WASHINGTON -- The threat of punishing U.S. military strikes underlies Washington's campaign to halt Iran's nuclear weapons program. But there is no enthusiasm evident within the U.S. military for a war many believe would be messy, bloody, unpredictable and ultimately inconclusive.
Seeking to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, President Barack Obama has focused on coordinating international economic pressure against Iran and moved to strengthen economic sanctions just last week. But he warned in the Jan. 24 State of the Union address, "Let there be no doubt: American is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal."
It's a truism of diplomacy to never to make a threat that you're not prepared to carry out. There is no doubt that if ordered, the U.S. military would launch devastating attacks against Iran. Whether such strikes would come along with or instead of Israeli attacks, tactical planning is already under way, as is done routinely for a variety of potential military operations the Pentagon might be ordered to carry out, senior officers said.
"If called upon, I have no doubt that the armed forces of the United States will deal with whatever contingencies might unfold there," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said last week when asked about a possible military confrontation with Iran.
But Gen. Martin Dempsey, the crusty Army general who heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told National Journal last month that a war with Iran "would be really destabilizing ... I personally believe that we should be in the business of deterring [war] as a first priority," he said.
The Joint Chiefs are hardly a bunch of shrinking violets. Dempsey commanded the 1st Armored Division for 14 months of hard combat in Iraq and served there another two years directing the training of Iraqi security forces.
The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. James Wynnefeld, is a Navy fighter pilot who has led combat operations over Iraq; Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, served five years in Iraq, and the Marine commandant, Gen. James F. Amos, is a fighter pilot who flew combat missions in Iraq and then led the Marines in the bloody fighting in its Anbar province in 2005.
Their combined real-world experience in combat, with its casualties and uncertain outcomes, infuses the debate about Iran with a sense of caution.
Active-duty military officers declined to voice their concerns on the record, citing both the delicate state of the confrontation with Iran and their professional ethic of providing advice only through the chain of command to the president.
But one veteran officer and former Defense Department official, who asked not to be identified, offered a quote from Winston Churchill to explain his ambivalent feeling about a war with Iran:
"Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter," the British war veteran and politician declared in 1930. "The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events."
"It's the law of unintended consequences," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, a combat decorated infantryman. "A Muslim country of 77 million people, rough terrain, an asymmetric response capability, worldwide terror network? All the folks I'm talking to are thinking, 'This is really hard.' Ultimately we may have to do it but ... my goodness!"
Hard-eyed military judgments lie behind the military's caution.
The "shock and awe" campaign of air strikes that initiated the Iraq war in 2003 suggest that American air power can defeat a conventional military force, as it did Saddam Hussein's tank armies, without necessarily winning the conflict that follows.
The Iraq war taught another lesson about the reliability of allies: On the eve of the invasion, Turkey refused to allow U.S. forces to launch from its territory, a last-minute development that kept the United States from opening a second front in northern Iraq.
Iraq provides a third cautionary tale, involving improvised explosive devices or IEDs that are cheap, difficult to detect and devastating to American troops. In Iran, these makeshift land mines could be used against any ground troops landing even temporarily to seize airfields or ports.
All three lessons suggest that an initial strike into Iran might be only the precursor of a long and difficult campaign. "U.S. decision-makers might prefer a limited war that would privilege U.S. military and technical advantages, but Iran can force a broader conflict where it can employ its own political, economic and social means of waging war," writes Jeffrey White, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"A U.S.-led attack would be merely the first phase of a war" that could spread across the region, according to White, with terrorist attacks, political subversion in the Arab Gulf states, suicide attacks on American warships and oil tankers, and missile attacks on such critical targets as the coastal desalinization plants that supply the Gulf states with water.
Although Iran's air force and air defenses are no match for U.S. airborne surveillance, targeting and strike capabilities, it is Iran's demonstrated ability to strike back indirectly that has planners worried. Current U.S. intelligence assessments of Iran's military capabilities are classified. But Iran has openly demonstrated its ability to sow sophisticated mines in the Persian Gulf, to "swarm" U.S. warships with dozens of fast speedboats like the Seraj-1 armed with anti-ship missiles and modern Russian homing torpedoes, and threaten nearby friendly and U.S. bases with armed drones, according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Iran is credited with the ability to hit American military bases in the region, including the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain and the critical U.S. air hub in Qatar. They are defended by U.S. Patriot anti-missile batteries and shipboard missile defenses that could have difficulty intercepting swarms of Iranian missiles. Significant American casualties there could force the United States to expand its attacks beyond simply striking nuclear targets, said Matthew Kroenig, a former Pentagon strategist on Middle East defense issues.
But it is Iran's ability to escalate a conflict with the United States that concerns military experts. Iran might, for instance, use Hezbollah to attack Israel with hundreds of rockets a day. Given Iran's alleged role in the plotting of the assassination of the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington, D.C., last fall, Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks inside the United States are also a potential concern.
The United States could counter some of these threats quickly and effectively. But together, they give Iran "a powerful capability to intimidate its neighbors" and would be "far harder for the U.S. to defeat in a limited war of attrition where the U.S. might not be able to act decisively in striking Iranian forces and targets," Cordesman writes.
Thus a strike against Iran would have to be carefully calibrated to not just damage or destroy its nuclear facilities, but to be devastating enough to dissuade Iran from escalating the conflict. Any attack by the United States would risk uniting Iran in a nationalist fervor, and widespread civilian casualties might ignite a firestorm of protest across the Islamic world.
And if a strike failed to destroy Iran's scattered nuclear facilities? "That would be a disaster," said Kroenig, now a senior analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. "It would not significantly set back Iran's nuclear program, but would still unleash a number of negative consequences."
"Almost any use of force carries a great risk of unintended consequences," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Dunlap.
But, he added, "It would be a mistake to think that the armed forces would be anything but energetic and enthusiastic if the order was actually given. I think the president has earned 'street cred' with the military, especially because of his gutsy decisions regarding the bin Laden operation."
"The Iranians would make a huge mistake," Dunlap said, "if they underestimate not just this commander-in-chief, but also how bad it can really be to be the target of American military might."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article included a statement from retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton who put the population of Iran at 22 million. It is approximately 77 million.