War with Iran, by the Numbers

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

Sen. John McCain and others on the American Right are in favor of dropping those pesky negotiations with Iran and just bombing their nuclear enrichment sites. Doing so, however, would only set them back a year or so, and would certainly put Iran on a war footing with the USA. Those who think such bombing runs would be the end of the story, however, are fooling themselves. Bombing Iraq in 1991 and the no-fly zone had a lot to do with taking the USA down the path to a ground war in 2003. Bombing now will almost certainly lead to a similar ground war.

Iran is 2.5 times more populous than Iraq and much bigger geographically. It is likely that Iran war numbers would be three times those of Iraq, at least.

Casualties from a strike on Bushehr Nuclear Plant: Hundreds of thousands.

Likely US troop deaths: 15,000

Likely US troops lightly injured: 270,000

Likely US troops more seriously wounded: 90,000

Direct cost of war: $5.1 trillion

Cost of caring for wounded troops over lifetime: $9 trillion to $18 trillion

Likely Iranian deaths: 300,000 to 1 million

Likely Iranian injured: 900,0000 to 3 million

Iranian displaced: 12 million (out of 75 million)

Opportunity cost to US: $23 trillion of infrastructure, health care improvement


Related video:

CNN: ” Nuclear dangers as Iran deal deadline nears”

Posted in Featured,Iran | 47 Responses | Print |

47 Responses

  1. Before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 a UN entity issued a report of predicted Iraqi dead, wounded, internally and extrenally displaced persons, other results that would impact Iraqi citizenry and national recovery, and total war costs. That report is amazingly difficult to find today. Various Bush administration officials and hangers-on took the revolving media stage to ridicule the figures. They were wrong, and unfortunately have not been held responsible for all the death and destruction they personally enabled. The UN was wrong too; its figures were not pessimistic enough. The drummer boys beating for war these days would like everyone to ignore the cost of war and ‘just get on with it’, don’t worry about the nuclear genie or yet another dissolved mideast nation with many more destitute and desperate survivors, and no national boundaries to prevent the gangrene of despair and anger from circulating.

    Historically, either national defeat, economic collapse, or the slaughter of a generation of the nation’s young men was required to dissolve nationalistic war fervor. It may be that the US is not smart enough to avoid that kind of loss again. War is barbarism. War proponents are barbarians.

    • Yes, it does often feel like only a thorough and crippling American defeat that affects ALL citizens and not just the mercenary military might be enough to wean the American public and its elected officials from their love of inflicting war on other people. Nothing cured the Europeans faster of their traditional martial fervor than the brutal realities of WWII devastating their nations.

  2. And that is assuming Iran doesn’t manage to get their hands on a nuclear bomb and decide to strike back. Americans are too complacent about the countries they attack never being able to strike back. Sooner or later that assumption will fail.

    • Who is to say Iran hasn’t already purchased one of the many “lose nukes” that are floating around the world? Per NTI.org, there are some nukes “missing” from the global inventory.

      The Saudis did buy their nukes instead of building their own, just like they purchased the DF-21C MRBM to put them on. AQ Khan is a busy man and still selling nukes even after Pakistan “promised” he would not do that.

      Iranians are so paranoid they insist on designing and building their own war toys – Saudis just buy their war toys from the many global suppliers.

    • I can’t think of a better reason for ANY country to want nuclear weapons than being constantly threatened with “preventative” attacks by the US, or Israel. Our own policies are fueling this desire but we seem to think we don’t have to obey rules other countries must. The UN Charter forbids unprovoked attacks on others, but how many times since WWII has the US wantonly invaded or struck from the air another country or overthrown a government the Americans didn’t like?

      • Iran is well aware that the US has never attacked a country with nuclear weapons. They view the acquisition of them as self-defence.

  3. Hi Juan,
    Would you mind applying the same analysis to Syria? The same fearmongers who’ve been rallying for an attack on Iran since ’79 are coming out of the woodwork lately with a shift in focus on Syria.

