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2 Prospects of war with Iran
clouded By Brian Downing
The escalation of tensions in the Persian
Gulf and attendant positioning of military assets
in the region gives the impression that war is all
but inevitable. Machinery is in gear and turning
faster and faster by the day, as it was in the
lead-up to the Gulf wars of 1991 and 2003.
The decision to go to war, though
ultimately resting with President Barack Obama, is
a complex and arcane process involving the US
public, congress, the military, allied
governments, and the president's advisers. Some of
those groups are active participants, others
Combining the apparent
positions of these various groups does not show a
strong consensus either for going to war or
remaining with sanctions. And so a war between the
US and Iran is not the
forgone conclusion it is
often assumed to be.
public The American people have been a vast
reservoir of support for war since the shining
victory of World War II ended long-standing
isolationist traditions and enduringly alloyed
military action with the ideals of American might
and virtue. Paradoxically, in 1945, just as Europe
had wearied of armed conflict and foreign
involvement, the US was romanticizing them and
making them integral parts of the national
identity and economy.
This reservoir of
war romanticism has known shortage, as in the
years after Vietnam and at the height of the Iraq
insurgency. Today, the military budget is
beginning to be seen as burdensome and the war in
Afghanistan drags on without signs of progress.
The appeal of war is weaker than in the heady days
after the 9/11 attacks, but it remains at
abundant, exploitable levels.
parts of the American media and political system
have been making the case for war over the last
several years - quite insistently in the last few
months. Large parts of American radio and
television are devoted to hawkish, populist
messages disparaging liberalism in general,
Obama's inattention to foreign dangers, and
warnings of the danger in Iran's nuclear program.
Some sources all but demand air strikes on Iran.
In the conservative GOP presidential
primaries, most candidates endorse a tough stance
against Iran, though naturally enough they are
reluctant to specify precisely what that stance
would be and what it would lead to. They are not
disposed to clarity on even so grave an issue.
Ron Paul, a maverick libertarian,
vehemently opposes any hostile action against
Iran. Indeed, he is opposed to America's global
presence in general. His respectable showing in
the primaries, however, is based more on his
demonstrated opposition to government spending
than to his neo-isolationism, which at present
resonates only faintly among conservatives and
only somewhat more so in the general public.
Audiences are not apprised of likely
consequences of such air strikes - or of ongoing
assassinations and bombings inside Iran, for that
matter. Nor is there mention of less inflammatory
evaluations by members of the Israeli military and
intelligence service who question Iran's threat as
a nuclear power.
Popular support for war
with Iran, nonetheless, is at present not robust.
Lingering animosity over the long embassy crisis
of 1979-80 is not strong and the argument of an
endangered Israel draws strong support only in
Polling questions and
responses vary with the skill and agenda of
pollsters. When given a choice between taking
action or not, respondents favor military action
by 54% to 38% - a narrow majority. However, when
respondents are graciously given continued
sanctions and diplomacy as an option, it is
favored by 65% of respondents and the military
option falls to 16%.
Lack of enthusiasm
does not imply significant opposition. After all,
even at the height of the Iraq insurgency
opposition was limited to occasional speeches in
congress and several gatherings devoted to a
number of causes of little relation to the war.
Americans today are preoccupied with personal and
familial matters amid hard times and are unlikely
to mount serious opposition to an impending or
Inasmuch as any attack on Iran
is thought to take the form of air strikes and not
involve ground troops, war would be seen by many
Americans, at least at its outset, as a quick and
almost costless effort from which Iran will emerge
chastened and the US strengthened.
congress The political system has not yet
come to any full discussion of the Iran situation.
With the exception of occasional stern comments
from committee chairpersons, congress has only
looked on as stances harden and troops move into
The absence of debate as war clouds
build is hardly surprising. Congress, though
empowered by the Constitution with control over
going to war, largely ceded that power to the
White House long ago.
Congress is not
getting any strong signal either way from the
public. This leaves the matter of influence in the
hands of think tanks, which shape opinion and are
typically supportive of interventionism, and
lobbying organizations, which are typically
supportive of Israeli and Saudi interests. The
Iranian nuclear issue has brought Israel and Saudi
Arabia, historical adversaries, into a strange but
redoubtable partnership whose influence in
congress will be felt as the crisis builds.
Signs are already evident. Over the last
three years, congress has doggedly pressed Obama
for tougher sanctions and shorter deadlines for
talks. These were more than simply bluster; they
aimed to force the president into a sterner
approach to Tehran. A recent vote on firmer
sanctions on the Iranian oil and financial sectors
passed the House by a vote of 410 to 11 - an
astounding margin rarely seen since Pearl Harbor.
Handling of the Iran matter will likely
build as the November elections near and campaigns
become more contested and costly. Should there be
a vote on military action against Iran, it will
take place amid anxious electoral competitions not
given to thoughtful consideration of foreign
The military While
priding itself on being apolitical, the military
has over the years been supportive of foreign
policies that allow it to practice its craft and
justify its budgets. As spending cuts loom for
years to come, the military will wish to
demonstrate its importance to national security
and world affairs.
A recent Centcom
commander, Admiral William Fallon, famously voiced
his opposition to attacking Iran. However, that
was in 2007 as the Iraq insurgency was at its
deadliest and institutional mistrust of
neo-conservative foreign policy was strongest.
Iran, Fallon knew, could direct Shi'ite militias
to strike back hard against US troops in Iraq and
increase casualties sharply.
still retaliate against US troops in Afghanistan,
but US troops are out of Iraq and the neo-cons are
out of office. No flag officer has opted to repeat
Fallon's public stand against attacking Iran, and
US assets continue to move into the Gulf region.
Institutional support for war will be
strongest in the navy and air force. Thus far in
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan they have played
only minor, subordinate roles. Providing air
support for an infantry company is most welcome to
the guys on the ground and constitutes a vital
part of war. To the navy and air force, however,
it reduces them to auxiliaries of the army and
Better there be a strategic
bombing campaign against air defense systems and
communication centers. Better there be
neutralization of enemy fighter aircraft, stealth
bombers hitting hardened targets, then on to
crippling the enemy's economic infrastructure and
supporting uprisings among oppressed peoples such
as the Kurds and Balochs.
The Pentagon is
not incautious here. They know that two or three
aircraft carriers are close to Iranian shores. One
or two will be in the relatively closed waters of
the Persian Gulf where they have less room to
maneuver and are especially vulnerable to Iranian
missiles, ships, and aircraft.
modelling of war with Iran has been sobering. In
addition to a wave of bombings and assassinations
throughout the region and perhaps inside the US as
well, an aircraft carrier could be lost to
"swarming" tactics by Iranian ships, planes, and
missiles. The US hasn't lost a carrier since World
War II and flag officers and statesmen alike must
know that the public reaction would be immediate,
unreasoning, and vengeful.
allies The American leadership will makes
its decision after careful discussions with key
allies in and out of the Gulf region. Many allies
are adamant in advocating war - or at least seem
to be. Others are more circumspect. Owing to new
fiscal and geopolitical realities facing the US,
the administration's deliberations will be more
mindful of allies' viewpoints and capabilities
than in previous years.
Several EU states,
especially Britain and France, oppose Iran's
nuclear program. They do not want to see another
nuclear power and are concerned that a nuclear
Iran could endanger the flow of Gulf oil upon many
EU states depend. Britain and France have been
prominent in the many rounds of diplomacy over the
years and have voted to boycott Iran's oil
beginning in July, but participation in a war is
quite another matter.