Tuesday, March 10, 2015

What would it be like to have a war with Iran? Obscenely expensive in cash and lives

It would be very refreshing, and unusually intelligent if, before the U.S. goes into another war, we know what we are getting into. With even a cursory look at what might be involved in a war with Iran it does not take military genius to see that it will be extremely painful and very costly in cash and lives with no guarantee of success. We already have suffered through this movie more than once. Do we need to do it again? This time it could be much, much worse.

The United States armed forces are vastly superior to Iran's, more than twice as large and far better equipped. Iran's air and naval forces don't even compare with the enormous firepower of America's. This is because Iran's military forces are not designed for conquest. No government of Iran, or Persia, has launched an offensive war since the Middle Ages. Their forces are designed for defense, and for that reason, Iran would be extremely difficult to defeat and occupy.

The intelligently reasoned and relatively good-humored response of the Iranians to the letter 47 Republican senators signed attempting to undermine negotiations with Iran shows that country is not in the hands of a lunatic like Saddam Hussein. However, we cannot expect them to be so polite if we bomb their nuclear sites. They will retaliate and they have the capabilities to inflict enormous damage on the region.

The United States would not be the first country to discover the difficulty of fighting the Persians. Iran is not a modern invention of Western imperialism, as are Iraq and a number of Middle Eastern countries. Its population identifies with the nation and has great pride in its history and heritage. Versions of the nation of Iran have existed for thousands of years. It is one of the oldest continuing cultures in the world. Its Persian language, Farsi, is one of the oldest languages spoken today. Seldom has the country been conquered by outside forces. The last was in the Middle Ages.

The demographics and various other statistics about Iran should make all policy-planners think very carefully about engaging this country in war. Iran would be the largest country the U.S. has fought since WWII.

The population is 80 million compared to Iraq's 30 million. Its people are 85% literate and many in urban areas are college educated. The urban areas have active middle class cultures, with western music and western food (even copycat McDonald's). Millions of Iranians have relatives in the United States. There is not nearly the hostility to the United States among the population in Iran that exists in many other Islamic countries that are "allies" of the U.S.

Iran has eight cities with populations greater than one million. Tehran is the largest, with 8.2 million. Iraq, by comparison, has only five cities with one million or more people, and the largest city, Baghdad, has a population of 5.7 million.

Iran is about the size of Alaska, with a land area of 636,000 square miles, which is about one-fifth the land area of the continental United States and more than twice the size of Texas, which has a land area of 268.000 square miles. Unlike Iraq, which is primarily desert and river watersheds, Iran is mostly high plateau and mountains. That terrain always has presented enormous difficulties to invaders.

If an all-out war breaks out that requires an invasion of Iran, consider the difficulty, the expense, and the forces required for occupation. It is four times the size of Iraq. About 200,000 soldiers were needed in Iraq and they were not nearly enough. How many more hundreds of thousands of soldiers would be needed to pacify and occupy Iran? Probably more than the U.S. has today. Without the support of many allies - and that support does not exist today - the Draft would have to be used in the U.S.

Iran is a very different country from Iraq, even though it controlled the land of Iraq for a very long time. The majority Shi'a population of Iraq is a result of the long term Iranian dominance.

The ethnic makeup of Iran is markedly different from Irag: 61% Persian, 16% Azeri, 10% Kurd, Lur 6%, Baloch, Turkmen, Turkic and Arab each 2%. Iraq is 75% Arab, 15-20% Kurd, and no other group greater than 5%.

The Shi'a sect of Islam is Iran's official religion, and 90-95% of the population are Shi'a. Sunnis represent only five to 10 percent. As a result of the U.S. conquest of Iraq, Shi'a is now the official religion there as well, but only about 60 to 65% of the population are Shi'a. Sunnis are most of the rest with very small populations of a number of other religions, including some very early Christian sects.

The dominant Shi's religion is not nearly as restrictive of women as is the conservative Sunni sects in countries like Saudi Arabia. Shi'a also is much more compatible with science and technology and modern culture. All three of the most extremist Islamic movements, ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are Sunni.

