War with Iran: Real, horrific costs, but what benefits?

Written By: John Mundy, posted in The Globe and Mail (Canada)

The Munk Debate on the question of war with Iran, to be held on Monday night in Toronto, could not be more timely. With elections finally decided in the United States and scheduled for January in Israel and July in Iran, all three countries will soon have leaders operating on new mandates.

If they cannot stop the momentum towards a showdown at this point, when their new mandates are fresh, then it is possible that a sense of exhaustion with diplomacy will give way to active planning for a military confrontation in the second half of 2013 or early 2014.

What would the war look like? Israel’s surgical strikes on Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 are not good guides.

These attacks were on single, isolated nuclear sites, both of which were “cold” – that is, not in operation. Iran’s program has many sites and the key ones are “hot.” They have nuclear fuel that could be dispersed over civilian populations.

A strike against Iran would have to target at least four or five key locations, but could target as many as 400 if Iran’s entire nuclear industry is attacked, along with Iran’s command and control, its air defence, and its naval and missile retaliatory forces.

This would be not a surgical strike but an air war against Iran, and one that is potentially open-ended if Iran defends itself and strikes back.

It is ironic that after two trillion-dollar wars in Western Asia, thinking in North America and Europe about a possible third war remains so muddled. Supporters of war with Iran seem to justify it based on exhaustion with diplomacy and impatience with sanctions.

This isn’t good enough.

After two wars that failed to achieve their own strategic objectives, proponents of a third war should show how this one would be different and successful.

First, they should show that this war would achieve a strategic objective, and not just a tactical success. Second, they should demonstrate that the risks of the war would be manageable.

On both these counts, there is room for doubt.

U.S. President Barack Obama has been clear about his strategic objective. His aim is to prevent the development of Iranian nuclear weapons, not contain them.

It is curious, therefore, that even the strongest supporters of a military showdown admit that Iran’s nuclear program would not be stopped by an attack. War would only delay it.

This is the strongest point made by a report issued last September by The Iran Project and endorsed by a senior bipartisan group of retired American political, diplomatic and military leaders.

It estimates that an Israeli strike would delay Iran’s program by one to two years if Israel strikes alone, or by three to four years if the United States strikes with its bigger arsenal. After that, more military measures could be needed.