iran would be unlikely to capitulate even with its air force and navy out of commission. It would probably turn to terrorism to strike at U.S. targets around the globe,” warned former National Security Council staffer Hans Binnendijk.
“If such attacks were successful, they would generate enormous public pressure to escalate the conflict, perhaps including demands for regime change in Tehran. That, in turn, could mean yet another U.S. ground war in the Middle East, this time against a nation of more than 80 million. As we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, the costs of such a conflict could be measured in decades, tens of thousands of U.S. casualties and trillions of dollars.”
But — and this is hard to believe — this is exactly the sort of conflict that hawks wanted.
“The inconvenient truth is that only military action … can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed,” John Bolton wrote. “Such action should be combined with vigorous American support for Iran’s opposition, aimed at regime change in Tehran.”
And therein lies the core of the Iran hawks’ vision. Continue the regime change plan they began with the Iraq War. The neoconservative vision has always been about using American military force to reshape the geopolitics of the Middle East.
They do not shirk from the costs of this strategy, though they rarely are as candid as Joshua Muravchik was when he asked in The Washington Post if war with Tehran really should be considered a viable alternative to a negotiated agreement:
Does this mean that our only option is war? Yes … Wouldn’t an attack cause ordinary Iranians to rally behind the regime? Perhaps, but military losses have also served to undermine regimes … Wouldn’t destroying much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure merely delay its progress? Perhaps, but we can strike as often as necessary … And finally, wouldn’t Iran retaliate by using its own forces or proxies to attack Americans — as it has done in Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia — with new ferocity? Probably. We could attempt to deter this by warning that we would respond by targeting other military and infrastructure facilities.
Nonetheless, we might absorb some strikes. Wrenchingly, that might be the price of averting the heavier losses that we and others would suffer in the larger Middle Eastern conflagration that is the likely outcome of Iran’s drive to the bomb.
So, there you have it. War, unceasing, open ended and without promise of achieving any concrete goals. War that would cost trillions of dollars and thousands of lives. This policy was, and is, promoted by the same people who claimed the U.S. military would be greeted in Iraq as liberators.
The Iraq War became the greatest military blunder in U.S. history. Why should anyone follow their advice again? Thankfully, the nation did not. They lost in their effort to launch another war. The world is safer for it.
Today, the nuclear accord struck between the world powers and Iran offers a tangible solution to Tehran’s nuclear ambition, without firing a single shot.
The deal is not a cure-all for our relations with Iran. It doesn’t halt their missile tests, their support for terrorism or their backing of the Assad regime. What it does is prevent them from developing a nuclear weapon, and it does that very well.
This deal is real. It is overwhelmingly supported by former generals, diplomats and other serious national security and foreign policy experts. The 75 security leaders who wrote their letter to Pres. Obama believe that now is the time to build on the nuclear success of the accord.
“The U.S. should develop policies that increase the chances of cooperation with Iran, minimize confrontation, and influence Iran’s actions in the region,” they said. “We acknowledge that opportunities will be limited for testing Iran’s willingness to work directly with the U.S. due to the political uncertainties in both countries in the coming year, but engagement should be the U.S. government’s long-term goal.”
Congressman Doggett agreed:
One year ago, America made a momentous decision concerning the best way to deal with Iran, a dangerous, authoritarian regime with a history of promoting terrorism. We made a choice between war and peace. After the colossal failure of the Bush-Cheney go-it-alone, war-of-choice in Iran; we wisely chose the path of diplomacy. Now one year after these difficult negotiations with Iran, we should recognize that success has been achieved. Even though we have not limited every danger of Iran, we have limited the most significant threat.
Diplomacy, the opposite of war, is hard to start and easy to end. Let us continue on this path more likely to keep our families safer, working to ensure Iran keeps its commitments as we keep ours.
“In the end, that should be a lesson that we’ve learned from over a decade of war,” Obama concluded. “On the front end, ask tough questions. Subject our own assumptions to evidence and analysis. Resist the conventional wisdom and the drumbeat of war. Worry less about being labeled weak; worry more about getting it right.”
The Iran accord is the most significant national security victory in a generation. Now is the time to build on this accomplishment and to “get it right” with the rest of the security agenda in the Middle East.
Joe Cirincione is the President of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @Cirincione. Geoff Wilson is the Policy Associate at Ploughshares Fund. Follow him on Twitter at @NuclearWilson.