Gwynne Dyer: There's no way for the U.S. to win a non-nuclear war with Iran

When Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the highest-ranking American officer, was asked recently on NBC’s Meet The Press whether the United States has a military plan for an attack on Iran, he replied simply: “We do.”

General staffs are supposed to plan for even the most unlikely future contingencies. Right down to the 1930s, for example, the United States maintained and annually updated plans for the invasion of Canada—and the Canadian military made plans to preempt the invasion. But what the planning process will have revealed, in this case, is that there is no way for the United States to win a non-nuclear war with Iran.

The U.S. could “win” by dropping hundreds of nuclear weapons on Iran’s military bases, nuclear facilities and industrial centres (i.e. cities) and killing five to 10 million people, but short of that, nothing works. On this we have the word of Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism adviser in the White House under three administrations.

In the early 1990s, Clarke revealed in an interview with the New York Times four years ago, the Clinton administration had seriously considered a bombing campaign against Iran, but the military professionals told them not to do it.

“After a long debate, the highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which things would end favourably for the United States,” he said. The Pentagon’s planners have war-gamed an attack on Iran several times in the past 15 years, and they just can’t make it come out as a U.S. victory.

It’s not the fear of Iranian nuclear weapons that makes the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff so reluctant to get involved in a war with Iran. Those weapons don't exist, and the whole justification for the war would be to make sure that they never do.

The problem is that there’s nothing the U.S. can do to Iran, short of nuking the place, that would really force Tehran to kneel and beg for mercy. It can bomb Iran’s nuclear sites and military installations to its heart’s content, but everything it destroys can be rebuilt in a few years. And there is no way that the United States could actually invade Iran.

There are some 80 million people in Iran, and although many of them don’t like the present regime they are almost all fervent patriots who would resist a foreign invasion. Iran is a mountainous country, and very big: four times the size of Iraq. The Iranian army currently numbers about 450,000 men, slightly smaller than the U.S. Army—but unlike the U.S. Army, it does not have its troops scattered across literally dozens of countries.

If the White House were to propose anything larger than minor military incursions along Iran’s south coast, senior American generals would resign in protest. Without the option of a land war, the only lever the United States would have on Iranian policy is the threat of yet more bombs—but if they aren’t nuclear, then they aren’t very persuasive. Whereas Iran would have lots of options for bringing pressure on the United States.

Just stopping Iran’s own oil exports would drive the oil price sky-high in a tight market: Iran accounts for around seven percent of internationally traded oil. But it could also block another 40 percent of global oil exports just by sinking tankers coming from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the other Arab Gulf states with its lethal Noor anti-ship missiles.

The Noor anti-ship missile is a locally built version of the Chinese YJ-82. It has a 200-km range, enough to cover all the major choke points in the Gulf. It flies at twice the speed of sound just metres above the sea’s surface, and it has a tiny radar profile. Its single-shot kill probability has been put as high as 98 percent.

Iran’s mountainous coastline extends along the whole northern side of the Gulf, and these missiles have easily concealed mobile launchers. They would sink tankers with ease, and in a few days insurance rates for tankers planning to enter the Gulf would become prohibitive, effectively shutting down the region’s oil exports completely.

Meanwhile Iran would start supplying modern surface-to-air missiles to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that would soon shut down the U.S. military effort there. (It was the arrival of U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles in Afghanistan in the late 1980s that drove Russian helicopters from the sky and ultimately doomed the whole Soviet intervention there.)

Iranian ballistic missiles would strike U.S. bases on the southern (Arab) side of the Gulf, and Iran’s Hezbollah allies in Beirut would start dropping missiles on Israel. The United States would have no options for escalation other than the nuclear one, and pressure on it to stop the war would mount by the day as the world’s industries and transport ground to a halt.

The end would be an embarrassing retreat by the United States, and the definitive establishment of Iran as the dominant power of the Gulf region. That was the outcome of every wargame the Pentagon played, and Mike Mullen knows it. So there is a plan for an attack on Iran, but he would probably rather resign than put it into action. It is all bluff. It always was.

The second edition of Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, Climate Wars, was published recently in Canada by Random House.

Comments (82) Add New Comment
terry white
"can bomb Iran’s nuclear sites and military installations to its heart’s content, but everything it destroys can be rebuilt in a few years"

