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War With Iran Won’t Be Iraq All Over Again. It’ll Be Much Worse.

With John Bolton joining the White House as President Donald Trump’s new national security adviser, risk of the U.S. going to war with Iran has increased to levels not seen since Dick Cheney was vice president.
Bolton and Cheney were both architects of the Iraq war, a war that Bolton publicly stands behind to this day. And Bolton has consistently advocated bombing Iran ― and even pressed United Nations Ambassador Nicki Haley to trigger a confrontation in order to kill the Iran nuclear deal. Bolton’s nomination has Americans rightly alarmed that we could soon be dragged into yet another quagmire in the Middle East.
But war with Iran will be nothing like the disastrous invasion of Iraq. It will be much, much worse ― with far more American lives lost.
Saddam Hussein’s army ― although one of the strongest in the Middle East in terms of size ― was no match for the U.S. military. Within three weeks, the Iraqi army had been completely defeated. In fact, the overwhelming majority (roughly 90 percent) of American deaths in Iraq did not come as a result of the initial invasion ― they came during the ensuing occupation.
Saddam’s military was so easily crushed partly because the Iraqi dictator had put all of his eggs in one basket: A conventional military. In a direct force-on-forceconfrontation with the U.S., no conventional military in the Middle East stands a chance.
That’s precisely why the Iranians have prepared a completely different strategy.
The Iranians know very well that the American public has little tolerance for war casualties. Thus, their defense strategy has been primarily aimed at deterring an attack by preparing attrition warfare that raises America’s risks and costs. Instead of focusing on reducing Iran’s own costs, the goal would be to cause as many U.S. casualties as early and as quickly as possible in order to strike a massive psychological blow to America’s willingness to continue the fight. The strategy is not focused on directly defeating the U.S., but rather to make the cost of victory politically non-viable for America.
The U.S. is well familiar with Iran’s non-conventional capabilities. After the tanker wars in the 1980s when the American and Iranian navies repeatedly clashed in the Persian Gulf, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy and the regular naval forces shifted their capabilities to asymmetric warfare, investing in smaller “fast boats” and submarines, similar to how guerrillas would fight a standing army.
In 2002, the Pentagon spent $250 million on a classified U.S. war game called Millennium Challenge. The game envisioned the U.S. Navy facing a coordinated Iranian assault in the Persian Gulf using swarming boats and missiles. The results were so devastating the exercise was suspended and the parameters controversially changed to ensure a U.S. victory: The Iranians sank a total of 16 American ships ― including an aircraft carrier. 
Moreover, since Iranians cannot match Saudi Arabia and UAE’s vast military expenditures on high-tech Western (mainly American) weaponry, including a strong air force, they have strategically focused on missile capabilities. This partly explains why Tehran's military expenditures are dwarfed by those of its rivals: The U.S. spends roughly 49 times as much on arms compared to Iran, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Saudi Arabia outspends Iran by a factor of five, and even tiny UAE spends roughly twice as much as Iran on defense.
Instead, Iran is estimated to have the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East. Iran’s easily camouflaged missiles are well positioned to target both ports and airfields around the region, likely frustrating any American military build-up in preparation for an assault. Ballistic missiles also enable Tehran to uphold its defense motto that the region is either safe for all or for no one.
With tens of thousands of U.S. troops already stationed in the region, the Middle East is a target-rich landscape for the Iranians. Iran can push Shia militias in Iraq to renew their attacks on U.S. troops. It can target U.S. personnel in Syria. Or it can target the literally hundreds of U.S. military installments throughout the region ― from Jordan, to Kuwait to Afghanistan. The aim will be to make U.S. troops and targets feel unsafe throughout the area (and possibly beyond), regardless of how far they may be from the front lines.
“Iran will never start any war,” then-IRGC commander Mohsen Rezaei said in 1997, but if the U.S. attacked first “we will turn the region into a slaughterhouse for them. There is no greater place than the Persian Gulf to destroy America’s might.”
But Iran’s defense strategy is not limited to slaughter in a military sense. Bytemporarily closing the Strait of Hormuz ― a strategic maritime choke point through which roughly 30 percent of the world’s oil supply passes ― Tehran could inflict massive damage to the world economy, causing oil prices to skyrocket and likely compelling other great powers to intervene to put an end to the war. Indeed, even a brief closure of the strait would create enough ambiguity and uncertainty to “drive up shipping insurance and other costs to astronomical heights,” a senior European diplomat told the Christian Science Monitor in 2012
Iran’s asymmetric strategy likely also has a cyber component. Iran is already considered to have one of the world’s most sophisticated cyber armies and it hasalready shown its readiness to strike the U.S. in response to American cyberattacks (the U.S. and Israel famously engaged in very sophisticated cybersabotage of Iran’s nuclear program.)
Ultimately, however, Tehran’s war planners are zeroing in on the one variable they believe is Iran’s greatest strength and America’s greatest weakness: casualty sensitivity.
If Iran’s defense strategy works, a U.S. attack on Iran ― unlike Iraq ― will draw an immediate response throughout the region, leading to thousands of U.S. casualties in the earliest stages of the war. The Iranian calculation is that U.S. sensitivity to casualties will quickly push the American public against the war ― which likely wouldn’t be popular to begin with ― presenting the Pentagon with a scenario it hates: waging a conflict the public opposes.
This is precisely why many U.S. military officials have warned against war with Iran. And it’s a big reason why both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations opted not to attack Iran. They knew very well that, despite the U.S. military superiority, confrontation with Iran would lead to the deaths of thousands of Americans.
Trump, however, seems oblivious to these realities. He and Bolton may view war as a video game, but for the thousands of Americans who will have their loved ones killed in yet another disastrous war of choice, not to mention the Iranian civilians, the pain will be real enough.
The only way to win this war is to ensure Trump and Bolton are stopped before they start it.

