If President Donald Trump’s most recent tweets about Iran are any indication, a military confrontation with Iran is not off the table. And yet, there is almost certainly little consensus, even within the administration, about the wisdom of such a course of action. Mark Perry’s recent Foreign Policy article about Defense Secretary James Mattis’s efforts to avert war with Iran notes Mattis harbors no illusions regarding Iranian threats, but that he is also keenly aware any military strike would have broad and negative repercussions for the United States. One such repercussion is how an Iranian conflict might lead to regime change, possibly forcing the United States into another occupation in the region. Even the most hawkish US officials are not eager at the prospect of another foreign occupation. Occupations are something the United States has struggled with, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, since war rarely goes according to plan, the circumstances and situations war creates demand policymakers evaluate countless “what if” scenarios; including the possibility of a military strike escalating into regime change and a subsequent occupation.
Given the generally unpredictable nature of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that some military action could be taken against Iran; and given the equally unpredictable way that events can quickly evolve, it’s also quite possible that regime change and occupation would follow. And while it is not a foregone conclusion that an occupation of Iran would fail, historical data is not in an occupier’s favor. Most military occupations do not achieve their military or political objectives. Since 1815, of the twenty-six military occupations completed, only seven have been successful. US-led occupations have a similar success rate.
Why Are Occupations So Hard?
Dr. David Edelstein, author of Occupational Hazards: Why Military Occupations Succeed or Fail, points to three key factors required for an occupation to succeed. First, the occupied population must recognize the need to be occupied. Second, the occupier and the occupied must mutually recognize a common threat to the occupied territory. Finally, there must be a credible belief among the occupied that the occupier will withdraw and return control of the territory to an indigenous government in a timely manner. Unfortunately for the occupier these three factors are largely outside of its control. While an occupying force might get to choose where, when and how it occupies a territory, the occupier has limited control over how the population views its presence. The United States discovered this problem after invading Iraq in 2003. While the United States saw itself as a liberating force, most Iraqis did not share this view. Furthermore, even though the United States was determined to leave Iraq quickly, mitigating factors like corruption, sectarian violence, and a vibrant insurgency forced the United States to stay.
If we apply Edelstein’s three factors to an occupation of Iran, it indicates the United States would likely fail. First, most Iranians don’t see any need to be occupied by a foreign force. The 1979 Iranian Revolution and the takeover of the US embassy serve as ready reminders of Iranian hostility towards foreign influences. While there are political moderates within Iran who want better relations with the United States, even they would not support an occupation. Additionally, these moderate groups would likely be marginalized by more radical elements left over from the deposed regime. Second, the occupied population of Iran would not share a mutual threat with the United States. Today, Iran’s biggest rivals are Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both are close US allies. Finally, historical precedents would signal to the Iranians that the United States could make no credible guarantee to leave in a timely manner. On Iran’s eastern border sits Afghanistan, where the United States has had troops since 2001. To the west is Iraq, a country the United States left after eight years of fighting (much of it against Iranian-backed Shia groups), only to return several years later.
Plan for What You Never Hope to Do
The Pentagon is probably not planning for an occupation of Iran—though DoD planners are likely developing a myriad of limited strike options. Additionally, it is doubtful anyone at the White House is directing the Pentagon to war game for an occupation either. On the surface this makes sense. As explained earlier, occupations are difficult and usually do not achieve their objectives. However, as Secretary of State Colin Powell warned President George W. Bush before the war in Iraq, “You break it, you own it.” For this reason alone the United States should have some type of contingency plan about how to occupy Iran—no matter how unlikely this scenario might seem.
A shortfall of past US occupations has been the failure to plan and direct resources to them. The occupations of Germany and Japan were not flawless, but they did succeed. Much of this success was based on the voluminous pre-occupation planning the United States did before 1945 (the year both occupations began). In 1942, the US military and State Department began giving serious thought to occupying and reconstructing Germany and Japan. However, Germany and Japan are the exceptions, not the rule. Most US-led occupations have suffered from limited planning and lacked sufficient resources for establishing security within the occupied territory. There are numerous side effects to a poorly planned and resourced occupation, the worst being the development of a power vacuum. As was the case with Iraq and Afghanistan, a power vacuum creates an environment where forces hostile to the occupier’s interests can flourish. Well-planned occupations take this into consideration. In Germany, US forces were concerned about “preventing a security vacuum within the country,” and consequently, “the first order of business for the occupation was to have the occupying forces establish security for the military governments.”
Ensure Clear Lines of Authority
For any such plan to succeed, it must establish a command structure for the occupation authority. A command structure and clear lines of authority among all participants—military and non-military, US and allied—is essential to success. A clear command structure would be vital in an occupation of Iran to allow for a coordinated effort in implementing security and governance within the country. Furthermore, the US Army should take the lead in establishing both security and governance.
Many balk at the thought of the military taking the lead on governance, believing it should be left to the civilians. Nadia Schadlow outlines this belief in her book War and the Art of Governance—calling it “American Denial Syndrome.” This syndrome has manifested itself within the US government, as many civilian and military leaders believe the Defense Department should strictly limit itself to kinetic operations. This belief is shortsighted and false. As Schadlow explains, the Army is “the only institution with the personnel, organizational structure, and geographic reach to implement reforms throughout each country.” Civilian agencies like the State Department should be heavily integrated into the command structure. They bring unique knowledge and skills, which the Army cannot do without. However, these civilian agencies do not have the manpower or resources to run an occupation.
