For those of you waiting for something meaty with details from Time's cover story on "What War with Iran Would Look Like," put the steak knives down. The 3,182-word answer: we're not sure exactly, but it would be really, really hard. Here are some of the choice cuts:
No one is talking about a ground invasion of Iran. Too many U.S. troops are tied down elsewhere to make it possible, and besides, it isn't necessary. If the U.S. goal is simply to stunt Iran's nuclear program, it can be done better and more safely by air. An attack limited to Iran's nuclear facilities would nonetheless require a massive campaign. Experts say that Iran has between 18 and 30 nuclear-related facilities... some in the open, some cloaked in the guise of conventional factories, some buried deep underground.A Pentagon official says that among the known sites there are 1,500 different "aim points," which means the campaign could well require the involvement of almost every type of aircraft in the U.S. arsenal: Stealth bombers and fighters, B-1s and B-2s, as well as F-15s and F-16s operating from land and F-18s from aircraft carriers... An operation of that size would hardly be surgical. Many sites are in highly populated areas, so civilian casualties would be a certainty...U.S. officials believe that a campaign of several days, involving hundreds or even thousands of sorties, could set back Iran's nuclear program by two to three years... But it is also likely that the U.S. could carry out a massive attack and still leave Iran with some part of its nuclear program intact. It's possible that U.S. warplanes could destroy every known nuclear site while Tehran's nuclear wizards, operating at other, undiscovered sites even deeper underground, continued their work. "We don't know where it all is," said a White House official, "so we can't get it all...."No one who has spent any time thinking about an attack on Iran doubts that a U.S. operation would reap a whirlwind... Retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner... has been conducting a mock U.S.-Iran war game for American policymakers for the past five years. Virtually every time he runs the game, Gardiner says, a similar nightmare scenario unfolds: the U.S. attack, no matter how successful, spawns a variety of asymmetrical retaliations by Tehran. First comes terrorism: Iran's initial reaction to air strikes might be to authorize a Hizballah attack on Israel, in order to draw Israel into the war and rally public support at home.Next, Iran might try to foment as much mayhem as possible inside the two nations on its flanks, Afghanistan and Iraq, where more than 160,000 U.S. troops hold a tenuous grip on local populations...Next, there is oil. The Persian Gulf, a traffic jam on good days, would become a parking lot. Iran could plant mines and launch dozens of armed boats into the bottleneck, choking off the shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz and causing a massive disruption of oil-tanker traffic...That kind of retaliation could quickly transform a relatively limited U.S. mission in Iran into a much more complicated one involving regime change. An Iran determined to use all its available weapons to counterattack the U.S. and its allies would present a challenge to American prestige that no Commander in Chief would be likely to tolerate for long....UPDATE 6:59 PM: Is the Bush administration really gearing up for war? Or does the administration want "to make the Iranians think an attack is brewing in order to pressure them into a diplomatic solution?" Fred Kaplan asks.