Iran: How to Lose


Once again, tensions between Iran and the international community are on the rise as the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, released a new report that warns of concealed attempts by Iran to produce an atomic bomb. How should one respond?

The 19th-century Prussian general and philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, the ancient Chinese scholar-soldier Sun Tzu, and Napoleon Bonaparte all offered different perspectives on war. Clausewitz likened war to a wrestling match between two sentient foes with moves and countermoves, ultimately resolved by overwhelming violence: get the advantage on the enemy and move in. Sun Tzu saw war as seduction guided by sound strategy—the epitome involving a victory without battles. Napoleon’s approach was to put the enemy in an untenable position, cut off all avenues of retreat, and then have your way. All three would agree that war is an intellectual endeavor, the first requirement of which is to understand the kind of war in which you are engaged.

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This month, Iran will have been at war with the United States for 32 years, ever since the Ayatollah dispatched a mob to sack the U.S. embassy and hold its staff hostage. Since then, Hezbollah, an extension of Iranian military intelligence, has attacked Americans and U.S. interests globally. Only al Qaeda has accounted for more loss of American life, but the Iranian butcher’s bill is growing with Tehran’s support of the Taliban in Afghanistan and of insurgent forces once thought beaten but now reviving in Iraq. The recent Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington and bomb the Israeli embassy reveals how bold Iran’s aggression has become. Meanwhile, the Iranian nuclear program continues.

The Obama administration’s Iranian strategy is inept. Sanctions are ineffective. It is unlikely that the United States will strengthen its economic sanctions, because these must focus on Iran’s petroleum exports, which would drive up the cost of oil on the world market and send prices at American gas pumps soaring in an election year. The European Union, with its economies on the verge of collapse, won’t stand for it either. Tougher sanctions will fail in the United Nations where China and Russia will veto them. The same goes for any effort to bring the United Nations on board with military action. For Russia and China, Iran is a cash cow feeding their newly revived armament industries.

Furthermore, Tehran doesn’t take U.S. military threats seriously. The United States still possesses enough military power to cripple if not destroy the Iranian nuclear program. What it cannot do, however, is fight an expanded ground war in the Middle East. Tehran reads the political tealeaves and understands that this administration, while good at killing terrorists with drones, is not about to expand the U.S. military commitment in the Middle East. Tehran would likely respond to an aerial assault by pouring troops into Iraq and Afghanistan, resulting in an American Dunkirk if not a disaster akin to the loss of the Philippines in 1942.

Ultimately, this administration is left with the naïvely fanciful strategy of containment. Unfortunately, what worked with the Soviet Union won’t work with Iran.

During the Cold War, containment worked because the United States had a credible deterrent. I know from personal experience as a nuclear-targeting officer at Headquarters, Strategic Air Command in the early 1970s, that we were ready, able, and willing to unleash a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Likewise, we knew the Soviet nuclear deterrent was equally credible. During a four-decade strategic stalemate, 100,000 Americans died on Cold War battlefields, mostly (but not exclusively) on the Korean peninsula and in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, the nuclear component of deterrence worked because neither the United States nor the USSR were willing to destroy the future for the sake of the present. Iran has no such cultural or moral imperatives.

Iran is determined to dominate the Middle East. Accordingly, Tehran’s strategy is to force an American withdrawal from the region, one that is already underway. In addition, Tehran’s goal is to destroy Israel, which is becoming isolated from the United States. Once Tehran has shielded itself with a nuclear umbrella, it can unleash its forces against a weakened Iraq as a first step in establishing a New Persian Empire. Across the Gulf, the states of the Arabian Peninsula will be vulnerable to Tehran-inspired subversion if not outright aggression.

The ultimate nightmare resulting from the naïve stupidity behind any policy allowing Tehran to obtain nuclear weapons may manifest itself in an alliance between Iran and its religious kindred state Syria, a nuclear-armed North Korea, and Venezuela.

The current administration is politically incapable of confronting the Iranian threat. If the current policies continue beyond January 2013, Iran will establish a New Persian Empire, and there will be hell to pay.


  • Earl Tilford

    Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army

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