Adm. James Fallon (ret.) and Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney (ret.) were led in a discussion by ASP CEO Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney (ret.) on what they saw as the major costs and potential positives in launching military strikes against Iran. Both Fallon, the former head of U.S. Central Command, and Kearney, former Deputy Commander of Special Operations Command, signed onto a report by The Iran Project in September, outlining what those trade-offs would look like, using it as a launching board for the discussion.
Should a military option be required — an possibility considered to be on the table by all participants in the talk as well as the Obama administration — the panelists sought to make clear that despite a dominant U.S. superiority over Iran in pure military power, any attack on Iran would not be easy. Depending on the objective, the commitment of forces and material required would be substantial.
Even only delaying the progress of Iran by several years would be difficult, potentially taking several weeks of sustained fighting and potentially involving removing the threat of Iranian defenses. “Bottom line is it’s not gonna be a one-time shot,” Fallon said. If the objective is much larger, such as fully dismantling the Iranian nuclear program and fully guaranteeing a change in regime behavior, Kearney said that it would require ground forces in addition to air power, which would prompt, he said, “astronomical” costs.
Fallon said the largest problem in finding a solution to the stand-off between Iran and the West is a “trust deficit with a capital ‘D’.” That theme reemerged when responding to a question about potential verification programs that could form the basis of a negotiated solution. “It comes back to trust,” Fallon said, adding that while little to none exists today, “tamping down the rhetoric is a good place to start.”
Asked whether an attack would give Iran pretext to make the decision to develop a nuclear weapon, both agreed that it would be likely. According to Kearney, the Iranians believe the United States only wants regime change, prompting them to view any attack through that lens. “You have to expect, as a military planner, one of their reactions could be that they’ll sprint towards nuclear weapon capability or increase rhetoric that they will,” he said. That opinion squares with the view of several current and former Israeli officials, as well as U.S. intelligence, who have all determined that Iran has yet to decide to weaponize its program.
In hopes of preventing a situation where military options would be required, a team of negotiators from the International Atomic Energy Association is currently meeting with Iran in hopes of finding a breakthrough regarding new verification of the Iranian nuclear program’s peaceful nature. Likewise, Iran will be returning to the table in talks with the P5+1 group of international negotiators in late January. While the prospects for either set of talks leading to a huge shift in position from the parties, they will provide new life to a process that has lay dormant since June.