Ground invasion of Iran is inevitable consequence of bombing campaign
An inevitable consequence of a military campaign to stop Iran's nuclear weapons program would be a prolonged ground campaign against Iran's formidable military to effect regime change, as well as a period of occupation and control.
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In theory, another military option exists: not drawing the line at an operation against nuclear sites in Iran, but carrying out a broad land-based assault aimed at overthrowing the Islamic regime in Tehran, as the United States did in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel certainly does not have this option, even in theory; in practice, however, the US does not have it either. Iran's physical expanse, its terrain, and the size of its population and army make a military campaign to conquer the power centers in Iran far more complex and difficult than in Iraq and Afghanistan. After becoming entangled in Iraq, it is doubtful the US administration would embark on a similar operation in Iran. At the same time, if the administration decides on a military strike against nuclear sites in Iran, it cannot be ruled out that in addition to nuclear targets, it will hit other strategic sites. This option is also restricted to the US; it is difficult to believe that Israel would be willing or able to use it on any measurable scale.
There's no good end state. Striking Iranian nuclear sites is like mowing the grass. Unless a strike succeeded in permanently crippling the Iranian capacity to produce and weaponize fissile material, the grass would only grow back again. And no strike -- or even series of strikes -- can accomplish this. Iran's hardened sites, redundancy of facilities, and secret locations present significant obstacles to a successful attack. Even in the best-case scenario -- an incomplete strike that, say, set back the Iranian nuclear program by two to three years -- the Iranians would reseed it with the kind of legitimacy and urgency that can only come from having been attacked by an outside power. Self-defense would then become the organizing principle of Iran's nuclear program; it would resonate tremendously throughout the Middle East and even in the international community. The counterargument of course is that the Israelis would cut the grass periodically, striking Iran every 18 months or so. But this situation is probably untenable; it would put Iran and Israel in a permanent state of confrontation and keep the region burning for years to come.
The reality, however, is that attacking Iran without provocation is a dangerous course. The arguments for avoiding military strikes are well known: deterrence10, while neither easy nor cheap, can work11; the costs12 of likely Iranian retaliation outweigh13 the likely benefits, perhaps markedly; and the United States (and its allies) have considered14 preventive attacks against adversary nuclear programs before, thought the better of it and come out tolerably.
But perhaps the most important argument against attacking Iran has received less attention. That is that none of the attack proponents can give a sensible answer to the question General David Petraeus posed at the beginning of the Iraq war: “How does this end?” Kroenig and other advocates for war note, correctly, that a strike against Iran16 could do substantial damage to Iran’s program. But they fail to explain how the United States will prevent Iran from simply restarting its program, this time in deadly earnest. Moreover, they don’t explain why such strikes won’t contribute to the immediate rallying of the Iranian people around the otherwise reviled regime.
Yet these questions need answers. If the United States strikes Iran and fails to follow up, Washington might delay Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, but it will give Tehran every incentive to reboot the program with greater vigor. This is not mere theorizing. After Israel’s much-lauded 1981 strike on Iraq’s Osirak plutonium-reprocessing facility, Baghdad redoubled17 its efforts to obtain a weapon, only failing to achieve its goal because its pursuit was cut short by Desert Storm. And the dogs that didn’t bark are perhaps even more illuminating; Washington considered preventive attacks on the Soviet, Chinese and North Korean nuclear programs but decided not to follow through. Such strikes were believed to be costly as well as ultimately futile and counterproductive.
There are two main schools of thought about how air strikes on Iran would work out. Most Americans seem to envision something cleanly surgical--a few days of bombing runs and then we get that "mission accomplished" banner out of the closet. A smaller number of Americans--notably including a lot of national security experts--realize that Iran would probably retaliate, possibly in ways that drew America into a sustained and even far-flung conflict. What too few people emphasize, it seems to me, is that these two scenarios don't exhaust the possibilities. Even if air strikes don't draw us into an instant conflagration, they could drag us into a long-term conflict with Iran that winds up with American boots on the ground. In fact, when you think about the military and political logic of the situation, the invasion and occupation of Iran is the most likely long-term outcome of bombing regardless of what happens in the short term. Among national security experts there is nearly universal agreement on the following: Bombing could set Iran's nuclear program back by one or two years, maybe even several, but it would also (1) remove any doubt in the minds of Iranian leaders about whether to pursue nuclear weapons; and (2) ensure that the Iranian nuclear program was revamped to resist future air strikes. And the new, more entrenched Iranian nuclear program wouldn't be the kind of thing that could be undone by a new generation of bunker-buster bombs. According to experts I've talked to, Iran would probably react to bombing not by burying its nuclear facilities deeper, but by dispersing them much more widely. They would be impossible to identify from the air and for that matter not readily identifiable from the street. Meanwhile, the international inspectors who now keep us apprised of Iran's nuclear status would be banned in the wake of air strikes. So even if we were willing to make additional bombing runs on an annual basis ("mowing the lawn," as some call it), we could never be confident that Iran wasn't producing a nuclear weapon. The only path to such confidence would be to invade the country and seize the instruments of state.
