Bad Intervention Ideas: Iran Edition
Recently, a reporter on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers asked Senator Carl Levin if supposedly limited military actions, such as a naval blockade or no-fly zone would be effective U.S. policy options for dealing with – wait for it – Iran. The reporter asking the question described these as “military options that don’t immediately require the use of force,” and Levin replied that they could be effective measures for the U.S., Israel, and other countries to explore, although he claimed that sanctions might have a similar effect.
Now, this may be blowing a throwaway question on a C-SPAN program out of proportion, but the ease and casual assumptions behind the exchange were disturbing. To run things down quickly, both a naval blockade and imposition of a no-fly zone over a country’s sovereign airspace are acts of war. Trying to distinguish these military actions from the employment of force is worse than hair-splitting, it avoids the fact that these actions will invite serious risk to American soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen (as well as civilians, intelligence personnel and diplomats) and U.S. national interests.
A naval blockade against Iran would be an act of war. Furthermore, it would invite a major conflict in the Strait of Hormuz. One of the primary incentives for Iran not to attempt to close the Straits is that Iran needs to export and acquire revenue too. However, if Iran’s ports are being rendered inaccessible under the guns of the USN and partner forces, Iran will have little to lose by conducting retaliatory attacks against the blockading fleets with its various regular and irregular area-denial assets, or conducting attacks on Arab ports and U.S. military facilities in the region. Naval warfare is still war, and Iran already demonstrated during the late-’80s Tanker War that it is willing to defend the Gulf from a U.S. naval force. Iranian naval capabilities had to be fought and defeated, their government did not simply capitulate at the sight of the U.S. Navy, even as the country was facing a massive and frustrating land war with Iraq.
Quarantine had a positive effect during the Cuban Missile Crisis because it threatened the logistical lifeline between the Soviet Union and its actual deployed nuclear delivery systems in Cuba, not because it was a mere show of strength. The aim of a military action cannot be mere toughness, and if strategic sell of a naval blockade is that it weakens the Iranian economy, it is hard to see blockade as anything but a more dangerous and costly variation on sanctions.
As for a no-fly zone, has such a term really become such a buzzword that functions as a cure all even for Iran, a major regional power? Let’s be clear – an attempt to impose a no-fly zone against Iran involves achieving air superiority over a country the size of Alaska. This means an enormous number of combat aircraft to achieve satisfactory sortie generation ratios, and even more when one considers Iran has massive and widely dispersed networks of air defense that the U.S. would need to neutralize before it could seriously entertain a solid system of combat air patrol over the country. As with naval blockades, trying to deny a country the use of its own sovereign airspace is absolutely an act of war, and it would require force. The actual strategic logic of such a campaign in Iran is even less logical than that of a naval blockade. A no-fly zone would start a war for the sake of acting tough, without seriously undermining the Iranian regime’s option for broadening the conflict or employing alternative means of coercion.
One of the unfortunate consequences of the policy debate surrounding the way of warfare has been a bizarre fixation on military options, involving employing force to overthrow an enemy’s will, that are some how not war. Dissatisfied – rightfully so – with the outcomes of U.S. wars involving the overthrow of regimes and the occupation of their territories, the shift to a more maritime and aerial approach has somehow given rise to the idea that since these wars don’t involve U.S. personnel on the ground, they’re not really war. When you stop calling things what they are, you impede the ability to have informed and meaningful discussions about them. The consequences of the “time-limited, scope-limited military action” euphemisms is that policymakers have all sorts of new options but a distorted and understated appreciation of the consequences of these options. Libya was an affordable mistake which stemmed from this thinking. Going onto Iran with the same sort of mindset would almost certainly not be.