Iran Military Option: An Increasingly Daunting Challenge

by Wayne White

Although the Obama administration appears to be currently focused on resisting calls to increase sanctions on Iran while negotiations over its nuclear program are in session, the far more dangerous “military option” is alive and well in Washington despite its many pitfalls.

Senator-elect Tom Cotton (R-Ark) told a group of reporters on Dec. 3 that Congress should be considering the “credible use [of] force,” against Iran, according to the Free Beacon. Cotton, who described the ongoing negotiations with Iran as “a sham,” also said the US should consider arming Israel with bunker-buster bombs that could penetrate Iran’s underground nuclear facilities.

A day later, Dennis Ross, Ray Takeyh and Eric Edelman—all of whom have served in the US government—echoed their previous calls for a greater threat of force against Iran in the Washington Post. “The president would be wise to consult with Congress on the parameters of an acceptable deal and to secure a resolution authorizing him to use force in the event that Iran violates its obligations or seeks a breakout capacity,” they wrote Dec. 4.

While the White House has considerably lowered the volume on its insistence that “all options are on the table,” it has maintained the mantra. “We will not let Iran acquire a nuclear weapon—period,” said Vice President Joe Biden on Dec. 6, according to Reuters. “End of discussion. Not on our watch.”

Of course, President George W. Bush considered the so-called “military option” against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in 2006, but rejected it. The notion of “surgical” air strikes is also absurd: Bush was told taking out Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would require a massive effort. And despite its repeated threats, Israel does not have the capability with which to launch such an effort (unless it resorted to nuclear weapons). Only the US has a sufficiently robust conventional capability to do so. However, the military challenge is greater now than it was back in 2006.

The Military Option Lives On

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei declared in June 2014 that the Americans “have renounced the idea of any military actions.” Khamenei was likely reacting to President Obama’s West Point speech a week before. Referring to military action in general, the president said: “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean every problem is a nail.” However, asked for a reaction to Khamenei’s assertion, the White House highlighted another passage in the speech on Iran: “…we reserve all options in order to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

Possibly extending the threat into the future, leading Democratic presidential contender for 2016 Hillary Clinton repeated the mantra in March of this year. While arguing that the diplomatic process with Iran should be given enough time to work, she also said she was “Personally skeptical” of Iranian intentions. “[L]et’s be clear, every other option does remain on the table,” she added, according to Haaretz.

Various American pundits (be they hawks or those who are sensitive to Israeli views on the matter) have since labored to keep the military option alive. Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz declared in TV interview on Nov. 24 that if diplomacy fails, the US “should use its military facilities and ability to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” Israel also keeps the heat on the US by threatening to strike Iran if Washington fails to do so. Dershowitz, however, noted correctly that an Israeli attack “could only ‘set back’ Iran’s nuclear program for a few years.”

Israeli vs. US Military Action

Aside from using nuclear weapons, Israel does not have an effective military option. The extreme range involved greatly reduces the power of Israel’s military reach. Additionally, finding routes to and from the target is dicey, with most countries certain to oppose use of their airspace.

Flying through Turkey is a leading option, but Ankara would not grant permission, and could try to interfere. Cooperation between Israel and some of the Arab Gulf states (sharing the same dim view of Iran) reportedly has increased. But if a southern corridor were available—even if GCC aerial tankers refueled Israeli aircraft en route—the Israelis could only severely damage a few key targets.

By contrast, with access to the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, plus its bases close to Iran, the US could mount a vastly more powerful effort. Carrier battle groups, other naval assets, and large numbers of US Air Force combat aircraft could be used.

Iranian Military Preparations

Despite its public scoffing, Iran is aware that it could face a robust military assault at some point and has thus been busy since 2006 upgrading its ability to deter or confront an attack.

Iran has upgraded its military radar and missile systems with assistance from sources such as China and Russia, as well as a variety of equipment and expertise secured through less official channels. Iran has also enhanced its large arsenal of MiG-29 fighter aircraft and several formerly Iraqi SU-24 fighter-bombers that were flown to Iran at the outset of the First Gulf War. Iran’s navy has also expanded its inventory of missile-equipped fast-attack vessels to confront a more modern navy with an asymmetric threat: “swarming” enemy vessels (overwhelming them with large number of smaller craft).

The most significant upgrade to Iran’s air defense was to have been the potent Russian S-300 anti-aircraft/ missile system. However, in response to a greatly tightened UN arms embargo in 2010, Moscow suspended the deal.

The Iranians claim to be developing their own version of the S-300 (the “Bavar-373”). They also claim to have produced their own models of a host of other foreign air, air defense and naval systems.

Many of these claims are dubious, but as with its own impressive Shahab series surface-to-surface ballistic missile program, Iran has developed quite impressive technical military-related capabilities. Some upgrades and even a few of these indigenous systems probably have been successfully fielded. I observed impressive Iranian improvisation while covering the Iraq-Iran War from inside the US Intelligence Community. For example, the Iranians kept advanced US F-14 fighters in the air far beyond all Pentagon estimates, even producing a large number of parts needed for basic maintenance and minor overhauls.

