Since launching www.TheRaceForIran.com, we have very rarely intervened in the comments that many of our readers have written with regard to our pieces. However, in response to the piece we published on May 25, “Obama Steps Up America’s Covert War Against Iran”, one reader seemed to misconstrue passages from one of our previous articles regarding Iranian military capabilities and the consequences of a prospective U.S.-Iranian military confrontation.
We have indeed written previously (in 2008) that “the United States is and will remain vastly superior to Iran in every category of military power, conventional or otherwise. Almost thirty years after the Iranian revolution, the Islamic Republic is incapable of projecting significant conventional military force beyond its borders, and would be severely challenged to mount even a conventional defense against U.S. invasion.” We continue to believe that this is an accurate assessment of the U.S.-Iranian military balance. However, we draw some very different policy implications from this assessment than does a particular reader.
–First, a proper assessment of Iranian military capabilities should put to rest the constantly recycled, hyperbolic rhetoric in the United States and some quarters of the Middle East about the Iranian “threat” to peace and security. Iranians correctly point out that their country has not invaded any of its neighbors for centuries—and, since 1979, they have not developed the military capabilities that would let them carry out large-scale offensive operations, which we think is to their credit.
–Second, we believe that it would be profoundly wrong-headed for this assessment of the U.S.-Iranian military balance to be used as justification for U.S. military action against the Islamic Republic. To quote Talleyrand, such an outcome would be “worse than a crime—it would be a mistake”.
To elaborate on the second point: We judge that, in any large-scale conventional engagement between U.S. and Iranian military forces—on the ground, in the air, or at sea—the United States would prevail, in a short run, battlefield outcomes sense. But we also judge that the United States would not achieve any positive strategic gain by initiating a military confrontation with the Islamic Republic—an action that would almost certainly be a crime as well as a mistake. (For the record, we think crimes are bad, too.)
Moreover, we believe that Iran has an enormous capacity for “asymmetric” resistance to armed violations of its sovereignty. If an American President were ever so foolish as to order an invasion of the Islamic Republic, U.S. military forces would get bogged down in a horrible occupation that would make what American troops experienced in Iraq seem like a picnic by comparison. In a long-term, strategic sense, the United States would surely lose such a conflict. Even if an American president opts “only” to launch air and/or missile strikes against Iranian targets, Iran has ways to put substantial (and effective) pressure on American positions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Again, the outcome would be a net loss for the United States.
Furthermore, any wars that the United States chooses to fight in the Middle East in the future will be fought on borrowed money—money borrowed from creditors like China and Saudi Arabia that will not be amused by Washington undertaking a military initiative that would be so harmful to their own interests. Starting a war with Iran would “break the back” of America’s increasingly strained superpower status—just as surely as the British mistake of invading Egypt and seizing the Suez Canal in 1956 (with help from France and Israel, to be sure) forever ended the United Kingdom’s claims to great power status.
As Americans, we hope our government will do better than that—in strategic as well as moral terms.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett