Will Iran Be Next?

Soldiers, spies, and diplomats conduct a classic Pentagon war game—with sobering results

Gardiner pointed out how rare it is for political leaders to ask, "And what comes after that? And then?" Thomas Hammes, the Marine expert in counterinsurgency, said that presentations by military planners feed this weakness in their civilian superiors, by assuming that the adversary will cooperate. "We never 'red-celled' the enemy in this exercise" (that is, let him have the first move), Hammes said after the Iran war game. "What if they try to pre-empt us? What if we threaten them, and the next day we find mines in Baltimore Harbor and the Golden Gate, with a warning that there will be more? Do we want to start this game?" Such a failure of imagination—which Hammes said is common in military-run war games—has a profound effect, because it leads to war plans like the ones from Gardiner's CentCom, or from Tommy Franks, which in turn lull Presidents into false confidence. "There is no such thing as a quick, clean war," he said. "War will always take you in directions different from what you intended. The only guy in recent history who started a war and got what he intended was Bismarck," who achieved the unification of Germany after several European wars.

Gardiner pointed out that none of the principals had even bothered to ask whether Congress would play a part in the decision to go to war. "This game was consistent with a pattern I have been seeing in games for the past ten years," he said. "It is not the fault of the military, but they have learned to move faster than democracy was meant to move."

And what did the exercise show about Iran? In the week after the war game I interviewed the partici- pants about the views they had expressed "in role" and about their personal recommendations for the next President's approach. From these conversations, and from the participants' other writings and statements about Iran, the following themes emerged.

About Iran's intentions there is no disagreement. Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, and unless its policy is changed by the incentives it is offered or the warnings it receives, it will succeed.

About America's military options there is almost as clear a view. In circumstances of all-out war the United States could mount an invasion of Iran if it had to. If sufficiently provoked—by evidence that Iran was involved in a terrorist incident, for example, or that it was fomenting violence in Iraq—the United States could probably be effective with a punitive bomb-and-missile attack on Revolutionary Guard units.

But for the purposes most likely to interest the next American President—that is, as a tool to slow or stop Iran's progress toward nuclear weaponry—the available military options are likely to fail in the long term. A full-scale "regime change" operation has both obvious and hidden risks. The obvious ones are that the United States lacks enough manpower and equipment to take on Iran while still tied down in Iraq, and that domestic and international objections would be enormous. The most important hidden problem, exposed in the war-game discussions, was that a full assault would require such drawn-out preparations that the Iranian government would know months in advance what was coming. Its leaders would have every incentive to strike pre-emptively in their own defense. Unlike Saddam Hussein's Iraq, a threatened Iran would have many ways to harm America and its interests. Apart from cross-border disruptions in Iraq, it might form an outright alliance with al-Qaeda to support major new attacks within the United States. It could work with other oil producers to punish America economically. It could, as Hammes warned, apply the logic of "asymmetric," or "fourth-generation," warfare, in which a superficially weak adversary avoids a direct challenge to U.S. military power and instead strikes the most vulnerable points in American civilian society, as al-Qaeda did on 9/11. If it thought that the U.S. goal was to install a wholly new regime rather than to change the current regime's behavior, it would have no incentive for restraint.

What about a pre-emptive strike of our own, like the Osirak raid? The problem is that Iran's nuclear program is now much more advanced than Iraq's was at the time of the raid. Already the U.S. government has no way of knowing exactly how many sites Iran has, or how many it would be able to destroy, or how much time it would buy in doing so. Worse, it would have no way of predicting the long-term strategic impact of such a strike. A strike might delay by three years Iran's attainment of its goal—but at the cost of further embittering the regime and its people. Iran's intentions when it did get the bomb would be all the more hostile.

Here the United States faces what the military refers to as a "branches and sequels" decision—that is, an assessment of best and second-best outcomes. It would prefer that Iran never obtain nuclear weapons. But if Iran does, America would like Iran to see itself more or less as India does—as a regional power whose nuclear status symbolizes its strength relative to regional rivals, but whose very attainment of this position makes it more committed to defending the status quo. The United States would prefer, of course, that Iran not reach a new level of power with a vendetta against America. One of our panelists thought that a strike would help the United States, simply by buying time. The rest disagreed. Iran would rebuild after a strike, and from that point on it would be much more reluctant to be talked or bargained out of pursuing its goals—and it would have far more reason, once armed, to use nuclear weapons to America's detriment.

Most of our panelists felt that the case against a U.S. strike was all the more powerful against an Israeli strike. With its much smaller air force and much more limited freedom to use airspace, Israel would probably do even less "helpful" damage to Iranian sites. The hostile reaction—against both Israel and the United States—would be potentially more lethal to both Israel and its strongest backer.

A realistic awareness of these constraints will put the next President in an awkward position. In the end, according to our panelists, he should understand that he cannot prudently order an attack on Iran. But his chances of negotiating his way out of the situation will be greater if the Iranians don't know that. He will have to brandish the threat of a possible attack while offering the incentive of economic and diplomatic favors should Iran abandon its plans. "If you say there is no acceptable military option, then you end any possibility that there will be a non-nuclear Iran," David Kay said after the war game. "If the Iranians believe they will not suffer any harm, they will go right ahead." Hammes agreed: "The threat is always an important part of the negotiating process. But you want to fool the enemy, not fool yourself. You can't delude yourself into thinking you can do something you can't." Is it therefore irresponsible to say in public, as our participants did and we do here, that the United States has no military solution to the Iran problem? Hammes said no. Iran could not be sure that an American President, seeing what he considered to be clear provocation, would not strike. "You can never assume that just because a government knows something is unviable, it won't go ahead and do it. The Iraqis knew it was not viable to invade Iran, but they still did it. History shows that countries make very serious mistakes."

So this is how the war game turned out: with a finding that the next American President must, through bluff and patience, change the actions of a government whose motives he does not understand well, and over which his influence is limited. "After all this effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers," Sam Gardiner said of his exercise. "You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work."

James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, has written three recent cover stories on U.S. foreign policy and Iraq: "Bush's Lost Year" (October), "Blind Into Baghdad" (January/February), and "The Fifty-first State?" (November 2002).
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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