Joshua Muravchik’s March 15 op-ed, “War is the only way to stop Iran,” was beneficial in two ways. It clarified the likely alternative to the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program, and it gave the Iranian side an alternative to contemplate as it approaches the talks’ endgame. It might even help yield a better deal.
But that’s where the value of Muravchik’s assessment ends — because unfortunately, it also glossed over the probable impact of a war with Iran.
At least Muravchik is consistent. He wrote a similar piece, headlined “Bomb Iran,” for the Los Angeles Times in 2006, in which he argued that the West would never impose tough sanctions on Iran. Well, it did, and those sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table. If the current negotiations fail or Iran cheats on a deal, war might well result. But the United States must be clear-eyed about what that would mean.
If the United States attempts to destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity by air, the mission would not be like Israel’s 1981 single-day strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor. A U.S. attack would have to target multiple complexes, and planners would need to prepare the battlefield by destroying air defense radars, interceptors and much of Iran’s air force. Such an operation could require hundreds of sorties over several days.
Iran would probably respond by threatening shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, potentially touching off a global oil crisis. The U.S. Navy would be forced to patrol the Persian Gulf and possibly undertake a lengthy operation to destroy Iran’s navy and its arsenal of anti-ship cruise missiles.
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. 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. Such escalation is not a certainty, but it is a real possibility.
The diplomatic and political consequences could also be severe. The United States is already at war with the Sunni-led Islamic State, an effort that the Iranians are supporting; Muravchik’s path would have us at war with the major Shiite state as well. Additionally, our European negotiating partners could cry foul. The British, French and Germans would be unlikely to support military action unless they were convinced that Iran — and not the United States — scuttled the negotiations and also that Iran was on the verge of attaining a nuclear weapon. NATO could emerge fundamentally weakened just as maximum unity was needed to confront Russian aggression.
And, not incidentally, the Iranian people, many of whom are modernizers and relatively friendly to the United States, would surely turn against us. Ordinary Iranians took to the streets and shook the theocracy in 2009; in 2013, they elected the most moderate government that Iran has had since its revolution. War would marginalize this force for change for years.
War with Iran is not out of the question. A nuclear Iran could be a more aggressive Iran; the regional nuclear proliferation that would follow could cause grave instability. But war must be a last resort. Sugarcoating its consequences does no one any favors.
Hans Binnendijk is a fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. From 1999 to 2001, he served on the National Security Council staff as special assistant to the president and senior director for defense policy and arms control.