An attack on Iran “would be something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox. Several days [of] air and naval bombing against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction facilities for exactly the same kind of behavior. For interfering with weapons inspectors and for disobeying Security Council resolutions. All we’re asking is that the president simply be as tough as in the protection of America’s national security interest as Bill Clinton was.”

Historical analogies are always dangerous, and Cotton’s reference to “several days” of bombing certainly lit up the left-leaning Twitterverse.

Cotton was making the case that eliminating Iran’s nuclear facilities would not be a ground invasion like President George W. Bush’s Iraq war but instead be more akin to President Bill Clinton’s four-day attack that ended on Dec. 19, 1998 — just as the House of Representatives voted articles of impeachment against him for the Monica Lewinsky matter.

(As Cotton noted, the 1998 attacks came after Clinton accused Iraq of failing to cooperate with weapons inspectors. But Iran is engaged in lengthy talks with world powers about limits on its nuclear ambitions, so President Obama at the moment does not have the same tripwire.)

The Defense Department obviously has not released the war plan for Iran, but independent analysts have examined the situation. Does Cotton have a case for a short war?

The Facts

With support from the United Kingdom, the United States launched the attacks (mostly in the form of cruise missile strikes) in an effort to “degrade” Iraq’s ability to make weapons of mass destruction. Officials claimed that almost all of the targets were hit, as Iraq offered virtually no resistance. (The country had been under years of sanctions and large parts were under U.N.-mandated “no-fly” zones.)

“Not a single U.S. or British casualty has been reported in about 70 hours of intensive airstrikes involving 650 sorties against nearly 100 targets. A total of 415 cruise missiles were launched,” The Washington Post reported. “Officials in Washington said there was essentially no Iraqi response to the raids besides the artillery used in an attempt to shoot down incoming cruise missiles.”

For many years, conservative critics mocked Clinton’s 1998 strikes as ineffective—and much of the discredited intelligence used to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq assumed that Iraq had kept its programs going after the attacks. But it was later discovered that Desert Fox was the coup de grace that ended  Iraq’s ability and motivation to manufacture weapons of mass destruction.

“We think Desert Fox is a very close comparison. It serves as an analogy of the intent, execution and objective for that type of operation [long-range strike to target weapons facilities],” said Caroline Rabbit, Cotton’s communications director. “Then and now, there existed the possibility of retaliation and the possibility that the initial campaign would not degrade WMD facilities to the planned level. Then and now, those contingencies had to be considered and planned for. Further, there have been notable advances in ordinance capabilities, particularly precision-targeting and ability to effectively strike hardened targets, that would allow us to take out Iranian facilities more effectively than when Desert Fox occurred.”

There is little doubt the United States is probably the only country that could degrade Iran’s nuclear facilities, though the effect might only to be to delay the program by one or two years. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the United States has upgraded and tested its largest bunker-buster bomb, known as Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), after earlier tests had concluded the 30,000-pound weapon was not powerful enough to destroy some of Iran’s most important facilities. Multiple MOPs, with precision targeting, likely would be needed to destroy the buried and hardened facility at Fordow.

The biggest possible flaw in Cotton’s analogy is that Iran likely would not be as passive as Iraq. A 2012 analysis of a possible U.S. strike, by Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Abdullah Toukan of the Strategic Analysis and Global Risk Assessment Center, concludes “the aging Iranian airforce will definitely be no match” for U.S. forces. But there were other significant risks:

  • a massive retaliation strike, using ballistic missiles, against U.S. allies in Persian Gulf, though there is little agreement on the effectiveness of its weapons
  • asymmetric warfare in the Persian Gulf, which could affect oil shipments, or by Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah
  • strikes against Israel
  • “preventive military strikes could push the presently volatile Middle East region into a war with far reaching global political, military, and economic consequences.”

Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who commanded Desert Fox, offered a terrifying scenario during a 2009 talk at the New America Foundation:

“After you’ve dropped those bombs on those hardened facilities, what happens next? What happens if they decide, in their hardened shelters with their mobile missiles, to start launching those? What happens if they launch them into U.S. bases on the other side of the gulf? What happens if they launch into Israel, or somewhere else? Into a Saudi oil field? Into Ras Laffan, with all the natural gas? What happens if they now flush their fast patrol boats, their cruise missiles, the [unclear] full of mines, and they sink a tanker, an oil tanker? And of course the economy of the world goes absolutely nuts. What happens if they activate sleeper cells? The MOIS, the [Iranian] intelligence service — what happens if another preemptive attack by the West, the U.S. and Israel, they fire up the streets and now we got problems. Just tell me how to deal with all that, okay? Because, eventually, if you follow this all the way down, eventually I’m putting boots on the ground somewhere.”

Matthew Kroenig, a former DOD adviser on defense strategy toward Iran who advocates an attack on Iran, said the accuracy of Cotton’s analogy is mixed.

“Senator Cotton is correct that U.S. strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities would look more like Operation Desert Fox than the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan which is the analogy many critics of military action invoke. The strikes in Operation Desert Fox took place over four calendar days and that would be more than enough time to destroy Iran’s key nuclear facilities and related targets,” he said. “On the other hand, a key difference is that, unlike Iraq in 1998, Iran would almost certainly retaliate militarily with ballistic missile strikes in the region, by encouraging terrorist and proxy groups to conduct attacks, and by harassing and attacking ships in the Persian Gulf.”

The Pinocchio Test

Cotton is largely correct that four days of intensive bombing would likely deal a blow to Iran’s nuclear program. But his analogy minimizes the potential for retaliation and regional blow-back far different from the muted reaction of a beleaguered Iraqi regime. Iran would almost certainly strike back, in potentially deadly ways, against U.S. aircraft, personnel and allies.

We wavered between One and Two Pinocchios. We understand he was countering the notion of an invasion—which is absurd—but he should also acknowledge that this would not be cakewalk. Iran is not Iraq, after all, and that makes such historical analogies so facile.

One Pinocchio

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