The official language of Iran is Farsi (Persian) but not everyone is fluent. About 18% speak Azeri Turkic dialects, 10% speak Kurdish and smaller percentages speak several other languages. Only about 2% speak Arabic. English is spoken by many of the educated people in the urban areas.

One of many of the problems encountered by the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan was the lack of knowledge of the languages. Many soldiers who served multiple tours of duty learned some Arabic. But it probably would be safe to say that the American military probably has very few Farsi speakers, and even fewer of the other dialects.

Iran's military forces have a dual purpose. National defense is one, and keeping the Ayatollah and the mullahs in power is the other. As a result their military forces of about 800,000 (twice the size of Saddam Hussein's military) are divided into the traditional military units and the Revolutionary Guards. The Guards have greater power because they report directly to the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah. The Revolutionary Guards frequently have been the forces used to put down anti-government demonstrations. The military is equipped with a combined total of several thousand tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery units.

Military forces are spread all over the country. There are more than 300 airports. Iran has an air force of several hundred planes and helicopters, some of them American made and more than 30-years old. Some they have built from Russian models. They also have drones.

There are numerous military installations along the Persian Gulf, equipped with many different kinds of rockets, some able to reach the Saudi oil fields on the other side of the Gulf, which almost certainly would be among the first casualties of a conflict. Other Iranian rockets are capable of sinking American warships, or shooting down intruding aircraft. The Iranian navy consists of hundreds of small speedboats capable of launching rockets and torpedoes. They have a small fleet of submarines, mostly mini-subs that can launch torpedoes. They have fairly sophisticated air defense capabilities, a good deal of which they purchased from Russia. They have tested ballistic missiles that may have ranges that could reach Israel.

If you read any of the several Iran-war scenarios that have been posted on-line, there is a fair amount of agreement that among the first casualties of a war with Iran will be the oil traffic through the Persian Gulf Strait of Hormuz. The Iranians have the capability of sinking enough ships in that narrow passage to block it off. That would decrease the world's oil supplies by about 20% and send oil prices into the stratosphere. Three-dollar gasoline would quickly disappear in the United States. Even though much of the U.S. oil supply now is coming from domestic sources, the pricing is done according to the world market prices. And the world market prices would multiply several times.

Another one of the scenarios that military writers have described is the possibility that Iran's allies in Palestine and Lebanon could launch an all-out ground and rocket attack on Israel. One writer calls it the "second front."  Iran has furnished Hezbollah in Lebanon with most of its armament including thousands of rockets and missiles. Hamas in Palestine had a falling out with Iran over Syria, but apparently that breach is in the process of being patched up.  In any case, it seems likely that the Iran war would not involve just the land area of Iran, but quickly could spread, with Israel in active combat with both Hamas and Hezbollah in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.

The wild card would be Iraq, where the government is Shi'a and has close ties to Iran. In fact, Iranian forces are fighting alongside Iraq's forces against ISIS. If Iraq sided with Iran, the United States would not have access to Iraqi territory. It also seems likely that Kuwait then would become a prize target of an Iranian-Iraqi alliance

There also is the situation in Afghanistan, which shares a very long border with Iran. NATO forces are being withdrawn and only a relatively small force will be left. The Taliban has been increasing its attacks. Almost certainly they will attempt to regain control of much of the country. The U.S. could find itself fighting Iran and the Taliban at the same time, even though the two are enemies.

The Afghan government has a hostile relationship with Pakistan because it blames Pakistan for supporting the Taliban. Consequently, the Afghans have developed relationships with India. And an unstable situation in this region could exacerbate the already tense relationship between the two nuclear powers, Pakistan and India.

Iran could be the key player in resolving every conflict from India to Israel, or uniting them into all-out war that could escalate into a nuclear catastrophe. There is a great deal that needs to be thought about, and discussed, on a national level in the United States before any planes or cruise missiles are sent towards Iran.

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