It has been the policy of U.S. presidents over the last three decades to state that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. Yet as Iran moves closer to achieving that goal, political leaders, including key Obama administration officials such as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, have begun to waver. They now speak more frequently about the potentially disastrous consequences of an Israeli or U.S. military strike on Iran's nuclear program than about the dangers of a nuclear Iran.
Matthew Kroenig thus deserves credit for advancing the argument that the repercussions of a military attack on Iran's nuclear program are a worthwhile risk, given the far more dangerous consequences of Iran getting the bomb ("Time to Attack IranTime to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option ." Foreign Affairs. Vol. 91, No. 1 (January/February 2012): 76-86. [ More (7 quotes) ]," January/February 2012). There are, however, problems with Kroenig's strategy for avoiding the nightmare scenario. Namely, a limited military strike would only be a temporary fix, and it could actually do the opposite of what it intends -- drive the program further underground and allow Iran to retain the ability to threaten the United States and its allies. "
If the United States seriously considers military action, it would be better to plan an operation that not only strikes the nuclear program but aims to destabilize the regime, potentially resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis once and for all.
Thanks to internal political developments and sanctions, the regime is at its weakest point in decades. But the international community is slowly exhausting the universe of palatable sanctions, and even the pressure brought to bear on Iran thus far has not caused it to halt its program. A limited strike against nuclear facilities would not lead to regime change. But a broader operation might. It would not even need to be a ground invasion aimed specifically at toppling the government. The United States would basically need to expand its list of targets beyond the nuclear program to key command and control elements of the Republican Guard and the intelligence ministry, and facilities associated with other key government officials. The goal would be to compromise severely the government's ability to control the Iranian population. This would require an extended campaign, but since even a limited strike would take days and Iran would strike back, it would be far better to design a military operation that has a greater chance of producing a satisfactory outcome.
The military option that is possible would be ineffective, while the one that would be effective is not possible. The military action that would work--an invasion of Iran--cannot be done, since America's volunteer army has already reached the breaking point in handling missions less challenging than subduing Iran would be. The only means of definitively preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would be occupying the country forever. This would ensure that the regime we install remains compliant with American judgments about what the country does or does not need for its own security in a dangerous neighborhood. One might note in passing that there is no reason to assume that the reformed Iraqi government the United States is struggling to stand up will not revive a nuclear weapons program if U.S. forces were ever to allow it genuine independence.
In return for all of these harmful effects, an attack on Iran would not even achieve the objective of ensuring a nuclear- weapons-free Iran. Only a ground invasion and occupation could hope to accomplish that, and not even the most fervent anti-Iranian hawks are talking about that kind of enormous undertaking. Panetta’s estimate that an aerial assault would set back the Iranian nuclear program by only one or two years is in line with many other assessments. Meanwhile, an attack would provide the strongest possible incentive for Iran to move forward rapidly in developing a nuclear weapon, in the hope of achieving a deterrent to future attacks sooner rather than later. That is how Iraq reacted when Israel bombed its nuclear reactor in 1981. Any prospect of keeping the bomb out of Iranian hands would require still more attacks a couple of years hence. This would mean implementing the Israeli concept of periodically “mowing the lawn”—a prescription for unending U.S. involvement in warfare in the Middle East.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Wednesday that while a military strike would cause a “setback” for any Iranian nuclear-weapons efforts, “it doesn’t prevent the reconstitution over time.”
So in planning for such a situation, the Pentagon has anticipated the possibility of an open-ended military operation against Iran if necessary to prevent nuclear-weapons development.
“The military option isn’t used once and set aside,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news briefing. “It remains in place, so we will always have options and the massive ordnance penetrator is just one of them.”
A single military strike “would only delay an Iranian drive” for “a finite period” so a credible “military option would have to envision a long-term campaign of repeated follow-up strikes as facilities are rebuilt or new targets identified,” Kenneth Katzman, Middle East analyst for the Congressional Research Service, said in an e-mail.
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A military attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure could set back the program, but probably not prevent its recovery, unless the attack were somehow to topple the Iranian government and bring a very different ruling group to power. A military strike carries significant political and military risks. If time bought by setting back the Iranian program through military strikes would be used to good effect -- that is, if in the interim other disputes in which Iran is directly or indirectly involved were solved, or if Iran became a liberal-democratic mirror image of a Western democracy, preventive attack might look attractive. But there is no reason to believe that this will be the case, and the reverse is more probable. Small or large attacks on Iran will inject energy into Persian nationalism, strengthen the regime's argument that the West is a threat, and leave Iran with a grudge that it may express by deepening or initiating relationships with other states and groups hostile to U.S. purposes. Even regional states with something to fear from a nuclear armed Iran probably would not welcome a preventive attack, simply because the region is already so roiled with violence, much of it attributed to mistaken U.S. policies.