  4. Professor, war mongers like Bolton and McCain don’t assess the cost of war in the same negative tones as yourself. To them, the more a war costs, the more money they make. Death and destruction just doesn’t enter their calculations! If they see your figures they will be busy trying to extrapolate how much cash they can make for themselves and their pals in the military inndustries

  5. The harsh realities of Bibi and Boehner’s war games.
    The numbers will be staggering, but that does not seem to concern these war mongers. It never did before the Iraq war.
    Bibi has no other alternatives to the deal he keeps criticizing, so it is obvious he WANTS Iran bombed back to the stone age,
    and as for GOP the war they support does not seem to deter them, in their rabid support of Netanyahu’s plan, fresh after our fiasco in Iraq, for which we are still paying for, the loss of American lives, and being responsible for the massacre of thousands of Arabs, they still seems intellectually unable to comprehend and connect one disaster to another.

  6. Such numbers are making the mouths of America’s leaders drip with anticipation.
    Such numbers are totally insignificant if not completely meaningless to a clear majority of the American Population.
    If that is what the numbers are we are in for a ground war.
    I would advise the Iranian Government to test a nuclear device at the earliest possible moment.
    The American government will use the mantra that our war is with the leaders of Iran not the people of Iran. Despite the needless and massive suffering that will be inflicted on the people of Iran.
    You just wrote nine reasons that make the leaders of the USA look forward to going to war with Iran.
    I have not felt this sick, or powerless, since I heard that units at Ft. Useless were being sent to the middle east in 2002.

  7. As I pointed out here . . .

    link to juancole.com

    Israel and/or the USA would quickly deeply regret attacking Iran.

    Some things to remember about Iran:

    – It is pretty much self sufficient in weapons design and production. They are just as advanced as the USA in weapons design, except Iran knows how to make very effective weapons for a tenth of the cost of the USA.

    – Iran has spent the last 35+ years trying to make an inevitable USA attack as painful as possible for the USA. Iranians, remembering their history, are sure the USA will once again attack Iran, just like they have in the past. Iran is very prepared.

    – Iran has figured out that thousands of inexpensive, reasonably accurate missiles easily trump a single very, very expensive aircraft. Keep in mind that a single USA carrier only has 60 or so aircraft and each aircraft has less than five munitions hard-points on each aircraft and those hard-points can only support several hundred pounds each and for every pound hanging on a hard-point the distance the aircraft can fly drops substantially. This means the pilots must often refuel multiple times for each mission leading to pilot fatigue. Missiles don’t get fatigued and make deadly mistakes. Note that Iranian missiles are so inexpensive, Iran can easily afford to fire two or three at each incoming aircraft making it almost impossible for the US pilot to survive. This is the “swarm” technique Iranians like so much.

    – Once the air war fails, the US will be forced to either withdraw in humiliation or escalate to a ground war. Iran is well prepared for this also. Iran has carefully taken notes on how the Vietnamese, Afghans and Iraqis defeated the USA ground military and has developed even better techniques.

    – Iran has over 25 million military capable humans and the personal weapons to support them (Iran makes thousands of AK-47s every month and can easily buy more on the global market). The entire USA land fighting force is less than half a million, so they will be vastly outnumbered (~50 to 1) by Iranians. Most Americans will die rather quickly. Of course the congress critters could restart the draft but may not like the reaction they get from the voters.

    Then there is the “slight” problem in that both Russia and China have said very plainly that they would be extremely unhappy if the USA or Israel attacks Iran and they have the ability to make American and Israeli lives very BAD.

    The bottom line is the USA would be extremely foolish to attack Iran. As Dr. Cole points out, the basic numbers are terrible for the USA for any attack.

    • Besides the points made by spyguy and others, something very important to note about any major attack on Iran:

      Iran’s Islamic government enjoys strong support from their population. They are a democracy (in one form) after all. Their voter turnout numbers are much higher than in the US. Iranian popular support for their government would increase after any attack by the US or any other nation. Look at their popular mobilization in the Iran-Iraq War immediately following their revolution, when they were not well organized or self-sufficient in terms of military hardware design and production.

