Editor’s Note: William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech this week on next steps in US policy toward Iran read more like a call to war than a carefully crafted foreign policy stance. So much so that the obvious next question is what it might cost if the Trump administration seeks to provoke regime change in Iran.
That’s tough to answer, since it depends entirely on how the Trump administration chooses to go about it, if it indeed chooses to go down that disastrous road. Pompeo’s threat to bring Iran to its knees with punishing economic sanctions clearly won’t get the job done, especially since the Trump administration has just alienated its most important potential partners by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. Good luck getting France, or the United Kingdom, or Germany, much less Russia or China, to join in a campaign of maximum economic pressure on Tehran after the Trump administration has walked away from a painstakingly negotiated multilateral deal that was working to achieve its only stated objective – stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Next-level steps could include supporting anti-regime groups like the Mujahadeen-e-Khalq (MEK), which was for many years on the US list of terrorist organizations. But its ability to win over influential supporters like John Bolton does not mean that the MEK has either the capacity or the support to overthrow the Iranian government. To think that an organization that the New York Times has rightly described as a “fringe dissident group” could overthrow the government of Iran is a fantasy.
Non-violent, internal opponents of the Iranian regime would most likely be hurt more than helped by overt US support. And the last time the US launched a coup in Iran – installing the Shah of Iran in place of the democratically-elected government of Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953 – the results were counterproductive, to put it mildly. Twenty-five years of dictatorship followed by the rise of an Islamic fundamentalist regime can hardly be called a foreign policy success.
So that leaves military action. A bombing campaign could kill thousands of Iranians, but it would be extremely unlikely to undercut Tehran’s ability to restart its nuclear weapons program, and might even accelerate that effort. Last but not least, as one analyst of the region has noted, a full-scale war against Iran would make the Iraq and Afghan conflicts look like “a walk in the park.”
It’s impossible to say with any level of precision what a US attempt to overthrow the Iranian government might cost, but our experience with Iraq offers some clues. Economic sanctions hurt millions of ordinary Iraqis. But Saddam Hussein was able to manipulate the shortages caused by sanctions to posture his regime as the sole source of sustenance for the population. As veteran journalist David Rieff noted in a detailed analysis of the 1990s sanctions regime, they “palpably failed to dislodge his [Saddam’s] government and in fact strengthened him politically.”
After sanctions failed to displace Hussein’s government, many proponents of regime change in Iraq placed their faith in Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress (INC), an exile group whose main achievement was to supply misleading intelligence about Iraq’s nuclear program. When backing Chalabi and the INC failed to undermine Saddam Hussein’s regime, the neoconservatives who populated the top ranks of the Bush administration pressed for an invasion.
Bush administration officials assured the American public that a war with Iraq would be cheap and easy, a “cake walk” that could cost as little as $50 to $60 billion. So far, as the Costs of War Project at Brown University has calculated, the post-9/11 wars pushed by George W. Bush and his advisors have cost $5.6 trillion, and counting – more than 100 times the Bush administration’s initial claims. More importantly, the wars have cost hundreds of thousands of lives on all sides, including an estimated 200,000 civilians. Is that the kind of regime change the Trump administration has in mind for Iran?
Bearing the Iraq example in mind, what would the different options for pursuing regime change in Iran cost?
The Trump administration’s ditching of the Iran nuclear deal has already cost Boeing a major airline sale to Iran worth $20 billion. The negative consequences of ratcheted up sanctions could cost the US economy billions more by causing a hike in global oil prices, higher prices at the gas pump and a possible reduction in domestic tourism and travel.
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Funding internal opponents of the regime could cost an exorbitant amount over a multi-year period. And if unsuccessfully attempting to train 500 “moderate” Syrian fighters cost over $500 million, training a force to attack Iran could run to several billion or more. Lobbing dozens of cruise missiles at Iran to “send a message,” as Trump has done twice in Syria, could cost a few hundred million dollars.
A bombing campaign similar to the one waged against ISIS in Iraq and Syria would cost about $8.3 million a day, or about $3 billion per year. A major bombing campaign like the one inflicted on Iraq in the 1990s would run into the tens of billions. And, judging from the experience in Iraq, a full-fledged invasion could cost trillions, not to mention creating a level of chaos in the region that would make current conflicts worse even as new ones are sparked.
The underlying question, of course, is whether the Trump administration should seek to overthrow the Iranian government in the first place. From a security perspective, the answer should be a resounding no. If the administration is nonetheless determined to pursue such an option, the American public should at least be given a sense of what it might cost in both blood and treasure. But don’t hold your breath waiting for John Bolton, Mike Pompeo or anybody else in the Trump administration to give you a straight answer.