What War with Iran Would Cost Us

by Reihan Salam

I have a lot of respect for Joshua Muravchik, who recently wrote an admirably clear case for using force to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. For Muravchik, Iran’s regime is a “visionary” one that is quite willing to “sacrifice power to adhere to ideology.” He dismisses Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s argument that stiffer sanctions might compel Iran to abandon its efforts to acquire a nuclear arsenal, as sanctions could only succeed if they caused the Iranian regime to collapse and there are no signs that it is vulnerable to a popular rebellion. Muravchik thus concludes that war is our only option. He acknowledges that a U.S. military strike might cause Iranians to rally around the regime, yet he also observes that military defeats have also undermined regimes, as in the case of Czarist Russia. He accepts that destroying Iran’s nuclear infrastructure might only slow the Iranians down, but he also notes that the U.S. could strike as often as necessary to destroy any trace of Iran’s nuclear program. And while Muravchik understands that Iran would likely retaliate by launching terror attacks against Americans, he sees this as an acceptable price to pay:

[W]e might absorb some strikes. Wrenchingly, that might be the price of averting the heavier losses that we and others would suffer in the larger Middle Eastern conflagration that is the likely outcome of Iran’s drive to the bomb. Were Iran, which is already embroiled in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Gaza, further emboldened by becoming a “nuclear threshold state,” it would probably overreach, kindling bigger wars – with Israel, Arab states or both. The United States would probably be drawn in, just as we have been in many other wars from which we had hoped to remain aloof.

I can’t agree with Muravchik on Iran. First, like Netanyahu, and like Jonah, I don’t believe that the only alternative to President Obama’s approach is war. Tougher sanctions could further erode the legitimacy of the Iranian regime. For tougher sanctions to work, however, the U.S. must first ensure that our allies are willing to embrace them, as unilateral sanctions are far less likely to be effective than multilateral sanctions. This is why it makes sense to at least try to hammer out a good deal: to demonstrate to other countries, and particularly to countries that depend more on trade with Iran than we do, that we respect the sacrifice they’re making, and that we are making a good-faith effort to achieve our shared goals without using force. A charitable interpretation of the Obama administration’s strategy is that they’re trying to keep the anti-Iran coalition united by making just such a good-faith effort. I’m skeptical. But if the U.S. fails to secure a deal with Iran despite bending over backwards to accommodate Iran, as Jonah expects, then the case for stiffer sanctions is that much stronger.

Second, Muravchik understates the downsides of military action against Iran. To Muravchik’s credit, he doesn’t spend much time on the possibility of a ground invasion of Iran, as our experience in Iraq demonstrates that Americans would never stand for it. The problem, of course, is that a ground invasion is the only way to ensure the fall of the Iranian regime, and a military occupation is the only way to ensure that it will be replaced by a new one willing to renounce the pursuit of nuclear weapons. The alternative to a ground invasion would be an unending air campaign, which would have an enormous fiscal cost. Moreover, Russia is eager to sell Iran a sophisticated air defense system that would greatly enhance Iran’s ability to protect its nuclear infrastructure. ​Muravchik is right to say that military losses have undermined support for some regimes (apart from Czarist Russia he mentions the Soviet Union and the Greek and Argentine military juntas). Yet it is more common for military losses to harden the resolve of populations under siege, as was the case in Germany and Japan during the Second World War and North Vietnam during a large-scale bombing campaign that lasted for years. 

If Iran were the only threat or the gravest threat the U.S. faced, the enormous cost associated with a perpetual-strike campaign might be acceptable. But we must balance our legitimate concerns about Iran’s nuclear program with our interests in East Asia, where China is ramping up its military expenditures even as its economic growth rate slows down, and eastern Europe, where Russia is actively dismembering a neighboring state. I would never rule out a military strike against Iran, but let’s not kid ourselves: if we go to war against Iran, U.S. interests will be undermined along many other fronts. If we do ultimately decide to go to war with Iran, let’s do so with our eyes open to the consequences.  

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