Costs and Consequences of Action Against Iran
One of the hottest topics right now is the controversy surrounding Iran, its possible pursuit of nuclear weapons, and whether Israel, the United States, or the two countries together will attack Iran's nuclear facilities. While there are a variety of commentators arguing why a strike isn't necessary, there has been too much focus on the potential advantages of a strike without equal attention to the disadvantages and negative consequences of a strike. These are worth considering.
Wars cost money. So do airstrikes. Just how much can be difficult to calculate, because it depends on unknown factors like the length of the conflict, the resources needed to prosecute it, and the skill of our opponent. Recent history demonstrates the folly of assuming a war will be quick and cheap. The 2003 U.S. war against Iraq was originally projected to cost $50 to $60 billion. Yet, in 2008, before the war was even over, the Pentagon had already spent $600 billion.
The Eisenhower Study Group, a non-profit, non-partisan group based out of Brown University, has put together an analysis of the collective costs of our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan since 2001. In addition to looking at the official numbers – the appropriation of $1.3 trillion to the Pentagon for fighting the wars – the group also looked at the unofficial or hidden monetary costs. This second category includes spending on things like the Pentagon’s base budget, care for veterans of these wars, foreign aid to the countries in question as part of the rebuilding process, and the interest payments on debt the United States incurred funding these wars. These hidden costs total between an additional $1.9 to $2.7 trillion, bringing the total overall monetary costs of the wars to $3.2 to $4 trillion.
Of course, a single military airstrike on a half dozen or a dozen nuclear sites in Iran is not going to cost anywhere near $4 trillion. But when we first went to war in Afghanistan, did we expect to still be there in 2012? When we first went to war in Iraq, weren’t we told that we could take over in a few weeks and be gone shortly thereafter? One of the recurring points that is used to argue against a military strike is that such a strike will only delay any Iranian nuclear program, not end it. The Iranians can rebuild and would be even more likely to build a nuclear weapon, in which case we will be forced to bomb them again and again, or else get even more involved and force a regime change, further escalating our costs. With our country already seriously drowning in debt, can we afford to add any more?
Higher Gas Prices/Economic Consequences
Already, the talk of a possible military strike and a war against Iran, along with the recently implemented sanctions, have had an effect on international oil prices, which in turn contributes to significantly increased U.S. gas prices. Aside from hurting individual American families, even higher gas prices worldwide would have significant consequences for an already stressed economy. As Gal Luft writes, “a war in the Middle East means an oil shock and, as was the case in 1973, 1979, and 1990, oil shocks are harbingers of recessions.” Can we afford the economic consequences of an airstrike or war?
Civilian Casualties/Collateral Damage
Any honest calculation about the costs of a war must include the possibility that there will be “collateral damage” – civilian deaths and the destruction of civilian infrastructure. International relations scholar Stephen Walt notes that even short of a full-blown war, “if you take out some of Iran's nuclear facilities from the air, for example, there's a very real risk of spreading radioactive material or other poisonous chemicals in populated areas, thereby threatening the lives of lots of civilians.” A larger war, one that involved additional strikes and fights, would result in even more unintended casualties.
News reports about civilian casualties resulting from US and NATO interventions in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq provide evidence of this problem. Most recently, the tragic murders of 16 Afghani villagers have drawn attention to the problem of “collateral damage.” Overall, the civilian casualties in Afghanistan from only 2007-2011 total 12,793, although 66% of those were killed as the result of Taliban suicide attacks or IEDs, not directly by coalition forces. Measures of civilian casualties from the 2003 Iraq war vary widely, but are at a minimum over 100,000 people. Even NATO’s brief intervention into Libya has been criticized for causing civilian deaths. We have no way to know how many civilian deaths might be caused by an American or an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities (or further conflict resulting from such a strike), but we can be sure there will be some. These deaths deserve to be included in our calculations of the costs of a war with Iran, as do the political consequences of such deaths.
American Relations with the Iranian People
We must also consider the potential costs to American relations with the Iranian people. An American air strike could cause an anti-American backlash from the Green Movement, the Iranian opposition group fighting for reforms, even possibly “[uniting] the regime and the opposition Green Movement.” This is hardly the outcome the United States is looking for, considering its overall support for regime change in Iran, when the Green Movement represents the best chance of that happening. The Green Movement has asserted the right for Iran to pursue nuclear power, which it can legally do under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Thus far, there is no evidence that the Iranians actually have gone beyond pursuing nuclear power and enriching uranium to levels consistent with legal use for energy, research, and medical purposes. (See here, here, here, and here).
Does anyone else remember Vice President Cheney’s famous remark that American soldiers would be “greeted as liberators” in Iraq? What evidence do we have that commentators claiming that an airstrike would help the Green Movement are any more correct?
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of all the costs associated with a war or pre-emptive strike. I have left out one of the most obvious and important costs: the deaths and injuries of U.S. and allied military personnel (and Iranian personnel too, for that matter). I also haven't addressed the potential diplomatic consequences for the United States – how will it look to the world if America unilaterally strikes, especially in the absence of conclusive evidence that the Iranians are actually building a nuclear weapon?
Ultimately, one of the most important things we can do in this national debate is to keep in mind the serious costs and consequences of a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities instead of focusing solely on the expected benefit. We cannot afford to be blind to the consequences of our actions. It may indeed prove necessary to go to war with Iran. But if that happens, we should be certain that we have weighed the costs of doing so.