so every few years iran will be re bombed

they will never be allowed to have workable installations

even israel and egypt could take turns at gitting iran
instalations
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Ryan L
That is how you create terrorists
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Ali Biname Irani
This is a very interesting article, I believe it points to an important fact that a war is not the solution. Iranian regime is extremely brutal to its people and the uprising of the Iranian people is the key to regime change in Iran. The world has to point fingers at human rights violations in the country and give media coverage to the story, the people knowing the world support their efforts will increase their pressure on the regime forcing the ultra conservative factions to retreat and eventually allow for reform. A more democratic Iran will have to improve its relations with the world and even change its nuclear stand. The world at this time is not doing much in supporting human rights. As a matter of fact the Iranian dictator visits the UN each year? Why can't the Iranian mission be suspended from UN until they improve their human rights record?
Those who believe that regional countries like Israel and Egypt can confront Iran maybe in for a surprise and some very intelligent military minds have looked at these scenarios.
The only vital option is to support the effort of the Iranian people, otherwise the west will have to accept these brutal dictators for many years to come and support them the same way it supports some other dictators in the region and be certain that they won't attack anyone if they are not in danger other than the Iranian people who continue to be the primary targets of the regime's terror. It is a moral question? Do the people of the world be on the side of war and brutality or support human rights with a full effort.
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KiDDAA Magazine
Unlike Israel, Iran is a signatory to the IAEA (UN) inspections on its nuclear program. Unlike Israel which has 200 working nuclear weapons, Iran has O. Israel also occupies Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese land which according to world international law and the UN is illegal. In other words and apartheid. Iraq left a million dead Iraqis, 5,000 US and UK troops and made it into an anarchy. The US won't attack Iran they are in the middle of two wars going badly. If anyone is stupid or crazy enough its Israel. They don't care about world opinon. Iran is no threat but neither was Iraq. The sheep continue to love war and they call those people nuts? Iran is over 5,000 years old.
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KiDDAA Magazine
Its amazing to me how after Iraq, 5,000 US and UK soldiers dead anarchy there. In Afghanistan over 1,000 Nato troops killed, including 150 Canadians and Osama and the true criminals are in Pakistan. Why would anyone including the US even contemplate going to war with Iran? Iran after all helped the US in 2003 in the Afghan invasion against the Taleban. It looks like Mel Gibson was right the Israelis and its Jewish right really do start every war in that region. The same people who supported South Africa's apartheid regime think Israel is right for occupying Gaza and the Palestinians. People like Dyer speak the truth, hopefully Obama will tell the Israelis to shove it and not make the world economy worse and more dead people. How about some peace? I don't see Iran attacking anyone now or ever. I do see Israel continuing its illegal apartheid though.
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Wilfried Schuler
And there millions of iranians living in Europe and in North America. How
many of them would start underground activities? And how to deal with them? Internate them? Ridiculous. This means guerilla activities everwhere. More Homeland Security. Less civil rights. Has anybody said it? Homeland Security is a Nazi term. And that ´s the way the US is drifting. And Obama is not any better than Bush. He is worse he told you a fairy tale. Out of Iraq, out of Afghanistan, close Guantanamo. All these things are as far as the moon. The reality is, in to Pakistan and stir India up against Pakistan. Bomb Iran, possibly Syria, stir up Latin America. attack Hugo Chavez. Are those people still sane? Anybody may answer this question to himself.
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SIGH
Given the choice, the people of Iran would overthrow their government in a heartbeat. They are generally good people, but as is obvious above, some have bought into the anti-Israel hard line.

Peace will never be achieved in the middle east. That place is a complete hotbed of violence, and picking one versus the other is akin to playing favourites with poisonous snakes.

I've lived in the middle east, I've worked with both Israelis and Iranians, and I can tell you this: there's practically nothing any of us western do-gooders can do to ease the hatred.
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Francis Mont
The disturbing thought I had after reading this article was: Gwynne Dyer admitted (in "With Every Mistake") that many had thought George W. Bush was also bluffing about Iraq. It would be nice if we could count on sanity prevailing but recent History showed us that we can't always do that. According to other articles by Gwynne: both the Iraq and the Afghanistan wars are unwinnable and that should have been obvious from the start. Yet, they both happened. So what will prevent the nut-cases from starting yet another unwinnable war?
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Jag N
"Yet, they both happened. So what will prevent the nut-cases from starting yet another unwinnable war?"
The consequences of any war with Iran are many orders of magnitude worse than the previous two wars. Any self-preserving rational entity will surely see the consequences, especially the US military. A war with Iran will make Vietnam look like a cakewalk. Sane heads will prevail... or so I hope
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dowhatIdo
Support the people of Iran covertly to overthrow their kook, like should have been done in Iraq and the USA
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Scott Blackstone
Yeah, war with Iran is a completely insane idea. The only meaningful engagement with the Iranians is via diplomacy.
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Francis Mont
"Sane heads will prevail... or so I hope"

Talking about sane heads:

"47 House Republicans just signed on to H.R. 1553 declaring unequivocal “support for Israel’s right to use all means necessary to confront and eliminate nuclear threats posed by Iran ”¦ including the use of military force.” These Republicans have just given Tel Aviv a blank check for a preemptive war that Israel, unless it uses its nuclear weapons, can start but not finish. Fighting and finishing that war would fall to the armed forces of the United States."

