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Political Science Theories on the Likelihood of War between the US and Iran

Peter Howard of the American University looks at the "intensity of debate within senior Administration circles about how to address Iran's nuclear program" and then discusses the likelihood of a US-Iran war from the Poli Sci perspective. He points out that it is dangerous to have two armed forces so close to each other and that we should
never underestimate the role that stupidity and bad luck play in the unfolding of history. Anything can happen.
That said, is a war probable?
I don't think so.
Every major explanatory tool / theory we have in IR / Security, save one, suggests no war. To be clear, this is not a political or policy recommendation against war, but IR theory / Security Studies offering a theoretical prediction on future outcomes.
Your base realism / strategic analysis suggests no war. Iran is big and strong (stronger than Iraq pre-invasion), offering a more robust deterrent. The US is weaker--though the US flanks Iran with ongoing military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, those two ongoing wars have stretched the US military about as far as it can go in its current configuration. As any military person around town will tell you, we're stretched very very thin just to keep up the surge.
The domestic / liberal explanations similarly suggest no war. When Bush went into Iraq, he had a pliant public, a cheerleader Congress, bureaucratic support within the government, and significant public approval. Today, none of that exists. (...) Who among the R-10 do you see lining up for a full-on war, and how do you see even the most modestly competent D campaign responding? Its one thing to spout campaign rhetoric of I'm the Tough Guy (tough on crime, tough on terrorists, tough on proliferaters)--there are votes to be won there--but its another thing to be the war candidate--there are only votes to be lost there.

The only analytical tools in the IR kit that leaves open the possibility of war are the individual / psychological / group-think ones. Its still possible for key actors to misperceive the situation and massively screw things up. More likely, though, is that there remains a core of true believers, blinded by ideology, within the administration that necessarily include the President and VP. (...) Even if Bush and Cheney wanted a war, I just don't see how they could sell it and get the necessary support within the government and within the country to make it work.
Read his entire post "Bomb Iran?" at Duck of Minerva.

I mainly agree. I am concerned about stumbling into war as a result of increased tension, tougher rhetoric, psychological warfare and just simple mistakes and miscalculations.
What happens if Iran tries to arrest US rather than British sailors for allegedly entering Iranian waters? If Britain pulls out of Iraq soon, then the US will probably have to patrol the coast. A small incident (easily based on an honest mistake) might lead to some crisis that increases the likelihood of war.
And then there is Iran's alleged arming of US enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon, while the CIA has allegedly received secret presidential approval to mount a covert "black" operation to destabilize the Iranian government, and the Tehran regime is insecure enough to arrest some Iranian-American academics. As Peter said in the beginning "never underestimate the role that stupidity and bad luck play in the unfolding of history."

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Atlantic Review on : US-Iran: War or Negotiations?

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For the first time in nearly five years a senior American official (Christopher R. Hill) traveled to Pyongyang on June 21, 2007, reports the New York Times: The United States’ chief nuclear negotiator began a surprise two-day visit to North Korea to

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bob on :

Even more directly, who is going to fight the Iranian army? The US has approximately .5 million active duty troops around the world: 130,000 or so in Iraq, 10,000 in Afghanistan, 40,000 in South Korea and 30,000 in Germany and the rest scattered around within America and elsewhere abroad. The only troops available are the S Korean Marines and 290,000 inferior troops. All the best regiments and divisions are tired, bloodied and fighting: 10th Mountain Div.; airborne regiments; all the Marines not holding down S Korea; 1st, 2nd and 3rd IDs...Pick a percentage between 30 and 50% to deduct for support troops and what you are going to attack Iran and occupy Iran with 150,000 troops. Not going to happen.

Reid of America on :

The problem with this discussion is what is the definition of war? If the definition of war is an land army invasion of Iran then it is guaranteed that there won't be war. If the definition of war is air force attacks on Iran's nuclear infrastructure then the possibility of war is very high. The US is not comtemplating a land invasion of Iran. Whenever I see an analyst talk of invasion I know they are uninformed and have nothing intelligent to say. They are just mouthing leftist political talking points. Whenever I see analysts say the US military is bogged down in Iraq and therefore can't attack Iran's nuclear infrastructure I know they are uninformed and just mouthing leftist talking points. Does anyone seriously believe the US can't attack and destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure because 60,000 Army infantry soldiers are currently fighting in Iraq? Yes, only 60,000. The majority of US troops in Iraq are not involved in counter-insurgency operations. They are operating military bases including 3 Air Force bases. The same military bases that will make an attack on Iran logistically simple. I see a lot of uninformed talk disguised as informed military analysis.

