Sun Tzu, a 6th-century B.C. Chinese general and military strategist and the author of The Art of War, laid out arguably the most comprehensive treatise on strategy ever written. I referenced his insights frequently in my strategy classes at the University of Virginia, and particularly this kernel of wisdom:
It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.
To succeed in war, you must understand your enemy. With that thought in mind, it is helpful to consider what we know about Iran's Islamist rulers and their line of attack in previous military engagements. The best evidence we have comes from the Iran-Iraq War. Below are some basic facts about that war and ten lessons that political and military leaders today should contemplate before launching an attack against Iran:
- The Iran-Iraq War lasted from 1980 to 1988. Lesson: The Iranians are willing to fight for a very long time.
- Saddam Hussein decided to invade Iran because he believed that they were unprepared for war. They weren't ready at first, but they got ready in a hurry. Lesson: Don't underestimate Iranian resolve.
- As Islamic militants rose to positions of power following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, they pursued an expansionist foreign policy that was a continuation of centuries-old battles between Sunni and Shia Muslims and Persians and Arabs. Lesson: Don't ignore tensions that have been suppressed artificially by so-called "diplomatic achievements." Those tensions are just as prevalent today as they have ever been.
- When he launched the campaign against Iran, Saddam Hussein thought that the Arab minority in Iran would revolt and destabilize the government. The hoped-for revolt never materialized. In fact, the Arab minority in Iran joined forces with the Iranians. Lesson: Make sure that your assumptions are correct. If you are in doubt, assume the worst, because that's what is likely to happen.
- Copying Israel's strategy during the 1967 Six-Day War, Saddam's first significant military mission was aimed at destroying the Iranian air force on the ground. Although he achieved some success, he didn't eliminate Iran's fighter planes because they were "protected in specially strengthened hangars," and he didn't incapacitate the runways on Iranian airfields. Thus, within hours, Iranian jets attacked major military installations inside Iraq. Lesson: Before launching an attack, make sure that you can get the job done. If you doubt your ability to complete your mission successfully, delay your attack until you can succeed.
- The Iraqi attack enabled Ayatollah Khomeini to recruit about 100,000 volunteers immediately from his so-called "Army of Twenty Million," or the People's Militia. Lesson: Despite internal political squabbles, Iran is capable of attracting large numbers of ideologically committed volunteers from its population of roughly 74 million people. They will even bring their own burial shrouds with them to the battlefield, hoping for martyrdom.
- Iran refused to accept defeat. Lesson: Never minimize the importance of your enemy's willingness to fight to the death. In Western countries, high casualty counts lead to political unrest at home and demands to stop the fighting. In Iran, large numbers of casualties are regarded as the price of glory.
- Iran used World War I battle tactics, including trench warfare and "human wave" assaults. Iranian military leaders kept sending in troops regardless of the risks involved, and there seemed to be a never-ending supply of new recruits. Before Iran was forced to accept a United Nations-mandated ceasefire, it is estimated that between 262,000 and 800,000 Iranians were killed. Although estimates of the number of Iranian deaths during the Iran-Iraq War are not very good, this much is certain: large numbers of Iranians are willing to die for their cause in a protracted campaign. Lesson: If you are not prepared to fight to the bitter end, don't even think about engaging Iran in a military campaign. A pinprick assault will not work. To be successful, countries considering war with Iran need to deliver a crushing blow quickly and then follow up with an all-out effort to round up, incarcerate, and neutralize Iran's radical Islamist political, military, and religious leaders -- all of them.
- During the Iran-Iraq War, Iran's allies included Syria, Libya, North Korea, and China. Iran also received covert assistance from the United States. Lesson: In addition to knowing your enemy, you need to know which countries support your enemy's cause directly and indirectly. Failure in this regard can have devastating consequences.
- The odds are very good that Islamist militants (sometimes called mujahideen, strivers, or strugglers) who are seeking martyrdom will flood to Iran if she is attacked to fight for the larger cause, which, they believe, is Islam vs. the rest of the world. It happened in Afghanistan with substantial U.S. support, and you can bet that it will happen again with support from other countries. Lesson: The real war is between radical Islam and the West. Iran is just the tip of the sword, a position that Iran's leaders seem to relish. Countries considering war with Iran need to take into account the size and scope of the potential enemy. There may be as many as 12 million or more radical Islamists in the world today.
There should be no doubt that Iran's leaders are at war with Israel and the United States. Threatening to "wipe Israel off the map" and to close the Strait of Hormuz to U.S. military vessels is evidence of that fact. It's also clear that Iran is trying desperately to achieve hegemony over the Middle East. Her leaders' efforts during the Arab Spring to bolster Islamist elements in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, for example, lend credence to that assertion. Iran's continuing effort to develop weapons-grade plutonium provides further proof that her leaders have something else in mind for their nuclear reactors besides producing electricity. Sanctions haven't worked thus far, and judging by Iran's belligerent reaction to said sanctions, they won't work ever -- so a war with Iran may be inevitable.
Therefore, laying the proper groundwork for a war with Iran is essential. It should involve the European Union because European countries have become dependent on Iranian oil. Although Western nations may not be able to win China's and Russia's support, those countries should be consulted as well since they are Iran's allies. We should also coordinate/consult with Iran's Arab neighbors because they will be involved whether they like it or not. Finally, under no circumstances should Israel be called upon to go it alone against Iran. This is our struggle at least as much as it is theirs.
Neil Snyder is a chaired professor emeritus at the University of Virginia. His blog, SnyderTalk.com, is posted daily. His latest book is titled If You Voted for Obama in 2008 to Prove You're Not a Racist, You Need to Vote for Someone Else in 2012 to Prove You're Not an Idiot.