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.



terry white

Aug 3, 2010 at 1:13pm

"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

Ryan L

Aug 3, 2010 at 2:13pm

That is how you create terrorists

Ali Biname Irani

Aug 3, 2010 at 3:50pm

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.

KiDDAA Magazine

Aug 3, 2010 at 4:04pm

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.

KiDDAA Magazine

Aug 3, 2010 at 4:09pm

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.

Wilfried Schuler

Aug 3, 2010 at 5:31pm

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.


Aug 3, 2010 at 5:46pm

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.

Francis Mont

Aug 3, 2010 at 6:24pm

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?

Jag N

Aug 3, 2010 at 8:52pm

"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


Aug 3, 2010 at 9:17pm

Support the people of Iran covertly to overthrow their kook, like should have been done in Iraq and the USA