JW-Atlantic Review on :

"Does anyone seriously believe the US can't attack and destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure" Yes, many experts have said Iran's program is underground and spread across the country. The US can't be sure to destroy it all with air strikes. Besides, Iran could rebuild whatever the US destroys within a few years. Do you know of any expert, who believes that air strikes will destroy and end the Iranian nuclear program for good? Besides, you cannot limit a war with Iran to air strikes. Iran will respond to the air strikes, as every military expert will tell you. This will eventually lead to a US invasion of Iran. The Iraq war is going so badly because you guys underestimated the trouble. Please, learn from this and don't underestimate a war with Iran.

Fuchur on :

Maybe one couldn't destroy the whole program - but there's no doubt that one could inflict serious damage. I'm not so sure that Iran could rebuild it all within a couple of years. This is technologically very advanced stuff that would be hard to replace with all the embargoes in place. Rigth now, Iran isn't even able to get enough spare parts for its ancient planes. And even if they'd rebuild the facilities within a couple of years - then bomb them again. And maybe in a couple of years again. [i]you cannot limit a war with Iran to air strikes[/i] I disagree. There even are historic precedences: Israel did it in the 1980s. And the first Gulf War (Desert Storm) also was not a real invasion. In the aftermath, Iraq was contained by sanctions and the no-fly zones. [i]Iran will respond to the air strikes[/i] I'm not sure how they would. Right now, the biggest danger I see is that American soldiers in Iraq might get within Iranian artillery range. But maybe there aren't any American soldiers left in Iraq in a couple of years. Then this problem wouldn't exist any more. Besides, the devastating effect of superior airpower has been proven e.g. in the six days war or the Gulf wars. What kind of military operation would you suggest against an all-seeing enemy that can hit you wherever and whenever he wants without chance of retaliation? You can only resort to Guerilla tactics. But how do you do that when your country isn't being invaded? Against whom do you fight? So, from a purely military point of view, I think that a US military strike would be very much possible. Whether I'd really advocate one, is a different story. Right now probably not. Without question a war is a very bad and undesirable option. But when the alternative is this Iran regime with nuclear weapons, then IMO there isn't really a choice.

JW-Atlantic Review on :

"Israel did it in the 1980s." Iran has learned from that. Besides, Iran is more powerful than Iraq ever was. "And the first Gulf War (Desert Storm) also was not a real invasion." Desert Strom started with three, four or five (?) weeks of air strikes. Saddam did not give up. Then the US invaded and after 100 hours, Saddam gave up. IMHO this is an example against the reliance of air strikes. Besides, I think, NATO was surprised that it had to bomb Serbia for so long (more than 70 days, I think) during the Kosovo war before Milosevic agreed to some truth. Not a capitulation. Milosevic was ousted from within a few years later. I think NATO cannot claim much credit for that. What do you think? Talking about war helps Ahmadinejad, who is under criticism for not delivering on his economic promises. I hope the Iranian people will realize that Ahmadinejad and the rest of the regime do not serve the nation's interest. I think there are already quite a few signs of discontent along the lines of "It's the economy, stupid."