The Mask Is Off: Trump Is Seeking War with Iran
Something extraordinary has happened in Washington. President Donald Trump has made it clear, in no uncertain terms and with no effort to disguise his duplicity, that he will claim that Tehran is cheating on the nuclear deal by October—the facts be damned. In short, the fix is in. Trump will refuse to accept that Iran is in compliance and thereby set the stage for a military confrontation. His advisors have even been kind enough to explain how they will go about this. Rarely has a sinister plan to destroy an arms control agreement and pave the way for war been so openly telegraphed.

The unmasking of Trump’s plans to sabotage the nuclear deal began two weeks ago when he reluctantly had to certify that Iran indeed was in compliance. Both the US intelligence as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed Tehran’s fair play. But Trump threw a tantrum in the Oval Office and berated his national security team for not having found a way to claim Iran was cheating. According to Foreign Policy, the adults in the room—Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster—eventually calmed Trump down but only on the condition that they double down on finding a way for the president to blow up the deal by October.
Prior to the revelation of Trump’s Iran certification meltdown, most analysts and diplomats believed that Trump’s rhetoric on Iran was just that—empty talk. His bark was worse than his bite, as demonstrated when he certified Iran’s compliance back in April and when he renewed sanctions waivers in May. The distance between his rhetoric and actual policy was tangible. Rhetorically, Trump officials described Iran as the root of all problems in the Middle East and as the greatest state sponsor of terror. Trump even suggested he might quit the deal.
In action, however, President Trump continued to waive sanctions and admitted that Iran was adhering to the deal. As a result, many concluded that Trump would continue to fulfill the obligations of the deal while sticking to his harsh rhetoric in order to appease domestic opponents of the nuclear deal—as well as Trump’s allies in Saudi Arabia and Israel.
But now, assessments are changing. The tangible danger of Trump’s malice on the Iran deal—as well as the danger of the advice of the “adults in the room”—became further clarified this week as tidbits of the reality TV star’s plans began to leak.
How to Wreck a Deal
Recognizing that refusing to certify Iran would isolate the United States, Trump’s advisors gave him another plan. Use the spot-inspections mechanism of the nuclear deal, they suggested, to demand access to a whole set of military sites in Iran. Once Iran balks—which it will since the mechanism is only supposed to be used if tangible evidence exists that those sites are being used for illicit nuclear activities—Trump can claim that Iran is in violation, blowing up the nuclear deal while shifting the blame to Tehran.
Thus, the advice of the adults in the room—those who we are supposed to restrain Trump—was not to keep the highly successful nuclear deal that has taken both an Iranian bomb and war with Iran off the table. Rather, they recommended killing it in a manner that would conceal Trump’s malice and shift the cost to Iran.
According to The New York Times, the groundwork for this strategy has already been laid. Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker (R-TN) calls this strategy “radical enforcement” of the deal. “If they don’t let us in,” Corker told The Washington Post, “boom.” Then he added: “You want the breakup of this deal to be about Iran. You don’t want it to be about the U.S., because we want our allies with us.”
This is a charade, a rerun of the machinations that resulted in the Iraq war. It doesn’t matter what Iran does or doesn’t do. If it were up to Trump, he’d never have accepted that Iran was in compliance in the first place. He admitted as much to the Wall Street Journal. “If it was up to me, I would have had them [the Iranians] non-compliant 180 days ago.”
Sounding supremely confident of the “radical implementation” strategy, Trump added that “I think they’ll be noncompliant [in October].” In so doing, he further confirmed doubts that the process is about determining whether Iran is in compliance or not. The administration is committed to finding a way to claim Iran has violated the accord, regardless of the facts—just as George W. Bush did with Iraq.
Potential for Backfire
But Trump’s confidence may be misplaced on two levels. First, abusing the inspection mechanisms of the deal may prove harder than Trump has been led to believe. The inspections are the cornerstone of the deal, and Iran’s ability to cheat on the deal is essentially non-existent as long as the integrity and efficiency of the inspections remain in tact. But if Trump begins to abuse the mechanism to fabricate a conflict, he will end up undermining the inspections regime and actually enhance the ability of those in Iran who would like to pursue a covert nuclear program. Precisely because of the commitment of Europe and others to non-proliferation, they are likely to resist Trump’s efforts to tinker with the inspections.
Second, by revealing his hand, Trump has displayed his duplicity for all to see. That includes the American public, whose anti-war sentiments remain strong and are a key reason they supported the nuclear deal in the first place.
The American public knows the Iraq playbook quite well. Trump’s own supporters remain enraged by the disastrous war with Iraq. They know how they got played. It’s difficult to imagine why they would allow themselves to get played again by a president who has left little doubt about his intent to deceive.
This piece originally appeared in LobeLog.FacebookTwitterGoogle PlusRedditDigg
About Author
Dr. Trita Parsi is the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council and an expert on US-Iranian relations, Iranian foreign politics, and the geopolitics of the Middle East. Parsi is the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He is an award-wining author of two books, Treacherous Alliance - The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US (Yale University Press, 2007) and A Single Roll of the Dice - Obama's Diplomacy with Iran (Yale University Press, 2012). Treacherous Alliance won the Council of Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Award in 2008 (Silver medallion). A Single Roll of the Dice was selected as The Best Book on The Middle East in 2012 by Foreign Affairs. Parsi currently teaches at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He tweets at @tparsi.
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