See article at http://original.antiwar.com/buchanan/2010/08/02/gop-blank-check-for-war/ by Patrick J. Buchanan.
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WagtheDog
Has the U.S. ever won any war?
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cameronjamesmcarthur@live.co.uk
it is not winning or losing but being in the game that counts...geronimo...banzai...57 varieties...regards cam
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Roozle
"Unwinnable?" - Long slow stalemates ala Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, are good for business. This does not appear to be a likely outcome in the case of Iran, thus the big "win" for business is not there.
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Jamie
Contrary to what the author suggests, bombing Iranian nuclear facilities is still a viable option. I think where Gwynne goes wrong is in the assumption that air-strikes on these facilities automatically translates into an occupation and nation-building enterprise similar to what is found in Iraq and Afghanistan. What is on the table is something closer to the airstrikes on Iraq and Syria, not overthrowing the gov't and a full-fledged occupation. Furthermore, suggesting that the US is considering using nuclear weapons to hit these facilities is a clear example of falling victim to sensationalism. Why would you use nuclear weapons when conventional bombs would be just as effective?

Next the author also brings up Iran cutting off it's supply of oil as a retalitory measure. Yet, what is not mentioned is the fact that Iran's main source of revenue comes from the exporting of unrefined oil. Cutting off these exports would cripple their own economy exponentially more so than what would happen to the rest of the international community. Futhermore, Iran lacks the ability to refine it's own oil into usable products, such as gasoline. Basically, no oil out means no gas coming in. Does anyone really think that the Iranian regime (and everyday Iranians) would find this acceptable?

The author also doesn't at all mention what a world held hostage by a nuclear Iran would look like. This is essential when creating a cost / benefit analysis, like the author has attempted here. Basically, half of the argument isn't even being addressed here. Things like what Iran's neighbors think of these potential air-strikes are completely ignored (several of Iran's regional neighbors have publically stated that they prefer Iran not attain this technology and would be open to pre-emptive airstrikes to prevent it). Yes, I think we can all agree that droping nuclear weapons on Iran and invading their country to prevent them from attaining these weapons themselves isn't that best idea. Yet, it's not even really a viable option to begin with. The most extreme option was taken in order prove that any military action is a bad idea. This is a false argument.
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ERISANation
Let's develop energy independence. We are in so deep with Israel that there is no way out that would assure its survival and cause most Arabs and militant Iranians not to hate the US.
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88
keep doing israel's bidding and keep the invented war on terror going to make them richer.

racher corrie
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Jeff Helmer
Why has the US given up the plans to attack Canada? Is it not worth it, or has it become too strong for the US, which can only pick a fight with those already lying down like Iraq and Afghanistan? Still the US is not winning there.

The US has become pussy brutes just like their disgusting masters in IsraHell as was demonstrated on 31 May.

If you really insist on picking a fight with worthy opponents. attack Iran and say good-bye to your fleet and your army in Iraq immediately. Iran's allies Russia and China will see to it that the US and Israel will both become part of history. It is not unlikely that it will play out as the biblical Armageddon, but misguided American evangelicals and their Jewish puppet masters have really been working very hard for it for a long time.

Repent, because the time is nigh.
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Michael J
Jamie says ... "bombing Iranian nuclear facilities is still a viable option ... suggesting that the US is considering using nuclear weapons ... is a clear example of falling victim to sensationalism ... What is on the table is something closer to the airstrikes on Iraq and Syria ..."

First off, by what rationale do you believe Israel (or the US) has any legal or moral right to circumvent the NPT by bombing civilian nuclear facilities that are protected under that accord?

To quote Pat Buchanan:
'Three years ago, 16 U.S. intelligence agencies reached a consensus that Iran had given up on the project of building a bomb. Do these Republicans have hard evidence Iran is diverting its enriched uranium to such a bomb? If so, where is it?"

Futhermore all of the Iranian nuclear sites are under the inspection regime of (the now politicised) UN monitors ... and so far, they have made no claim that Iran has diverted any of its LEU stockpiles.

So again, by what rationale do you justify an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, that which is essentially, a defacto declaration of war?

Do you really think that Iran (and its citizens) would allow such an attack on their homeland without pushing back in kind?

Even if it temporarily detered Iranian enrichment, what would be the message sent to Iran and the rest of the world regarding the Non-Proliferation Treaty?

The message would be that {despite all the rhetorical flourishes} the NPT was merely a cynical ploy by the Nuclear Powers to deprive all others from mastering the technical knowledge for even peaceful nuclear power ... and that there was no real incentive for a cooperative framework ... indeed that the only way to be taken seriously by those Powers and to be treated with a modicum of restraint and respect, was to secretly develop ones own nuclear arsenal.

That after all, is the lesson that Israeli, Indian, Pakistani, and North Korean nuclear development teaches, and contrary to the way of Afganistan and Iraq, that countries that have nuclear capability will not be casually threatened, nor cavalierly attacked.

In the short term, any attack on Iran, would be almost certain to spark a wider Middle Eastern War, and in the long term become the catalyst to an Iran determined to aquire it's own nuclear armament ... and in the wake of an unprovoked attack they would have every right to do so, and be fools not to.
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