Fuchur on :

I agree that air strikes probably would strengthen the Mullah regime, and that's the main reason why I wouldn't advocate this right now. However: This doesn't impact the question whether air strikes would at all be feasible - from a purely military point of view. Here, my opinion is still the same. 1. Iran has learned from the Israeli air strikes in so far as they have buried their faculties underground. But apart from that? They certainly were pissed off back then, but what could they do about it? And what could they do today? 2. [i]Desert Strom started with three, four or five (?) weeks of air strikes. Saddam did not give up.[/i] Ok - but he couldn't do anything about it either, could he? The point is not to make the Mullahs "give up" (this would indeed require an invasion). The point is simply to destroy the nuclear faculties. 3. The big question is - how could Iran retaliate? Without air power, the Iranian army is no threat. The only danger I see is a wave of terrorist attacks. But, then again, the Iranian regime apparently is already doing its best to support terrorist in Iraq and elsewhere (remember that Chinese "silkworm" rocket that made it from Iran into Hezbollah hands?). So, would it really be such a big difference if they'd then do the same thing openly? Besides, if you think the Iranian regime capable of resorting to terrorism, or self-destructive actions like blowing up "the oil installations" in the Middle East - isn't that a dead sure hint that we should do anything possible to keep these madmen from getting their hands on nuclear weapons?

JW-Atlantic Review on :

"3. The big question is - how could Iran retaliate? Without air power, the Iranian army is no threat. The only danger I see is a wave of terrorist attacks. But, then again, the Iranian regime apparently is already doing its best to support terrorist in Iraq and elsewhere" We don't know whether Iran is already doing everything in their capacity ("its best"). I think they could do much more harm. If the US attacks Iran with air strikes, Tehran might not see any obligation to respond by the rules of war. They will respond in whatever way that maximizes their capacities, i.e. terrorist attacks in the US and Europe in addition to Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia. "or self-destructive actions like blowing up "the oil installations" in the Middle East" Why is is self-destructive to blow up other countries oil installations?

David on :

"Whenever I see analysts say the US military is bogged down in Iraq and therefore can't attack Iran's nuclear infrastructure I know they are uninformed and just mouthing leftist talking points." Whenever I hear Americans advocating bombing Iran i know they are delusional are just mouthing right-wing talking points. These are the same folks that assured us that a unilateral war in Iraq would be a "cakewalk". 3,546 US military deaths in Iraq, including 14 in the last 48 hours.

Reid of America on :

David says "Whenever I hear Americans advocating bombing Iran i know they are delusional are just mouthing right-wing talking points. These are the same folks that assured us that a unilateral war in Iraq would be a "cakewalk"." The war was a cakewalk. Saddam was defeated in 3 weeks. Saddam and his Baathist party have been eliminated. If the US can't impose a peaceful democratic regime that is completely different from the war to eliminate Saddam. How many years were Nazi insurgents operating in post-war Germany?

pen Name on :

Last year, Ayatollah Khamenei stated: "You cannot safe guard the oil installations." Those who advocate war with Iran (aerial war - let us say) must be prepared for the unpredictability of such a war and escalation thereof. You have been warned.

Fuchur on :

So, what's your point, pen Name? That your regime consists of crazy fanatics capable of anything? As if we didn't know... Things is: Those who don't advocate war with Iran must consider the fact that these same crazy fanatics are desperately trying to build nuclear weapons. Yes, we have indeed been warned. We hear the daily hatred pouring out from Iran. We see their attempts to arm and train terrorists. We hear reports of the most disgusting human rights violations. We saw the kidnapping of the British soldiers and the disgusting violations of the Geneva conventions thereafter. We've heard high Iranian officials insult our Chancellor in the most disgusting way. We've heard your president call for the annihilation of Israel. Obviously an attack on Iran is not without risk. But, then again, it is also obvious that the risk of these fanatics getting their hands on nuclear weapons is an indefinitely bigger risk. Not only for us, but also for the people of Iran: because if in the future one of the Iranian nuclear bombs would go off, it would inevitably lead to a nuclear counterstrike against Iran. Like Reid, I don't see fundamental problems with an air strike (from a purely military aspect). The US certainly have the military capacities.

