Last week, President Trump ordered an airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport that killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani was a member of the Revolutionary Guard and the commander of Iran’s Quds force. Iran vowed retaliation and, predictably, they launched a ballistic missile attack against U.S. bases at Al-Asad and Irbil in Iraq (fortunately, there are no reported casualties).
The president has previously claimed that killing Soleimani was to “stop a war.” Despite President Trump declining to retaliate after Iran launched missiles at U.S. targets in Iraq this week, there’s no guarantee we’re out of an escalatory spiral to war with Iran. Such a war would not only be unwise but unnecessary.
Justifying his decision to kill Soleimani, President Trump invoked that his “most solemn duty is the defense of our nation.” Soleimani was no saint, but the reality is that neither he nor the regime in Tehran represents a direct threat to U.S. national security.
First and foremost, while Iran has ballistic missiles with the range to strike targets in the Middle East and parts of Europe, the Islamic Republic has no missiles with the intercontinental-range to strike the U.S. homeland. Iran’s conventional military forces pale in comparison to the U.S. military.
Yes, they have military capability that can be used against U.S. forces in the region — as Iran recently demonstrated. But they do not have power projection capability to attack America.
To give you some idea how lopsided the military equation is: the fiscal 2019 Department of Defense budget was $686 billion, which eclipses Iran’s economy ($447 billion in 2017) and defense spending ($13 billion in 2018).
For those advocating taking a hard line against Iran and in favor of a policy of maximum pressure —knowing that doing so pushes us closer to war — t’s important to understand that despite a vastly superior U.S. military, a war with Iran would not be quick and easy. Remember, some predicted that invading Iraq would be a “cakewalk,” and we all know how that turned out. And Iran is a more capable foe than Iraq.
A big difference is that Iraq’s air defenses had been effectively neutered by ten years of no-fly-zone enforcement, and U.S. aircraft could fly with relative impunity to conduct airstrikes. In contrast, Iran has more modern Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems that would have to be suppressed and degraded.
The U.S. military could take out Iran’s air defenses; however, because many sites are located near population centers, there is a very high likelihood of collateral damage and civilian deaths.
Iran’s ballistic missiles would have to be destroyed; otherwise, Tehran would have some 500 Shahab missiles at its disposal. The number of aim points is likely several hundred, including command and control and underground missile sites — which are located in cities, raising the prospect of civilian deaths and casualties.
There is also the question of whether Iran’s nuclear facilities would need to be destroyed, of which there are probably at least a dozen consisting of reactors, power stations, production, conversion, and enrichment; mining; waste management; and research and development.
Previously, in a war game run for “The Atlantic” in the fall of 2004, retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner identified 14 locations for Iran’s nuclear-related facilities but developed a pre-emptive strike target list of 125 nuclear, chemical, and biological facilities with approximately 300 aim points — 20 of which would require penetrating weapons or bunker busters.
The financial cost of a war in Iran also cannot be ignored. If Iraq is any indication, such a war will likely exceed $1 trillion.
There is also the human cost. More than 4,500 U.S. military personnel have been killed and 32,000 wounded in military operations related to Iraq. No one knows with certainty how many civilians have been killed in Iraq since the U.S. invasion, but one estimate is at least 182,000 and probably at least as many wounded.
If U.S. national security and survival were at stake, the operational difficulties, cost, and human toll would not be reasons not to risk going to war. But that is not the case with Iran. Iran is a threat in the region, but not to the U.S. directly. More importantly, U.S. national security does not depend on defending Iraq or other countries in the Middle East. Indeed, the president himself has stated that “going into the Middle East is the worst decision ever made.”
If President Trump believes going into the Middle East is the worst decision ever, he should do what he has long promised—bring American troops home from the region.
This avoids a dangerous game of tit-for-tat with Iran that could quickly escalate into yet another unnecessary war that plays to the radical Islamic narrative that America is waging war against Islam.
In the aftermath of the U.S. drone strike killing Qassem Soleimani, the Iraqi parliament has given him that opportunity by voting to expel U.S. forces. He should seize on that opportunity and finally bring an end to these endless wars.