      When we attacked Afghanistan and Iraq, the vast majority of their populations sat back and observed, without resisting our invasion. After all, Saddam and the Taliban were dictators kept in power through force and intimidation. The same is not true of Iran. Talk to any Iranian, whether an supporter of the Islamic government, an ambivelent Iranian or a secular-minded Iranian. See how they’d respond to an attack on their country and people.

      In the case of any ground involvement from the US, or even just air strikes, US casualties would likely be high.

  8. Bombing Iran will be a smashing success.

    Success to neo-liberals and like Obama, Kerry, Hillary and neo-cons is a long costly imperial war that kills millions and drains America and pushes more and more nations east towards China and Russia.

  9. Invasion and regime change is the mad dog Republican answer to deep underground Iranian nuclear facilities. Long term occupation would help Iran’s oil and natural gas flow to more friendly western countries. The neocon plan for Iraq’s 112 billion barrels of oil reserves didn’t pan out. This could be the round II.

    Has anybody seen Darth Cheney?

    • It is impossible for the USA to occupy Iran for more than a few months. The death rate for Americans would be huge. As i noted above, the ratio is 50 Iranian fighters for each American.

      Then there is the problem that Iran supplies about 10% of China’s energy. I suspect that China would not be happy about the USA stopping that flow. In fact they just may severely punish the USA. possible by driving the US dollar through the floor and bankrupting the USA. Yes that would also hurt China, BUT a lot less than losing the Iranian energy.

      • spyguy, you make some good points about Iran supplying 10% of China’s energy. I think the neoconservatives also have China in their sights. What better way to limit China’s growing power than to restrict their energy. The neocons want to break down the Shanghai Cooperation Organization by regime changing Iran and Putin in Russia. Victoria Nuland and Ukraine are just on the back burner for now. Ditto for Obama’s pivot to Asia.

        Remember before the Iraq war one neoconservative saying “We’re an EMPIRE now. We make our own reality.” These people never go away.

        • The USA neocons have never met an opponent like China who they are VASTLY underestimating.

          China alone has over 20% of the global population and will do what ever it takes to protect them, including beating the USA to a bloody pulp. China is NOT afraid of the USA, but because Americans have zero understanding of the 5000 year old culture, they miss-read China’s traditional polite subtle messages for weakness. China has a very deadly iron fist inside that velvet glove.

          SCO is not going to be broken up, but will get stronger much to the detriment of the USA.

          Once again the USA lack of real world knowledge about other cultures combined with extreme hubris, is going to blow up in the USA face.

        • spyguy, I’m not saying you’re wrong about China. You said it best…”Extreme hubris is going to blow up in the USA face.” The neocons and Bibi are bat-shit crazy and won’t stop until that happens. No way they back off on their own.

        • Curious, if neocons want to restrict China’s energy, then why push for the XL Pipeline?

      General Darth Cheney has been spotted in a secret location somewhere in Kuwait preparing Halliburton’s mobile STRIKE FORCE for the invasion. The general can’t see Russia from his location, but numerous Iranian oil fields are visible. He has sent a message to all patriotic Americans….


  10. Not under Pres. Obama. And, as for after, US Democrats have a mission to inform each and every American voter of the costs of electing war hawk Republicans. Maybe this time, they will actually do it.

  11. If somebody were talking about violently going after their neighbor, or some neighborhood, or another town, or…? If the violent talk was ongoing or at least on a frequent basis, wouldn’t many of us think that person was pathologically certifiable, unfit as a human, etc?
    It turns out that such a person should be carefully viewed for potential as a future statesman or leader.
    I just can’t wrap my mind around the Bibis, the McCains, the Cheneys—and check out that John Bolton feller! There are just so many to name.
    Sorry. I am just babbling here. I feel totally lost. I have nothing meaningful to contribute.

    • LOL? Do you know what the numbers were from our last two wars? I mean the real numbers, not the lawyered-down ones in the corporate media.

  12. Another likely result would be that Iran would decide that they did need a nuclear weapon. And sooner or later they would get one. Either through the assistance of China, or through sheer persistence on their part. An attack on Iran would put them squarely in the China-Russian alliance. It would backfire just as the US adventure in the Ukraine did.

