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How Iran Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being Bombed?

January 26, 2012

Robert Farley has an excellent piece out at World Politics Review on aerial bombardment, the siren song of modern American intervention. Read it in full. The critique is damning, and it applies to a broad spectrum of proposed operations and political affiliations. Importantly though, Farley points out that most of the discussion about military strikes on Iran are occurring in the realm of sheer fantasy:

The Syrian debate echoes a similar conversation that has surrounded Iran for nearly half a decade. The most recent entry in the “Bomb Iran” symphony comes from Matthew Kroenig in Foreign Affairs, who argues that airstrikes are the least-bad option for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. As Colin Kahl points out, Kroenig maintains the exceedingly thin pretense that the United States and Israel could control the ladder of escalation in any war against Iran. While NATO did manage to avoid deploying significant ground forces against the Gadhafi government in Libya, the goal of the intervention escalated from civilian protection to regime change virtually overnight, committing the alliance to a much longer conflict that it had planned. In the absence of an armed, organized, coherent opposition movement in Iran, a similar escalation of objective would almost certainly evoke disaster.

While Max Boot proposes the “sensible” option of simply bombing Iran until something good happens, Jamie Fly takes Kroenig’s argument a step farther and contends that regime change should be the objective of any military campaign. Of course, Fly insists that airpower alone can do the job, without resort to the messiness of invasion and occupation — as if uncoordinated, unarmed Iranian opposition groups will seize power after the destruction of a few police stations and the headquarters of the Revolutionary Guard. Boot surely understands that there is little difference between his argument and Fly’s. After all, airstrikes can only delay an Iranian nuclear weapon, and probably not by much, unless their objective is to overthrow Iran’s current government. This conundrum would become obvious in the first few days of the air campaign, as a defiant Iranian regime promised revenge against America and its allies, making a campaign of regime change sadly necessary. Given the widespread support for the nuclear program among the opposition Green movement’s leaders, however, even regime change is no guarantee that Iran will renounce its nuclear ambitions.

As Farley points out in his analysis, the enemy gets a vote. Boot, in his column appraising these two futile options, argues that the potential for escalation after US air power could be mitigated by… even more air power? It’s unclear why exactly Iran would choose not to escalate if the only threat is more American air power. Clearly, if Iran chooses to respond, it will respond with assets not particularly vulnerable to air power, such as irregular and covert forces – a capability Iran has been building for decades and has used to kill Americans with a mere fraction of the willpower it would invest should it be the victim of an American attack. Further American strikes would not reduce this capability to safe ore manageable levels, because there is nothing about the structure of the Iranian regime or military or, for that matter, the history of the past half-century of aerially-dominant powers trying to counteract irregular warfare threats to suggest that it would.

Fly and Schmitt acknowledge that there is no reason for the Iranian regime not to retaliate and argue that even more bombing should occur until the deus ex demokratia appears:

Of course, there is no assurance that the Iranian regime would immediately crumble under such an onslaught. But as the cost to the country of the strike and the weakness of the current regime became clear, the door would open for renewed opposition to Iran’s current rulers. It is sometimes said that a strike would lead the population to rally around the regime. In fact, given the unpopularity of the government, it seems more likely that the population would see the regime’s inability to forestall the attacks as evidence that the emperor has no clothes and is leading the country into needlessly desperate straits. If anything, Iranian nationalism and pride would stoke even more anger at the current regime.

Simply being bombed does not make people change their regime. However bad the costs of bombing would be to Iran, it is highly unlikely they could exceed the costs of an eight-year full out land war with Iraq. The Iran-Iraq war was a massive blow to the Iranian economy, killed enormous numbers of Iranians, and continued years after a potential end was possible – because the hawks in the ruling elite thought the Islamic Revolution could be exported by force to Arab Shia. Yet the regime’s grip on power remained.

When air power proponents begin arguing that sustained bombings in weeks or months will be able to accomplish what the trial of massive land armies in years could not, it is time to remember Giulio Douhet. Douhet famously argued that air power, by inflicting heavy costs deep inside of a country, would destroy civilian morale and the government’s grip on power, resulting in demands for surrender. Of course, Douhet was soon proven wrong by World War II and every attempt to unseat a government by the infliction of aerial pain since.

During the Iran-Iraq war, which, unlike a potential US war with Iran, required large numbers of Iranian ground troops, Iran was still able to undertake mass repression of its own people. Nor did Iran have any trouble dealing with armed opposition. Back when the MEK was openly armed, they participated in the July 1988 offensive, in which they – a large, coordinated, armed opposition force  (with foreign close air support) – would attempt to unseat an Iranian government presumably worn down by years of incredibly costly, bloody conflict and a failed attempt to induce Shia revolution in the south. The result was the utter defeat of the MEK and the Iranian regime’s execution of probably around 5,000 prisoners (or possibly twice that, according to some studies) over five months. Of course, many had been critical of Khomeini’s handling of the war, and even more prominent dissent was raised over the decision to mass execute political prisoners. Ayatollah Montazeri, who the clerical elements of the regime preferred as Khomeini’s replacement was dropped from the potential list of successors after his denunciation of the killings. Despite serious disruption in elite support for the regime, it endured, because its coercive powers were intact.

