It’s not that often that a major in the US military — albeit now a reservist — points the finger at the Defense Secretary and says, sir, you’re wrong, and does it in writing and in public. Here you have it. Army Maj. Danny Sjursen, expressing his own unofficial opinions, says Iran is Jim Mattis’ blind spot and that his boss is wrong in his assessments of the country. Why? Read on, Dear Reader! The Editor.
Last week, after Israel reportedly shot down an Iranian drone and Prime Minister Netanyahu proudly displayed a hunk of twisted metal as a war trophy, Americans were treated to fresh calls for regime change from some prominent neoconservatives.
Granted, Iran is no friend to the U.S. and might even qualify as a modest adversary. Its nuclear ambitions should continue to be thwarted, as most reports indicate they are. Still, what Washington desperately needs right now is some perspective and an honest conversation about the realities of the Middle East. Not alarmism. The last thing the overstretched U.S. military needs is another hot war. It’s already pretty busy. President Obama bombed seven countries in 2016, and President Trump has continued apace.
There’s reason to worry. Trump, who ran on an eminently reasonable platform of disengagement from “dumb” wars in the region, quickly pivoted to a hawkish stance on the Islamic Republic. In December, when protestors hit the streets of Tehran based on mostly economic motives, Trump immediately rallied in support and not-so-subtlety tweeted “Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever.” Except, that is, for Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other illiberal authoritarian regimes we support.
Perhaps Trump simply meant the people of Iran would topple the ayatollahs, but if the recently released National Defense Strategy is any indicator — it lists Iran as one of four core threats —U.S.-imposed regime change is certainly on the table.
It shouldn’t be. At present, Iran does not present a clear and present vital threat to American national security. Statements from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, however, indicate he disagrees.
Mattis’ Blind Spot
The secretary is the boss, my boss, but his focus on the Iranian regime qualifies as his blind spot, a veritable Iran obsession.
Since at least 2011, Mattis has overstated the Iranian threat and hinted at toppling the regime in Tehran. And he’s only doubling down. This past May, Mattis told “Face the Nation,” that “what we find is, wherever there are challenges, wherever there is chaos, wherever there is violence, whether it be in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, the attempts to unsettle Bahrain. We always find Iran and the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] at it.” He also once told then-President Obama that the top three threats in the Middle East were “Iran, Iran, Iran.” That sounds excessive.
Iran spends about as much on defense annually as the U.S. does on a single aircraft carrier. A simple comparison is instructive: Iran’s GDP was about $427 billion, and it spent some $11.5 billion on defense in 2016. U.S. allies, like Saudi Arabia (GDP: $678 billion; defense spending: $66.7 billion) and Israel (GDP: $348 billion; defense spending: $19.6 billion) can more than hold their own. And remember, standing behind them is the real behemoth, the U.S., which plans to spend $716 billion on defense in 2019—that’s $300 billion more than Iran’s entire GDP. The numbers speak for themselves. Conclusion: some perspective is in order.
While Iran definitely is engaged in the Mid-East, its own neighborhood, it’s rarely behind much of anything and doesn’t have nearly the power or influence to pull all the various regional strings. Yemeni and Bahraini unrest were homegrown. Conflict in Syria and Lebanon preceded Iranian deployments there. And Iraq, well, the U.S. handed Baghdad to Iran on a silver platter after that ill-fated invasion. Iran use regional proxies, rather than its own military, precisely because it is weak and fearful.
Furthermore, though he’s recently backed off some of his most bellicose threats, Mattis regularly draws distinctions between the supposedly disenfranchised people of Iran and an ostensibly separate revolutionary regime. There’s something to this, but in Mattis’ statements, it sounds like he’s calling for the fall of the regime. “It’s not the Iranian people,” Mattis added. “We are convinced it’s a regime that is conducting itself in order to stay in power in Tehran as a revolutionary regime, not as a proper nation-state. They are not looking out for the best interests of their own people.”