  13. Costs of war for warmongers? In the US and other NATO countries war expenses are investments. Costs for citizens? Incalculable.

  14. If anything, the numbers are too conservative. Casualties and costs in a war are not linear, but rather exponential with respect to population. Also, Iran wields much more influence in the area than Iraq back then ever did–in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Syria, extending to minority population in all the gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. The war against itself will be like a nuclear bomb, the firestorm and shockwave extending far beyond. If Israel thinks that it can somehow be immune from the fall-out with only US bearing the brunt, they are only fooling themselves.

  15. I believe “spyguy” states it best: No one wins a war!
    The U.S. must promote all existing friendships in the M.E.
    It must form new, additional friendships in the M.E.
    It must work in consort with the UN and European countries to complete a satisfactory treaty with Iran: the fear is that Iran could or would become an ogre, a loose cannon, if it were to acquire nuclear weapons. This would prompt neighboring countries to enter the same “arms race,” which the world knows has simmered down with the end of Russia’s communism.
    We, the world, do not want another “Cold War threat” from the M.E. The world is too interdependent. Its members need each other, for trade and human assistance.
    WAR must be a “non-option.” To establish a final link to this option, the countries of the M.E. must establish religious freedom in the way that it is established and functioning in the U.S. The M.E. must come to see that its members’ rivalries flow entirely from the absence of religious freedom for all.

    • Anyone worried about “loose canons with nukes,” should keep in mind that Pakistan ALREADY has nuclear weapons and has the Shaheen III MRBM with a range of up to 1700mi, which could enable it to reach deep into the Middle East. The next version will be able to reach Israel. Of course, Pakistan could just buy Taepodong-2 missiles from NK and easily reach Israel. Note that China will probably not sell Pakistan any DF-3, DF-4 or DF-31 because they would not trust Pakistan to not use them on China.

  16. Not only do the insane idiots pushing for war ignore costs that Professor Cole enumerates, they all assume that Iran will sit back and do nothing but wait for an invasion. Iran could easily mine the Straits of Hormuz, attack shipping, bomb Saudi oil fields and plunge the west into a deep depression. If they think terror attacks are bad now, how about if Iranian supporters like Hezbollah start widespread terror attacks? It will also inflame other terrorist groups. The unpleasant fact is that an Iranian bomb is actually not as bad as war with Iran would be. And only invasion and occupation would guarantee no bomb.

    • It is even worser than you think.

      – To stop shipping, all Iran has to do is torpedo any ship in the Persian gulf. While a tanker would make great video as it burned, keep in mind that any USN ship in the gulf is a sitting duck for Iranian subs, because the subs are equipped with super-cavitating torpedoes for which the USN has no defense, especially in the narrow gulf. Once one ship is sunk, all the marine insurance policies will be canceled and no ship owner will want to risk losing a multimillion dollar ship. Tankers will evacuate the gulf overnight.

      – If Iran thinks the Saudis are a danger, they will blow up all the Saudi oil terminals causing KSA to lose most of their revenue for at least two years. Oil production infrastructure is all hand built in place. There are no “spare” infrastructure just sitting in a field ready to replace stuff that gets blown up. Of course with KSA oil off the market and with the USA no where self sufficient in energy, the USA economy would collapse.

      – As for the USA invading and occupying Iran, that would require a MINIMUM of 3 million USA troops (big draft) and the death rate for the USA troops would be a minimum of 1% a month. I am sure the American public would be “thrilled” about both the death rate and he huge financial cost (between the energy costs and the war costs, the USA would be bankrupt very quickly)

      Iran has been planning for a USA attack for 35+ years. They have looked for every weak point the USA has and have developed technology and strategies to exploit those many weak points. An attack on Iran will be terrible for the USA and the USA will retreat in defeat very quickly as the costs escalate.