The Military Option Means War

Veteran investigative journalist Seymour Hersh consulted me regarding his April 2006 New Yorker article about Bush administration deliberations concerning the military option against Iran. My intelligence credentials told me that Hersh had assembled, effectively, a surprising amount of information on the military planning presented to President Bush.

Hersh revealed that one military option included the use of tactical nuclear weapons to destroy vast underground facilities such as the Natanz enrichment complex. Hersh felt, as I do, that as a part of such planning, extreme options are provided, but such an option was highly unlikely to be part of any realistic plan.

Nonetheless, even conventional US military action to destroy or cripple all known Iranian sites, would, as envisaged in 2006, involve a massive effort. The Pentagon anticipated as many as 2,000 military combat flights and a possible duration of a week. Why? In order to reach Iran’s array of nuclear sites, US combat planes would have to smash Iranian defenses leading to and around the targets.

Although unclear back then, it is also possible once the US had decided to go that far, it would also hit Iran’s ballistic missile inventory, manufacturing, and test sites. This would target what many US officials (and the Israelis) consider a potentially nuclear-related sector of Iran’s military-industrial complex: a formidable delivery capability.

Iran would hardly remain passive while all this unfolded. Therefore, the US would have to anticipate attempts by Iran’s large air force to intercept incoming US aircraft, as well as sea- and air-borne attacks against US naval vessels. Finally, dozens of Iranian anti-ship missile sites flanking the Strait of Hormuz would have to be taken out. Given Iran’s post-2006 military upgrades, US aerial combat missions and the length of the assault would have to be increased. Slugging it out with Iran’s anti-aircraft defenses, confronting its air force, fending off its navy, and striking nuclear targets would effectively add up to war.

Among the many adverse consequences, perhaps the greatest concern would be radioactive contamination stemming from attacking sites near large Iranian civilian populations. The Arak reactor complex and a number of other nuclear-associated sites are close to or practically within Isfahan. The Natanz enrichment facility is less than 30 miles from the smaller city of Kashan. And the Fordow nuclear enrichment complex is situated near over a million people who call the holy city of Qom their home. International outcry over radiation leaks, civilian casualties, and other collateral damage could exceed that resulting from the assault itself.

With so many aircraft missions involved, another is the possibility that a few would be damaged or experience in-flight failures, with aircrew falling into Iranian hands. US diplomatic efforts to secure the return of downed flyers would be inevitable (for which Iran would surely exact a high price).

A particularly ominous result could be the very real possibility of an Iranian break with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in order to pursue—with lots of expertise and perhaps more residual nuclear capabilities than thought—a nuclear weapon, although probably defensive (precisely what such an attack would try to forestall).

Once hostilities are initiated, Iran might also not end them definitively. While Iran might do very little (or nothing) to sustain the military confrontation, the US could be saddled with the seemingly endless task of keeping large air and naval forces in the Gulf as a precaution against potential retaliation, particularly against frightened Arab Gulf states (several of which could have aided the US effort). Such an open-ended commitment and prolonged instability in the Gulf could become a nightmare for Washington—and plenty of other countries around the globe.

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. Careful what you wish for, because you might just be surprised that it isn’t in your interest. The present brand of politician in Washington, don’t seem to understand the limitation of warfare. If such was so exact, then why do we have the situation today in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria? Oh, and Ukraine too. Insanity to believe making war on Iran is a one way occurrence.

  2. Good article. There are two possibilities which have not been considered here:
    1. Should the US/Allied attack fail with large casualties on both sides. Assume for one moment that the Iranians sink a few US ships or perhaps a carrier (using UAVs or Shakval or Yakhont or Khalije Fars etc.) and also manage to shoot down/destroy on the ground several hundred US aircrafts. All these within a few weeks, this would be seen (correctly) as a strategic victory by everyone. Moreover in all likelihood, Iran would retain enough capability to rebuild fast. This time however there would be two major differences: 1. All international agreements thus far struck would be null and void. We would be facing an Iran which would be quickly aiming to acquire WMDs (something that they are not doing now). They would succeed in this and the US/Israel/NATO would have to live with a hostile, nuclear Iran. 2. All Iranians would overnight become anti-western and specifically anti-US (most are at the present neither and in fact most view the west as a potential trading partner as of now). This would remain with them for the foreseeable future.
    2. Even if the attack succeeds at most it will delay them for a few years. Again they will get WMDs and the west would be facing a hostile Iran forever. Moreover the war would be full and continuous. The Iranians have made this very clear. They would not wait around to be taken apart one piece at a time. They will attack anyone who helped the west. Most of the world’s oil and gas installations are within their reach as are many NATO and pro-western military installations/air/naval bases. They would be taken out.
    Just before Sadam attacked them the west everyone underestimated their capabilities. They are doing the same now.

  3. Yes, Iran has the capability to retaliate. In the event of an American attack. look for Iran’s retaliatory capabilities to be at the top of the US target list for that reason. (I do not support such an attack)

Comments are closed.