Maybe that’s true enough, but surely dozens of governments fail to represent their populace the world over. That doesn’t necessitate regime change, does it? Such rhetoric raises tensions and threatens to stoke nationalist tendencies in Iran which work to the advantage of relative hardliners.
The View from Tehran
After all, try and view the last decade of U.S. military actions from Tehran. Washington toppled and seemingly permanently occupied Iran’s neighbors on its western (Iraq) and eastern (Afghanistan) flanks, encircled the country with its military bases, and intervened in just about every country in its neighborhood.
I remember way back in August 2002, and even then the rhetoric was chilling: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran,” a British official close to the President Bush team told Newsweek in the lead up to the Iraq War. Who could rationally blame Iran’s leaders for fearing they were next? And who would be surprised to see them turn to Shia militias to trap the U.S. military in a Baghdad quagmire? That’s basic survival instincts. While not excusing their tactics, it’s undeniable that their approach enhanced their standing vis-à-vis Iraq and the region—an unintended consequence of ousting Saddam Hussein.
Iranians also have a long memory. The CIA helped overthrow a democratically elected government in Tehran in 1953. Then, throughout the 1980s, the U.S. backed Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s brutal invasion of Iran. Heck, President Reagan even sent one Donald Rumsfeld (remember him?) to make nice with Saddam.
None of this sordid history obviates Iran from acting responsibly in the region—but this must serve as a reality check for Washington’s triumphalism and an unfathomable commitment to strategic overreach. Walking the proverbial mile in an adversary’s shoes isn’t “soft,” it’s smart. Only by understanding the motives of other countries can we correctly predict and counter actions that undermine America’s interests.
Military Action: A Bad Idea
Iran’s military is far from the imposing behemoth threat of hawkish imagination. In fact, Saudi Arabia is much better armed and could likely handle Iran by itself—remember, it spends more than five times much on its military than Iran.
Nonetheless, Iran is spatially large and mountainous with an enormous, fiercely nationalist population. Make no mistake, U.S. military occupation of the Islamic Republic would make the Iraq War, for once, actually look like the “cakewalk” it was billed to be.
America’s armed forces are currently spread thin in a dozen simultaneous operations and deployed in nearly 70 percent of the world’s countries. The Army alone is rotating brigades to deter Russia in Eastern Europe; manning the DMZ in South Korea; training and advising across Africa; conducting raids in Somalia, Yemen, and Niger; and actively fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
So where are the troops available to topple Tehran? They don’t exist. The U.S. military is already running at full throttle, and the American people won’t be flocking to recruiters to stave off an overhyped, distant Iranian threat. The polling data is clear: Americans don’t want another war.
Ubiquitous, over-the-top proclamations aside, Iran’s various regional interventions have been more cost than benefit for Tehran and largely defensive in nature—look no further than recent protests throughout Iran for proof. Iran isn’t seeking a New Persia any more, or less, than our purported Turkish (NATO) ally’s dream of a revamped Ottoman Empire. That’s rhetoric, not reality. And these days, with Turkish tanks just miles from U.S. forces in Syria and openly threatening Washington, guess who the greater threat is?
Indeed, it might be time for Washington to swallow its pride and admit to some common interests with Iran in the region—the defeat of ISIS, suppression on Sunni Islamists, and a stable, non-threatening Afghanistan—rather than harping on the exaggerated negatives.
Look, I don’t take any of this lightly. Iranian-supplied bombs killed two of my soldiers on January 25, 2007. Still, it’s important to remember, no Iranians have attacked the homeland since 9/11 (not something that can be said of our many autocratic “allies” in the region). The proper role of the U.S. military is to prevent enemies killing Americans, not to keep rival Mid-East factions from killing each other.
Forget a new war. Iran isn’t worth it. Not now, probably not ever. The U.S. military is busy, thank you very much. And any trouble it causes can easily be countered by our partners and allies in the region.
Washington should ditch the alarmism and get real in the complex Middle East.
Danny Sjursen is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He served combat tours with U.S. Army reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. government.