      • Add to that, the first time a US carrier gets sunk anywhere on Earth, it will discredit carriers everywhere, like Pearl Harbor discredited battleships. Even though the Persian Gulf is an especially vulnerable place for carriers, none of our carrier groups anywhere will be taken as seriously again. China and Iran will be selling missiles like hotcakes in every corner.

        • The DF-21D has a range of only about 800-1000 miles, so USA carriers are “safe” as long as they stay that far away.

          Of course that does cause a “slight” problem for the aircraft based on the carrier, because the jets have a very limited flight range, especially when carrying a heavy bomb load. This means that the carrier will have to also launch a lot of refueling aircraft or have the USAF launch a lot of refuelers from “safe” (and distant) land bases. In either case, this just increases the cost of each mission by 5x to 10x and wears out the pilots at a very fast pace. In-flight refueling is routine by now, but still increases the stress level and fatigue of the pilots and fatigued pilots make lots of mistakes.

          Of course that long distance flight path gives the S-400 systems (range ~ 200 miles) guarding the borders lots of time to acquire and destroy the incoming jets. Note that Iran and China have refined the S-400 design so it is not only more accurate , BUT also easier and less expensive to manufacture. This is key to the Iranian concept of “swarming.” That is, target each attacking device with enough counter measures to over load the defenses and ensure that the incoming attacker is destroyed. To do this the Iranian weapons must be very inexpensive but reliable, which they are.

          As far as I know, China is not selling the DF-21D to anyone, BUT China and Iran have an informal agreement to share weapons technology. Both China and Iran have benefited from this arrangement with Iran giving China some nice improvements to several designs in return for China giving Iran the initial designs. So there is a very good chance that Iran will be able to develop their own version of the DF-21D, if they have not already done that.

      • Come to think of it, I suspect that Iran could halt a lot of shipping just by presenting a credible threat of striking any of them without actually doing so. They don’t have to so much as scratch the paint as long as the threat makes the ships uninsurable.

  17. The NeoCons are drifting off to madness what with all this crazy talk of war. I fear it is the beginning of the end of the American civilization. The Republicans seek a course that is suicidal.

    • Iran wants a decent deal and Israel has no ability to attack Iran without committing suicide.

      The IDF has already explained this to Bibi many times and he still opens his big mouth while ignoring the IDF advice.

      No one in the IDF or Massad want any war with Iran. In fact on 31 Mar, the IDF publicly warned that war with Lebanon would be very deadly for Israel and everyone in Israel is freaking out that the IDF would even say such a thing.

  18. Is ‘Opportunity Cost’ how much $ would be spent on the war and aftermath instead of being spent on things we need in the US, e.g. infrastructure improvement and healthcare and more ???

    • Good point. War isn’t the only thing that is obscenely expensive. The lust for war is obscenely expensive too. Even where we don’t go to war, it costs a lot for materiel, etc. as we salivate for war. The classic macroeconomics model of guns vs butter (more guns means less butter and vice versa) is derided by today’s religious and political leaders.

  19. All this talk about neocons begs a bit more elucidation. Here’s a great summary article that presents them and their perspective in context of their fearless intellectual leader, Leo Strauss.

    link to consortiumnews.com

    I’m no historian, but from the intellectual genesis of the movement it seems like it’d be better thought of as “neo-facism.” As a descriptor, “neo-conservative,” really rather misses the mark. Maybe if people started referring to these guys as neo-fascists, others would be able to better recognized what is really going on from their readily evident words and behavior.

  20. I regret to inform you that your calculations are woefully wrong.

    First, why invade Iran? As noted above the moment ships start getting sunk, shipping ceases. A blockade of Iran would be militarily easy to do with little risk. No boots on the ground and cheap than an all out invasion. Eventually they will figure how to smuggle some oil but the Ayatollahs would likely be overthrown. If you think republicans are drooling religious nutcases, you need to read up on the beliefs of many of Iran’s leaders. We don’t need a war but we do want to live in a world in which people like those that lead Iran do not have nukes.

