America is now witnessing the beginning of a mini-boomlet of calls for a large scale aerial bombing campaign aimed at crippling or destroying Iran’s nuclear installations. Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and Joshua Muravchik, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies have taken to the editorial pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to press the case that a bombing campaign is the best way to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
As it happens, both of these authors have advocated exactly this same course of action at various times in the past, a fact which weakens their assertion that a bombing campaign is uniquely necessary at this particular moment in history and must be undertaken without the slightest delay.
However, the various optimistic assumptions that are embedded in their advocacy of a bombing campaign have provoked even greater skepticism. These assumptions include:
• That heavily bunkered and widely dispersed installations built over more than a decade for the precise purpose of withstanding “bunker busting” bombing attacks can be effectively crippled or destroyed by U.S. bombing.
• That the aerial bombing of installations, some of which are within visible distance of Tehran and other major cities and the destruction of which would produce radioactive dust particles similar to those produced by a terrorist “dirty bomb” are more likely to make the Iranian people rise up and overthrow their own government rather than to unite behind it in opposition to a foreign attack.
• That while a bombing campaign is universally agreed to only be able to temporarily delay and not permanently end Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, the U.S. can solve this problem by bombing the country’s rebuilt nuclear installations over and over again every few years (The Israelis cynically call the military strategy of repeated attrition attacks against potential threats like this one “mowing the lawn.”)
• That a bombing campaign against Iran will not produce a vast wave of terrorist action against the US but rather a smaller number of manageable attacks that a resolute American populace will be willing to accept as the price that must be paid for fighting “the war on terror.”
A wide variety of global strategy organizations have produced studies estimating the likelihood that a bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear installations might actually have some or all of these results. They include:
The Council on Foreign Affairs
The Center for Strategic and International Studies
The Wilson Center
Congressional Research Service
Institute for Science and International Security
And Foreign Policy in Focus
Suffice it to say that not one of these analyses considers it likely that all four of the optimistic assumptions noted above would simultaneously prove to be correct. In fact, such an outcome is generally viewed as having more in common with the likelihood of drawing an inside straight four times in a row. There is widespread agreement with the view that Kevin Pollack of Brookings Institution (an analyst generally viewed as a military “hawk,”) presented in his 2013 book “Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb and American Strategy.” The London Economist summarized his conclusion as follows:
An American air strike would certainly be more destructive [than an attack by Israel alone]. But, in the medium term, it might not be all that much more effective. Although it would wreck lots of machinery, Iranian know-how would survive. Iran would probably quit the Non- Proliferation Treaty, stopping international inspectors from monitoring its subsequent pursuit of a weapon…
…Mr. Pollack argues that evidence of Iran’s continued defiance would present America with a horrible choice: defeat over a vital national interest, or an impossibly daunting invasion and occupation that would tie up virtually the entire active-duty American army and Marine Corps.
Given the widespread skepticism that exists about the probability of success of a bombing campaign, the breezy, “let’s go for it” optimism expressed in the commentaries of both Bolton and Muravchik seems rather odd. But the most plausible explanation is suggested by nature of the choice indicated in the quote from Pollock above.
Even before 9/11 the fundamental view of the Neoconservative lobby was that America would ultimately need to plan and execute a full scale ground invasion of Iran to achieve “regime change” i.e. the overthrow of the ayatollahs and their replacement with a pro-Western government. The reason the initial target neoconservatives selected in the Middle East was Iraq was because the 1991 US invasion revealed that the country was in essence completely defenseless against a massive U.S. tank and armored infantry attack. Once Iraq was occupied, neoconservatives argued, it could then be converted into a giant network of military bases, storage depots, ammunition dumps, staging areas and gargantuan airfields so that vast columns of Abrams M1A1 tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles could be launched into Iran, supported from the air by hundreds of Apache Attack Helicopters, F-15’s, A-10 Warthogs and B-1 bombers.
There was nothing particularly secret about this strategy. That part of it which was not published in think-tank monographs and magazine articles in the conservative journals between 1996 and 2003 was gleefully blurted out over Starbucks cappuccinos and cocktail party canapés to solid progressive journalists like Josh Marshall, John Judis and others who then dutifully reported virtually all of its major elements to their readers. The Neo-conservatives’ widely discussed power-point slide presentations which showed the proposed targets of future military actions invariably included Iran as the ultimate prize. Their well-known slogan was “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad; real men want to go to Tehran.”
Seen from this perspective, an aerial bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear installations, regardless of whether it is successful or not, will materially help to establish the political foundation for putting “boots on the ground” in Iran later on. In fact, the paradoxical fact is that a bombing campaign would actually be more effective for this ultimate purpose if it failed rather than if it succeeded. A bombing campaign that did not achieve its objective would become the proof that a ground invasion was absolutely indispensible. The predictable wave of terrorist attacks launched against U.S. targets in retaliation for the bombing would “stiffen the spine” of the American people and create the necessary patriotic and martial spirit to provide popular support for a ground invasion. And, as Pollock noted, Iran’s continued defiance would present America with the specter of defeat and humiliation over a vital national interest if it did not redeem its reputation with a successful ground invasion.
In short, if the ultimate objective of a bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear installations is actually to build political support for a future ground invasion of Iran, a bombing campaign that fails to achieve its objective could be substantially more useful than one that succeeds. It is therefore not greatly surprising that the advocates of a bombing campaign seem so breezily unconcerned about the unrealistic assumptions upon which their case is based.