Pre-planning a comprehensive occupation should not be confused with actually advocating for an Iran occupation. In fact, mapping out how to occupy Iran would highlight just how difficult—if not impossible—it could be, bolstering Mattis’s argument that any war with Iran would be costly. Past US occupations have failed in part because policymakers did not adequately plan. Just as the military war games scenarios for kinetic operations against Iran, most of which will never happen, it should do the same with occupations. Adequately planning for an occupation of Iran, at a minimum, would help prepare the US for what might be a near impossible task.
Image credit: Hamed Saber
Great article Joe. How do we get you on TV?
My prediction on a war between US and Iran is that we will lose the war and our respect before the world and go bankrupt. And Donald is the nut case who will see to it.
Iran as we know, have already perfected the the atomic bomb technology. Iran had enough refined uranium to make 8 bombs, did not. This was confirmed by IAEA. Getting into navy war in Persian gulf is worth than committing Suicide. As of last known data, Iran has more than 300,000 smart bombs that can hit more than 2,000,000 kilometer away with pinpoint accuracy. Confronting their 40,000,000 men potential army with modern arms makes dream of occupation an absolute lunacy. Their air force and air defense is also impressive, but Iran most likely destroy US Air Force using armed drones collision midair. Iran demo this last year in Persian gulf within several feet of our carrier. And all of this as a reward for having idiot as a Chief and the thugs with pure record of failure surrounding him. It would be wise to check the map and the topography. We also have no friend, but the blood sucking, back stabbing, permanently on welfare Israel and rat eating, low IQ Saudi as Donald’s personal banker (and not our friend) .We can not even win war in Afghanistan or Iraq after 17 years. If you do not believe me, go and just stay in those countries for one week. My prediction is that we will have a war with Iran.
what an insipid comment.
First of all, based on Trump's actions to data, he doesn't seem inclined to commit ground forces in the middle east or southwest asia.
Second, the US would quite easily sink the entire Iranian navy and shoot down the entire Iranian air force, both of which are very weak. Iran is a paper tiger in the arena of conventional conflict. They fly obsolete jets and they have to create makeshift weapons to arm the obsolete jets. The US would also quickly destroy the Iranian ground forces in the conventional stage of any ground conflict.
The great danger is, as the article notes, the resulting occupation if we have a ground war with Iran.
The "juice" ain't worth the squeeze.
As a State Department officer working in the old S/CRS (Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization), I participated in a roughly week-long table-top exercise at Quantico on this subject (albeit thinly disguised) sometime in late 2006 or early 2007. I certainly don’t recall all the details, but I clearly remember that no one who participated — U.S. military, State, other USG agencies, and reps from at least a couple of U.S. allies — was comfortable with the results.
Thanks for the tip
I would hope we learned our lesson after Iraq and Afghanistan that the US should NOT attempt to occupy and change any Middle Eastern nation. It can't be done. If it comes down to a shooting war with Iran, it would be best if we destroyed their military, eliminated their government and then left letting the locals kill themselves until someone new takes over.
". If it comes down to a shooting war with Iran, it would be best if we destroyed their military, eliminated their government and then left letting the locals kill themselves until someone new takes over."
lol your bascilly suggesting a repeat of Iraq again, Maybe its best for you Americans to stop meddling in the affairs of other countries that haven't threaten you militarily?
It seems you Americans haven't learned anything from these past 20 years, hopefully a bloody nose which will hit you overseas as it did to the Soviets maybe then you will never, but sadly you wont. Your country is depended on Wars.
I will just quote Robert Gates:
“Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined,' as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”
Iran is a lot larger than Iraq in size and population. Any invasion would be sea borne and costly. Occupation would be resisted.
Iran has one geopolitical advantage. They control the Hormuz straights. Push them to the wall and they will close it.
Repercussion are clear. World wide depression. Oil at $400 a barrel.
There is a community of nations that would support military action. Israel. That is it. The GCC just wants sanctions and pressure.
As long as they can keep shipping oil through the straights. Everyone else in the world thinks this group of nations is nuts.
Can the planners come out and say 'this is lunacy' or will they be dismissed as 'risk averse do nothings' and be replaced with yes men like the Generals we keep sending into Afghanistan.Who's role is it to tell the President that something is a bad idea?
Iran has not threatened us. We are the ones trying to drive their oil exports to zero, they responded by saying that they might retaliate. How would we respond if a country started shutting down our exports, how is this different from a naval blockade.
If someone gives the President a realistic cost of occupation great. It should be made public. Is the cost worth taking actions that lead to war, but don't make it sound like we are reluctant. We are the ones making the first moves yet we are always the victim. We don't care if an occupation succeeds in Iran, if the country descends into chaos, no one would care anymore than we care about other countries we destroyed, like Libya.
The author is correct, it would be expensive, take a long time, and surprise the people might not actually like us (ya' think? I never got why people in the U.S. believe that people in other countries automatically love us, why should they, do you love Albanians but people in other countries must love the U.S. especially after we kill a whole bunch of them).
Today Iran ( and all the other small small fries), tomorrow the world.
I applaud the fact that you have had the insight to see this issue and the courage to raise it. Usually, our government, including the Army, has tried to deny the need to prepare to occupy hostile territory after kinetic operations. However, unless our adversaries will agree only to have wars in Antarctica, there will always be the potential, even the certainty, of the US having to administer the lives of civilians in territory we have seized. Being unprepared to conduct this mission essential task is to practically guarantee mission failure overall.
One thing I should point out is that while the US occupied Iraq, it never occupied Afghanistan. This is an important legal and practical distinction; to say the US occupied Afghanistan is like referring to the Parliament of the United States.
Whatever decision is made, make certain an L. Paul Bremer is not involved.