America's Strong Hand in Dealing with the Mullahs

A dangerous fatalism has gripped too many people with regard to the threat posed by Iran's nuclear weapons program. America holds much better cards than the mullahs. We have let ourselves be spooked for far too long. History is full of instances that instruct us in the dangers of wallowing in pessimism.

General Abel D. Streight plumbed the low point of his life in the spring of 1863. His cavalry raid into Alabama got off to a good start, but then he came to the attention of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a nightmare situation for any
Union horseman. A four—day series of running battles followed, stretching right across the northern tier of Alabama into Georgia.

At last, on May 3rd,  his exhausted horses and men able to go no further, Streight watched in despair as dozens of Confederate artillery batteries rolled past two hills flanking his position. He surrendered shortly afterward, to discover that he'd heavily outnumbered Forrest all along (Forrest was forced to draft local civilians to guard his prisoners), and that the vast array of Confederate artillery was a single battery trundled repeatedly over the same spot.

The point of this story is: never allow your opponent all the aces. Don't assume that the odds are on his side, that he outnumbers you, can outfight you, that there's no such thing as bad luck in his corner. The iron laws of war — the risk factors that make it such a perilous enterprise in the first place — apply to both sides.

All else being equal, it's a matter of will, ability, and pure luck, any of which can tip the result one way or another. It's very possible —— as we saw in recent weeks in Lebanon —— to take a winning hand and throw it away. It's also possible to take the worst imaginable situation and spin it into victory —— think of Great Britain in 1940. Whatever the case, it remains an egregious error to concede superiority, of any sort, to the enemy. That's an important lesson to contemplate in the wake of the rejection of  U.N. Security Council Resolution 1696, because it appears to be exactly what's happening with Iran.

Fatalism has become the dominant attitude toward Iran. The mullahs' acquisition of nuclear weapons is inevitable, there's no possible counterstrategy, the best we can hope for is some kind of accommodation. The latest expression of this attitude comes from Stanley Kurtz, who predicts a universal return to Cold War civil defense complete with 'duck and cover' drills. This is probably not a bad thing in and of itself  (the civil defense aspect of the current conflict has been completely and dangerously neglected), but it certainly does not rate highly as a substantial response to Iran.

The Iranians are probably not as clever as Forrest (though they may well match the ex—slave trader and Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan for sheer nastiness).  But they've proven his superiors as far as bluff goes. Forrest at least had a cannon to display. The ayatollahs don't even have that much. Their atomic weapons have barely passed the design stage. All they've been trundling back and forth is crazy rhetoric from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad  — which has been more than enough to cow Europe and the international commentariat. Not at all bad for a phantom weapon. No wonder they want the real thing so much.

Aside from the blueprints, the Iranians possess a third—rate army (one, count it, one fully—equipped armored division), a nominal navy stocked with quarter—century—old warships, and a large cache of semi—obsolete missiles. Their most feared hole card, the Hezb'allah, has suffered a severe drop in reputation over the past six weeks. The quiet support of Russia and China may be handy but cannot be relied upon. Neither can their alliance with Moqtada al—Sadr,   a man rapidly approaching the end of his string.
 
Not a particularly impressive hand, on the face of it. It's impossible not to feel some grudging admiration at how far the ayatollahs have gone with it — along with considerable puzzlement as to why we, the West at large, can't bring off something similar.

Because there are, in fact, aces on the table. Aces that the Iranians don't hold. Aces that are lying there waiting to be picked up. Here's the short list:

* Nationalities — It's odd how often it's pointed out that Iraq is a state created from a patchwork of nationalities while the same is never mentioned about Iran. In truth, the situation in Iran makes Iraq look like Sweden.

Aside from the Shi'ite Persian majority, there exist substantial minorities of Kurds, Baluchis, Azeris, Armenians, Bakhtiaris, and Turkomans, in addition to a large Sunni population comprisng 8% of Iran's total (most of the Kurds, Baluchis, and Turkomans are Sunni). Relations between the minorities and the dominant Shi'ite Persians are about what you'd expect. Persian arrogance, coupled with Shi'ite fanaticism, have created a pressure—cooker atmosphere.

