Photo of old U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Flikr user bashem. Photo of old U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Flikr user bashem.

**Reader’s Note: These are Major Matt Cavanaugh’s remarks from the October 2013 War Council event on U.S. options toward the Iranian nuclear program.  The full event remarks are available at Small Wars Journal.  His prompt was to engage with “military strategic considerations.”**

Academics and opinion writers engage military issues all the time – glossing over important considerations.  For example, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, last year, writing on the U.S. Navy breaking an Iranian blockade in the Straits of Hormuz: “We will succeed, but at considerable cost.”  That seven-word sentence is pregnant with so many assumptions, challenges, paradoxes and questions – it is just so amazingly simplistic.

So what is a member of the profession of arms to think?

That’s why we’re here – to get beyond overbroad statements to real strategic analysis.  I’ll cover three topics: what each country wants, likelihood of military tactical and operational effectiveness, and the strategic wisdom in using military force to deny the Iranian bomb.

Value of the Object

Start with a basic question – what do both sides want?  Or, as Clausewitz puts it: what is the “value of the object?”

This is simple cost-benefit analysis, and both sides want access to energy.

For the United States, it is access to oil at stable prices.

The U.S. imports 19% of its oil from Gulf countries (Saudi, Iraq, etc.), about the same as what it gets from Canada.  (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2007 figure).

There are significant changes happening right now which reduce the value of Middle Eastern oil to the United States.  Time magazine recently called it a “power revolution” – yesterday (3 October 2013), The Wall Street Journal declared that the U.S. has overtaken Russia as the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas.

Therefore, over time the value of this object to America will decline.

For Iran, they want the ability to extract wealth – get cash – from oil.

Oil accounts for roughly 80% of exports from Iran and pays for 60% of government revenues. (US Energy Information Administration, 2009 figure)

New financial sanctions imposed on Iran in February have nearly cut in half (44%) their monthly earnings from crude oil exports.  (Business Insider & AP)

Object to the Iranians is access to sustainable, energy wealth.

Let’s look to the chart provided in the slide, on the left.  Here’s where the nuclear program comes in: since the Revolution – population and consumption has doubled (bottom line), while production has flatlined (top line). The space between these two lines – think of that as the amount of cash Iran can get out of oil – it has gotten much smaller.  Rationally, Iran seeks other energy sources (nuclear) to reduce domestic oil consumption – and keep the space between these two lines bigger – so they can sell their oil abroad for money.

Something must change for the Iranians; the U.S. prefers the status quo.

Policy – in sum:

US: Prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Iran: Ayatollah Ali Khameni – “Iran’s only demand [is] recognition of its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.” (Akbar Ganji, “Who is Ali Khamenei?” Foreign Affairs)

Military Effectiveness

Can the U.S. accomplish this “prevention” policy militarily?

Let’s start with geography.

Iran = 50% larger than Iraq and Afghanistan put together.

Iran is about 25% larger than Iraq/Afghanistan populations put together.

(Economist World in Figures 2013, 2010 figures)

Let’s consider the last step before our first.

Think about landpower – stability operations – “Phase IV” – and base our force to population calculation off of historical examples.

There are about 75 million people in Iran.

Think of the French in Algeria.

For the U.S. to equal the French force to Algerian population ratio – that would take 4.5 million soldiers.

To equal the British in Malaya – 1.9 million soldiers.

And, by far, the most permissive environment historically, post WWII Germany – less than one tenth what the international community put into the Balkans – that would mean 165,000 soldiers. (Based off ratios in Steven Goode, Parameters, Winter 09-10)

There were about 165k U.S. forces deployed at the height of the Surge in Iraq. (Petraeus SWJ “Reflections” article)

So the lowest figure, the most permissive environment, would equal our recent maximum output – and at the same time that we’re shrinking the Army!

This simple force to space analysis suggests that the U.S. does not have sufficient landpower to control Iran to the extent required to deny a nuclear weapons program.  And, note, I haven’t even gotten to a more detailed terrain analysis, partially out of time considerations, but also because I want you to be able to sleep tonight!


Wisdom – is it wise to use military force to deny Iran the bomb?  How does one define “wise?”  I’ve thought a lot about this point.  I consider it to be the achievement of sustainable ends at an acceptable cost.

Much international relations theory focuses on material factors and assesses that the U.S. could (and would) mop the floor militarily with Iran.

Because they’re so small: Iran’s GDP is less than that of the City of London, the state of Austria, Massachusetts. Their military expenditures less than 2% of the United States (Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment at Intelligence Squared, 25 February 2011)

But relative size advantage only takes us so far – how you use your resources – military strategy and force employment – matter greatly.

Iranian military strategy is irregular and low cost – designed to exhaust and erode.

So what specific course of action might the Iranians adopt?

Iran: could impose their own version of economic sanctions.

Close the Gulf – “naval guerilla warfare.”  Let’s return to geography: the Persian Gulf is a “lake” – it is narrow, very shallow, and Iran has a 1,000 mile coastline that can provide cover and concealment to Iranian small boats and shore based anti-ship missiles. They have “tailored [their] naval strategy to maximize [their] advantages” in this environment (SWJ, Cummings).

The scholar Thomas Schelling, in his book Arms and Influence, wrote: “military force can be used to hurt…it can destroy value…the power to hurt is bargaining power.”

Neither side appears to be able to gain control – like two boxers with no knockout punching power – this will devolve into a punishment-resilience cycle.  It also means that American strategy will have to be cumulative, which requires patience – because we can never know which straw will break the camel’s back.

Two last thoughts.

Although Clausewitz counsels me to be wary of reasoning by ancient history, I can’t help myself.  Many of you are familiar with Steven Pressfield’s book Gates of Fire and the story of the Spartans at Thermopylae.

Briefly, in 480 BC a massive multinational force, somewhere between 70,000 and 300,000 soldiers, led by the Persians under Xerxes – invaded the “Western” world – they were thwarted at a geographical choke point by a significantly smaller (but determined) force of approximately 7,000 – which protracted the war long enough to give rise to a powerful domestic response.

In many ways, to consider military action against Iran bears some resemblance to Thermopylae – only this time, the “West” with the U.S. in the lead – invades toward another choke point, playing into the cost-imposing strategy of a smaller set of determined defenders well prepared to maximize the advantages the earth has given them.

It is hard to imagine the United States could use military force to sustainably deny the Iranians the bomb at a cost acceptable the American people.

Finally, I have to remind you that there is no objectively right or wrong assessment here – this is not black and white.  Think of two approaches to hitting in baseball.  Classic slugger (Sammy Sosa) versus a slap hitter like Ichiro Suzuki.  Swing for the fences – huge payoff but high cost in strikeouts.  Contact hitting – less immediate payoff but also less costly. Both approaches provide value and contain risk. (Stephen Biddle, “Conversations with History,” 17 April 2006)

The strategist’s task is to “lay bare” the benefit and costs of these choices, and try to dispassionately assess risk. (Stephen Biddle, “Conversations with History,” 17 April 2006) That is what I hope I have done for you today.

You should know, I’m very proud that you’ve chosen to be here. In the famous line from the second Godfather – “…this is the business we’ve chosen…” – the profession of arms; to study the use of force – and I’m excited that so many of you recognize that.

That said, thank you for your time and I look forward to your questions.


Powerpoint slide used in presentation. Powerpoint slide used in presentation.