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Robert Ludlum's Missing Iran Novel: The Escalation Scenario

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

To understand how war with Iran could play out, we need to understand risk. So let’s talk about football.

Every weekend in the fall, thousands (millions?) of Americans wager large sums of money on the outcomes of football games. In Europe, the same thing happens with soccer. Yet, despite the scores of experts and computers, only the bookies make any real money.

Now consider war. When it comes to war, it seems like just one leader or two leaders make all the decisions. Actually, each side has dozens of advisers, intelligence agencies, elected bodies, and thousands (millions?) of people in their respective armies making decisions, altering the outcome of war. Compared to warfare, football--Only 22 starters on each side, with a few key reserves plus their coaches. (I have no idea how many players take part in a soccer match.)--is easy to predict. 

So as proponents for war with Iran advise the American public that all will go smoothly, we should remember this: the most dangerous option for war with Iran isn’t a downed bomber, a sunk aircraft carrier or surface-to air-missiles targeting U.S. helicopters in Afghanistan; the biggest threat comes from a war which escalates and spirals out of control, something no one can predict ahead of time.

Though militaries (especially the United States) have invested billions of dollars trying to predict how countries will respond in war, they haven’t come that far. In spite of war games, intelligence analysts, security studies Ph.Ds, think tanks and computers, the U.S. still managed to screw up the Iraq war. As Colonel T.X. Hammes said about war with Iran, “There is no such thing as a quick, clean war...War will always take you in directions different from what you intended.”

And a war with Iran has plenty of directions to go in. As the Office of Naval Intelligence report described, Iran has studied Colonel Hammes’ “Fourth Generation of War”. Iran has prepared for political, economic and military war. As James Fallows tells it:   

“The "war game" that ‘The Atlantic’ ran back in 2004 reached the same conclusions the Pentagon's recent war game reportedly did: that a motivated Iran would have lots of ways to inflict retaliatory damage, directly on Israel and on U.S. troops and installations in the region, and indirectly on the world economy and American interests in general.”

Jeffrey White in The American Interest agrees:

“Given the political context in which military engagement would rest, even a minor attack would likely become a major test of strength involving not only the United States and Iran but also a host of allies and associates.”

Is Iran motivated, as I bolded above? If you buy Michael Rienzi’s argument in “Iran’s Response to a U.S. Attack”, the answer is, “They can be.” If Iran thinks America will wipe out their hundreds of fast attack seacraft, hundreds of ballistic missiles, and (maybe) surface-to-air missiles, why not use all those weapons to hurt as many Americans as quickly as possible to make the war unpalatable for American voters? Use it or lose it.

I see four major possibilities for this conflict spiraling out-of-control, two Iranian escalations and two American/Israeli escalations:

1. Iran mines the Strait of Hormuz. If Iran truly feels threatened, and if the American air campaign looks like it will destroy Iran’s economy anyways, it might as well take the world’s economy with it. When I mentioned ten dollar gas in “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”, this is what I had in mind. We plan to write more about this option after I finish my IPB.

2. A worst case scenario happens. If Iran sunk an American aircraft carrier, shot down over a dozen U.S. helicopters in Afghanistan, conducted a terrorist attack in America or Europe, used a ballistic missile to kill over a hundred people or some other worst case scenario I previously described, then world opinion could quickly turn against Iran. Then America/Israel will get permission from the U.N. Security Council for regime change.

3. America simply decides to invade Iran. I consider this very unlikely, but the logic makes sense. Everyone knows that a limited air strike on nuclear facilities will accomplish very little. American military commanders, Secretary Panetta, and most importantly, President Obama might very well decide, “If we are going to attack Iran, we need to go all the way.” We don’t plan on writing about this scenario until it seems more likely.

4. America has to rescue someone or something. Seymour Hersh's article in The New Yorker,The Iran Plans”, has a throwaway line that should give all Americans pause: “Some of the facilities may be too difficult to target even with penetrating weapons. The U.S. will have to use Special Operations units.” A mission like that gone bad by itself could escalate the conflict. (If we have enough time before war starts, I will definitely write about the incomprehensible terribleness of the idea of sending special operations troops into Iran during a bombing campaign. I cannot believe that is even considered as an option.)
I would add, what if America loses a fighter, bomber or transport plane? America would have to mount a rescue operation, which means sending in helicopters. Helicopters, as special operations troops learned in the Osama bin Laden raid, can crash. This could easily escalate the entire conflict, leading to America dropping in paratroopers and soon enough...
To conclude, I’ll quote Jeffrey White one more time.

“It seems fairly clear then that a conflict with Iran is unlikely to be an isolated event in which the U.S. strikes, Iran retaliates, and it’s over—with Iran either left with a viable nuclear program or not.”

A good reminder of the stakes of this war.

five comments

With talks going on this week, I asked Michael C to move this post up. This, along with the naval and proxy war posts, could be the most important ones we’ve written yet.

Also, on people influencing war, Thomas Friedman said years ago that 25 influential Washington insiders caused the war with iraq. But those 25 insiders talked to hundreds of reporters, at 700 politicians, not to mention staffers, planners and generals.

So lot’s of people make the decision to go to war.

I’m sure T.X. would like the promotion (and with his particular ability to think in wavy lines surely deserved it) but unfortunately, he retired as a Colonel.

My fault on that one. I fixed it. Another line in brilliant thinkers who got out at the Field Grade level. (There might be a post in that…)

For all your arguments for cultural awareness, it might be good to know a thing or two about the world’s most popular sport.

You know we both listen to a English premier league podcast, right will?

Still don’t know how many people play in a match. I’m guessing 9. Nope, checked on wikipedia, it’s eleven.