    Even if the US did invade (and we never will) any military historian would tell you that western military casualties in terms of percentages killed are much less than in even recent wars like Vietnam. If US could conquer Iraq in 2003 at the cost of less than 200 lives, casualties in an Iran war of invasion, holding the place only long enough to take apart the nuclear sites, ought to be relatively low. But the blockade is cheaper and easier, Iran has no cash and a loss of oil revenue would be crushing to them.

    • Trying to blockade Iran would cause the USA huge harm economically and most of the rest of world would side with Iran.

      Yes, tankers would stop traveling in the ME areas, BUT Iran has pipelines to many other places and some oil will flow (mostly to China).

      BUT the bottom line is, the USA power has been checkmated by Iran.

      As for your rosy invasion scenario, are you going to be one of those cannon fodder you are so willing to send to their death in Iran?

      The number of ways to kill Americans has been very well refined over the last 20 years (thank you GWB). Plus there is the “little problem” that Iran’s ACTIVE army is well trained, well equipped, very loyal and lead by battle tested generals. It is also three times the size of the US army and marines combined. Remember that Iran is currently beating ISIS in Iraq and Hezbollah is doing OK against ISIS in Syria. Then there is the other “slight” problem that Iran has 25 MILLION military capable people who will gladly kill every American they can find. It is highly probable that American invaders would not get anywhere close to the key nuclear facilities let alone dismantle them.

      You have fallen into the classic trap Sun Tzu told us about over 3000 years ago – vastly underestimating the opponent combined with extreme hubris about your own strength – A guaranteed and historically proven way to lose.

      You will NOT like the results of any USA invasion, nor will you like what happens to you if the USA tries to blockade Iran.

  21. This whole thing gets funnier and weird . . .

    Now Israel wants to join the new Chinese trade bank. Apparently Bibi, out of pure hatred for Obama, is ignoring the USA comments about the Chinese bank and because of extreme Israeli naivety about China (very evident in every Israeli comment about China) , Israel is trying to join the bank that will make it impossible for the USA to enforce any third-party sanctions on Iran.

    The main idea behind the Chinese bank, that China has not really tried to hide, is to create an alternative to the USA controlled global banking system and an alternative to the US dollar for trading. China does not want so much to replace the USA in controlling the global trade but would more like to blunt the current US control, so China and the rest of the nations on earth can do what they want, whenever they want no matter what the USA wants. That is, de-power the USA but not necessarily shift the power to China but diffuse it across the globe.

    One of the consequences of the Chinese trading bank will be the USA treasury will no longer be able to make other countries do anything financially, especially the USA will NOT be able to force other countries to sanction trade with Iran (or Russia). Once the bank is on-line, no matter how much the congress critters yell and scream, the rest of the world will be able to conduct trade without USA interference.

    And now Bibi wants to help China make it easier for the rest of the world to openly trade with Iran. Meaning virtually all the non-USA sanctions will be gone by the end of 2015.

    I wonder if Bibi understands what he is doing?

    I wonder if Israelis understand what Bibi is doing and how they are between a rock and a hard place. If they don’t join the new bank, it will be harder for Israel to trade, but by joining the bank, they are making it easier for Iran to trade with most of the world. oooops.

  22. Here’s a link to an older article that shows the warmonger argument: link to thecommentator.com

    In a nutshell, the “bombs away” folk believe that Iran either won’t retaliate or will only make futile gestures.

    Such a belief is rather ironic. If Iran is truly too poor and too weak to respond to bombing raids, then why would nuclear weapons encourage it to launch a first strike against far superior opponents? Any first nuclear strike would immediately bring about nuclear retaliation. Iran has no shield from Israel’s nuclear missiles and nowhere to hide

    We are supposed to believe that building nuclear weapons will make Iran suddenly become wildly suicidal. And that without nuclear weapons, Iran will remain a docile pussycat that won’t raise a single claw in self-defense when it gets bombed. That makes no sense.

    It looks to me like the warmongers just want to see if they can turn Iran into a failed state and a looter’s paradise. And they are eager to do that before Iran gets a nuclear weapon; not because a nuclear Iran would be a danger, but because a nuclear Iran would no longer be easy to topple and easy to loot.

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