Bombing Iran will not make Iran look weak. Bombing Iran and Iran failing to ruthlessly suppress opposition figures would make Iran look weak. What’s the obvious move for the Iranian regime if the bombs? Start killing the traitors. A scenario where people evaluate their support for the regime based on its air defenses and foreign policy but not its internal security forces is completely ludicrous. The United States cannot bomb away Iran’s ability to suppress its own people. Even in Libya, the success of regime change was dependent on the coherence of Libyan rebel forces, and was locked in stalemate until foreign support, arms, and internal organization forged them into a semblance of efficacy. It should be very obvious at this point that Iran’s internal security forces and armed forces are magnitudes stronger than Libya’s (the IRGC alone is extremely formidable), and its potential armed opposition consists of a largely defanged, ineffectual, and widely hated MEK, Kurdish forces that are relatively weak when compared to those operating in Turkey or Saddam’s Iraq, Jundullah insurgents without serious reach or appeal beyond Balochistan, and a bevy of other minor groups which have, in the past few decades, occasionally mustered a bombing. So long as Iran retains the capability to kill Iranians, and the will to do so, it will not look – or be – weak enough to fall.

This is all the more amusing because Boot previously argued this:

Colby and Long claim air strikes will unite Iranians around their regime. “Large-scale bombing campaigns didn’t break support for North Vietnamese or North Korean regimes, or for the German or Japanese governments during World War II,” they write. “Rather, they hardened support for them.” This may or may not be true. How do we know what the Vietnamese, North Koreans, Germans or Japanese thought about their governments when they had no opportunity to express their sentiments at the ballot box? But even if this is accurate it’s irrelevant. No one is advocating massive bombing of Iran to topple the regime. [It’s relevant now, because now an argument he finds at least somewhat compelling argues exactly this]

Yes, you read that correctly. Someone actually wrote that we cannot assess the ability of bombings to produce regime change in autocratic states because their populace did not get a chance to vote and reveal their preferences. Because clearly, the percentage of people that would vote for the regime in an imaginary election is clearly the relevant metric for determining whether or not a regime would fall. Revolutions do not succeed because of an imaginary plebiscite. Revolutions succeed because a regime’s security services’ will, capacity, and capability to inflict repression fails. If people privately thought the regime deserved to fall, or supported ending the war, but in their outward behavior continued to support the regime or acquiesce to its policies, then their anger at the regime does not matter.

We should also note that even people against war do not automatically become willing to overthrow their regime. Certainly being bombed may have made Germans, North Koreans, North Vietnamese, and other people more eager to end the war, but it encouraged magnitudes fewer of them to risk their lives to overthrow a regime they saw as needlessly prolonging the war. Even the July 1944 plot against Hitler was by people who wanted to end the drain on Germany’s strength by concluding peace with the Western Allies, so they could continue the fight against the Soviets.

In other words, short-term limited strikes are unlikely to impose severe enough costs to make Iranians anti-war or anti-regime. Long term massive bombing campaigns such as those proposed by Fly and Schmitt, and suffered by Germans, North Koreans, and North Vietnamese, might make some in the populace more anti-war, but far less likely to change their actual support for the regime, and even less likely to attempt to overthrow it. Even if attempts did emerge, there is no real evidence of a country of Iran’s size and military strength would suffer so much damage from aerial bombardment that it would lose the ability to conduct that most simple task of government – violently dispatching those who would try to overthrow it. In other words, those arguing that airstrikes would undermine support for the regime are almost certainly wrong in the short term, still quite probably wrong in the long term, and, even if they are correct, it’s probably irrelevant because waning enthusiasm does not a successful coup make.

There is, of course, the vague counterexample of Serbia, but it should be noted that there was a prior – and quite vigorous – history of opposition to Milosevic in Serbia, and that the trigger for the overthrow was not so much the 1999 Kosovo War but the assassination of opposition figures without an effective broader apparatus of public order control and a mismanaged handling of elections. It’s a far from straightforward conclusion that bombing caused the overthrow of the Serbian regime, as there were a variety of other factors which made a country like Serbia more susceptible to some kind of regime change (considering many other post-Communist states would later have somewhat similar revolts against their own quasi-autocratic and corrupt regimes without the magic regime changing ingredient of NATO bombardment).

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