Monday, September 24, 2007

War with Iran

Gracchi suggests that surgical airstrikes against Iran are unlikely to prove particularly... surgical.

I agree with that conclusion but I'm not sure about his evidence. He argues that US bombing of Cambodia targetted at Vietcong bases did not prove very accurate in the seventies. That hardly tells you much about what's possible today. Very little of what was done in the first and second Gulf Wars was possible in the seventies.

However, while our capacity for surgical strikes has certainly grown it still isn't possible to to to war and reliably avoid significant damage to a country's infrastructure and civilian casualties. Even if the hardware makes it theoretically possible mistakes are going to be made and there are going to be targets that aren't neatly separate from civilian populations. There is still very much the possibility of strengthening hardliners. War is still cruel.

That war is cruel does not mean that it is not sometimes necessary. There seem, to me, to be three ways in which Iran is making itself a very real threat to our troops, our interests, our allies and ourselves. None of these are humiliating but inconsequential affairs like the hostage crisis or remote possibilities like a nuclear strike on another Middle Eastern state. I'm talking about concrete ways that Iran is making itself a dangerous and destructive enemy:

1) Killing our troops

The Iranians have been murdering our soldiers in serious numbers. Many of the bombs most effective at killing coalition troops in armoured vehicles are, it is absolutely clear, coming from Iran. Many, from all I've seen at least dozens, of our troops would still be alive were Iran not arming insurgents against our troops trying to create a stable Iraq.

If Iran were so directly responsible for deaths on our streets we would already be at war. Soldiers trying to maintain the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan are less visible and their deaths in combat less unexpected but there is little reason we should regard their murder with such passivity.

2) Fighting a slow, proxy war of annihilation against Israel

Hizbollah and Hamas have been slowly set up to challenge Israel from two directions - South Lebanon and Gaza. Both states are being rapidly Talebanised, to borrow Gideon Rachman's phrase, and turned into platforms for a war of attrition against an Israeli state with huge firepower but a small population.

Israel is our ally and deserves to survive. The long war that Hamas and Hizbollah are setting themselves up for will be hugely destructive and a humanitarian disaster. In its fight for survival Israel will kill a lot of people, and may unfairly become the party that takes the blame. We should not leave an ally in that position.

3) Building up a nuclear programme that will remove a lot of our options

I'm not going to base my case in this post on the possibility of Iran using its nuclear weapons. I don't think that the Iranian leadership are crazy enough, or likely to be replaced by anyone crazy enough, to see their society entirely destroyed. I would caution though, that even if the odds are low it is a truly grave risk to take. In particular, those who usually profess to believe in a precautionary principle should apply it to the possibility of Tel Aviv being destroyed as well as global warming.

For this post, though, let's stick with what's probable. What an Iranian nuclear programme would probably do is remove our ability to deter Iran from doing awful things like those discussed in 1) and 2). So long as the nuclear programme is ongoing we have to control Iran within a strictly limited timeframe.

All this makes Iran our enemy and, I think, justifies us taking serious action against the regime in Tehran. Any pressure would have implications in terms of hearts and minds but at this stage it seems far more important that we limit the extent of the threat emanating from Iran. We have to ensure our basic strategic interests are safeguarded.

If we accept that action needs to be taken the next question is what form that action should take. I'm not convinced that diplomacy is likely to be enough. This isn't like the hostage crisis sideshow where Iran had no fundamental interest at stake.

I can see two options:

1) Shut down the petroleum supplies

This was an idea Gingrich had during the hostages crisis. Iran has already had riots over fuel shortages. It has just one refinery and imports the rest. A combination of a blockade and bombing their refinery would quickly render the Iranian economy utterly unable to operate. They would then face the choice of conceding or facing utter economic ruin. That might shift their interests such that they climb down.

There are a couple of problems with this approach. First, we don't know how effective it would be. The record of economic sanctions is mixed at best and it may not be possible to stop overland supply of Iran. Second, it would necessarily be skewed towards impacting ordinary Iranians compared to other plausible strategies.

2) War

I don't think there is much justification for invasion. We've seen the scale of the challenge that accompanies any taking of cities in Iraq. While I would expect lessons to be learn (they might not be) it wasn't entirely post-war mistakes that made reconstruction hard. Rebuilding a nation following a brutal regime and war just isn't easy. There are too many groups with little interest in co-operation.

Equally, I don't think that surgical strikes at Iran's nuclear facilities would be enough. We don't know we can destroy them and it gives Iran little disincentive not to try again.

If one were to go to war I think the most plausible strategy would be similar to that followed during the Kosovan war. Essentially, bomb the Iranians until they concede. With no ticking bomb about to go off we can keep destroying regime and infrastructure targets until they concede - something significant enough that it is a clear defeat that undermines their credibility, perhaps giving up the components of their nuclear programme. That strategy would also maximise the relevance of our strengths (airpower) while minimising our weaknesses (low tolerance for casualties).

Losing what control we have over Iran's future behaviour should be of concern to all, even if you are unwilling to reflect that concern to the degree of considering military action. It's worth thinking about the hard choices we should be facing.


Anonymous said...


While bombing Iran till it concedes may historically seem effective, any serious book on the bombing of Kosovo and Bosnia eventually concludes that bombing only accelerated the killing, ground troops and the threat of traditional military defeat at the hands of ground forces ended it.

Given that the Yugoslav backed forces did not see NATO as their main objective (ethnic cleansing & genocide was), where as a unified Iran would be wholly focused on the bombing enemy, it is hard to see how bombing alone will serve to force them to concede.

Evidence from Vietnam points to the failure of extensive bombing campaigns to psycologically defeat the enemy. And while you might point to the fact that the bombing was not done with impunity, it is unlikely that the UK today could continue an extended, serious bombing campaign of similar/greater magnitude without a public backlash.

A long bombing campaign would be necessary to even stand a chance (small as it is), but a long bombing campaign is domestically unfeasible.

Anonymous said...

Surgical is possible, but as you say it will not happen without some unintended deaths. Even if a miracle happened and all the bombs destroyed the bad stuff without killing innocents you can guarantee bodies would be supplied by the regime. Whether or not it's worth doing depends entirely on what outcome you are looking for, overthrowing the current regime is an unlikely result and changing thier views impossible. But it you wanted to remove them as a current player destroying their infrastructure would go a long way to curtailing what they can do. However, given feeling in the west there's no way we could condone an action that would result in pain, misery, starvation and suffering for an entire population. Supporting an internal revolution is the most morally acceptable way, but the results of such actions are never predictable.

Re: Low chance of nuclear attack, I don't think we should underestimate the mind set of the ruling regime, they boarded a British Navy ship and took hostages with impugnity. They clearly believe that the reasons for not attacking them are sufficient to allow quite extraordinary blatancy in their actions and words. We cannot be sure that the combination of faith, arrogance and hatred won't be enough for them to do something truly horrific.

The problem we have is there is no easy ,or in truth, acceptable way to pre-emptively deal with the problem. We are faced with hoping that they remain as they are, because the required reaction, and the consequences, if they do cross that line simply does not bear thinking about.