Counting Down the Costs of War with Iran

War is costly. If you have any doubts, take a look at our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan: over $1.3 trillion spent and more than 8,000 lives lost, for shaky security gains. And then there are the unintended consequences: loss of international credibility, regional instability, and more.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the Iran debate, the potential consequences of war are often lost in the shuffle.

Enter the Iran War Clock. This new project from The Atlantic estimates the likelihood of a U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran, based on the assessment of a panel of national security experts. The more likely they believe war is, the closer the clock hand moves to midnight.

Right now we’re at 10 minutes to midnight - a 48 percent chance of conflict within the next year.

The purpose of the War Clock is not to pinpoint the exact odds - an impossible task - but to make a reasonable estimate in order to inform the ongoing debate on Iran policy. Understanding the likelihood of war is a crucial part of having an informed debate. As Dominic Tierney explained in the War Clock rollout, “When you approach the cliff edge, you need to know how far away the precipice is.”

If we step off the cliff, we’ll be in for a steep fall. Airstrikes alone will not be enough to end Iran’s nuclear program, leaving us with two options: sustained airstrikes over a long period of time or an all-out ground invasion. There’s no middle ground when it comes to attacking Iran. A limited military strike would almost certainly become a full-scale war.

There’s no doubt that full-out war with Iran would have disastrous consequences. Besides the direct cost to the U.S, a war would almost certainly cause a spike in global oil prices, setting back the fragile global economy. A military strike would alienate allies, who up to this point have stood firm in the international consensus to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon. And a strike would alienate the Iranian people, rallying support for a currently unstable regime .

Perhaps most importantly, war with Iran would fail to achieve its primary goal: ending the Iranian nuclear program. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Iran has not yet decided to build a bomb. An attack could change that – justifying an nuclear weapons program and likely driving that program underground.

Despite all this, calls for war with Iran are getting louder, helped by sloppy reporting and heated rhetoric. Here’s where the Iran War Clock provides helpful perspective. At a 48 percent chance of war, we should not underestimate the danger. “Loose talk of war” could very well escalate the crisis, pushing the U.S. and Iran into a war that neither wants.

But as the Clock shows, war is far from inevitable. The window of opportunity for negotiations, particularly the upcoming P5+1 talks, is still open. We should take advantage of it.

War has serious consequences. So does nuclear proliferation. As the Iran debate unfolds, we would do well to keep that in mind. Diplomacy may be a long, difficult process, but it is the only way to achieve real, lasting results.