JW-Atlantic Review on :

"I don't see fundamental problems with an air strike (from a purely military aspect)." At Atlantic Community we have had a Pro and Con of the options on Iran. Quote: "Iranís nuclear and ballistic sites are too far-flung and well-hidden to be completely destroyed. Furthermore, any belligerent move, whether invasion or air strike, would play into the hands of the hawks in Ahmadinejadís administration, who are already convinced that a peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue with the US is not possible. A military attack would support their conviction that nuclear assets are needed to defend Iran." [url]http://atlantic-community.org/index.php/articles/view/Iran_Deadline_Expires_Today%3A_What_Next%3F[/url]

Don S on :

"Iranís nuclear and ballistic sites are too far-flung and well-hidden to be completely destroyed." Is 'complete destruction" necessary to achieve the strategic objectives? Would not making the surviving equipment impossible or extraordinarily expensive to run serve almost as well? It takes a lot of power to run those centrifuges. This kind of equipment is reputed to be fairly delicate and might not respond well to a sudden cutoff of electric power. Unless Iran 'hardens' the power supply in addition to the machinery..... ?? I suspect that the West could make it very difficult and incredibly expensive for Iran to acquire it's bombs if we had the will to support necessary military actions and economic sanctions. Possibly to the point that the mullahs would have to confron the choice that continuing with the bomb might risk revolution from a deprived populace. It seems clear that the pressure is on already in Iran.

Don S on :

"So, what's your point, pen Name? That your regime consists of crazy fanatics capable of anything? As if we didn't know... " This sounds so familiar. For a moment I thought you were describing Bush.... ;)

Fuchur on :

Nah. Ever since the Republicans lost Congress, Bush isn't "capable of anything" any more :-P

Don S on :

He could start an air campaign, throw cruise missles, etc. It would cause a hooraw but it would take Congress a long time to do anything about it - and even longer to make it stick. But he hasn't to date. Anyone ever wonder why that is (between the customary bouts of Bush-bashing)?

Fuchur on :

Don't know - maybe God hasn't ordered him to do it yet? ;-) Ok, seriously: You're hitting the wrong guy. I'm no particular fan of Bush, but I'm no Bush-basher either.

Don S on :

It wasn't meant personally, Fuchur - just a rhetorical flourish. The paradox I present is one which the self-styled sophisticates in the US and Europe have failed to see. They have been predicting that Bush will make inevitable war upon Iran (for two years now) and/or on Venezuela (longer than that). Yet neither war has come to pass. Why do you suppose that is? Could it be that Chavez and Iran are doing quite well at strangling themselves already and need no help from Bush for the final steps in their nation suicides? Neither country is doing particularly well economically even during a period of record oil prices. Even a small drop in global oil prices should be enough to put both posturing 'ugo and the whackjob Ahmadinejad (who gets his economic info from his butcher) : http://www.stuff.co.nz/stuff/4107331a4560.html Ahmadinejad apperently believes inflation is low because he gets 'cheap' prices from his local tradesmen. When, 10 years ago?

pen Name on :

My point is this: We can and will destroy the oil and gas facilities in the Persian Gulf. It will take months for you to try to mend them. And we will destroy them again. We have thousands of rockets to do so and you cannot defend these sites from the air. You can figure out for yourself what teh consequences to the world economy will be. Thos who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

Zyme on :

You really got to love Iranians for being so humorous :)

Pat Patterson on :

And people on the receiving end of those rocks might do well to remember that almost 70% of its export income comes from those same type of oil facilities. Unless of course the Iranians are going to carry barrels of oil to its largest customer, Japan, on the backs of donkeys.

Reid of America on :

pen name says "We can and will destroy the oil and gas facilities in the Persian Gulf." So Iran is going to attack their Arab muslim brothers and cut off oil to their Chinese and Indian friends as a counter attack to the US. This is just another Iranian bluff. If Iran actually does attack third-party oil interests than the attacks on Iran will expand beyond nuclear targets and the Gulf Arabs will join the attacks on Iran.

pen Name on :

You go and defend the Arbas that cheered the 9/11 attackers - in uAE there were days of jubilation after 9/11 attacks. You go and protect the Arabs that are arming the insurgents that are killing your soldiers in Iraq.

ADMIN on :

Please note that by default the comments in this blog are threaded rather than linear, i.e. some of the latest responses to comments are not at the bottom, but in the middle of the thread right behind the comment they respond to. At the top of the comments section you have the option to change the view from threaded to linear (=chronological), which enables you to see the latest comments at the end of the thread.

Reid of America on :

War with Iran from the neocon perspective. http://www.washingtontimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070625/COMMENTARY/106250012

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