Continual ill—covered riots and demonstrations have been accompanied by serious attempts at assassination of government figures, including Ahmadinejad, who nearly fell victim to a group of Baluchis. Recent Iranian attacks against Kurds in Iraq can't have done much to calm things.

It would be surprising if overtures haven't been made to some of these groups. Anything beyond that is speculation.

* The Sunni States — It's clear that the bulk of the Gulf states are worried about Iran. They are, after all, Sunnis contemplating the sudden apotheosis of a Shi'ite state, a radical Shi'ite state at that. Some of them, such as the United Arab Emirates, already have blood in their eyes over Iran concerning lost territory (Iran seized a group of islands belonging to the UAE early in the Iran—Iraq War and has refused to discuss their return).

How deep all this goes can be gauged by the fact that several of these same states gave the nod to Israel's attack on Hezb'allah in the first days of its recent Lebanon incursion. It shouldn't present much of a challenge to form a pressure group of Muslim states — not all, necessarily, on the Gulf — to lean on the Iranians. Myriad possibilities suggest themselves. While such an effort might not provide a complete solution, Middle Eastern states having the tendency to fade in the clutch, it would complicate things for Iran. And it's certainly superior to attempting anything further with the Europeans.

* Gasoline — It is now widely understood that Iran possesses no capability of refining the higher petroleum fractions, including gasoline. Refineries do exist in Iran, but apparently they're intended only to separate various grades of petroleum from crude. This lack of technology is a serious vulnerability. Cutting the country off would be a simple matter of sanctions, perhaps reinforced by a blockade directed at tankers. This is probably the most straightforward method of putting serious pressure on the ayatollahs. It's difficult to impress the world with plans for conquest when your Mercedes limos are being pulled around by oxen.

Of course, a riposte, probably involving oil exports, must be anticipated. But that can be handled (see below).

* Oil — Another open secret involves the actual locations of Iranian oilfields. A glance at a resource map reveals that most are located on or near the shoreline, with a smaller though still substantial fraction further inland. Most of Iran's oil resources could be interdicted by naval action. But the most interesting point is that the largest fields aren't located in Iran at all. They're offshore, in the middle of the Gulf which, since 1988, has been completely controlled by the U.S. Navy.

Not only can the U.S. cut Iran off from the bulk of its oil resources with little in the way of effort — it's also possible, by taking over working oil platforms, that Iranian oil could continue flowing to the outside world with little interruption, negating one of the more serious objections to such a strategy. Many fields are run by foreign third parties (e.g., the Romanian installation the Iranians attacked so inexplicably), but a number of these are either allies or else states long deserving some kind of black eye.

Such a move would be the penultimate effort — but it's something that should not be overlooked.

* The Forrest Effect — We shouldn't forget that Forrest was an American (of sorts). Iran has, for past eighteen months, held the stage by its lonesome. Thanks to Ahmadinejad a new threat or bizarre proposal comes every other day. (the latest is an offer to debate President Bush on television — or was it the newest claim that the Holocaust never happened? I don't know — it's hard to keep track.) This stuff is transparently designed to generate confusion and dismay, and to keep the diplomatic and political elites guessing.

It's about time that we started acting in turn — throwing a few curves in the direction of Tehran designed to cause the same — if not greater — unease and foreboding. One possibility is a campaign aimed directly at the Iranian peasantry consisting of leaflets condemning Ahmadinejad and alleging to originate from the 13th imam himself, backed up by radio broadcasts and so forth. Iran remains a relatively unmodernized society and is very susceptible to this kind of stimulus. (Think Orson Welles' Martian invasion broadcast — though the U.S. was more advanced than Iran even then.) The U.S. is not as vulnerable due to the media — we've been inoculated, in a sense. Rumors begin, and flash past quickly through the tube, talk radio, or the Internet, but they seldom settle in.

Iran seems to have convinced itself that the U.S. is too enmeshed in the Iraqi insurrection to throw anything in their direction. They should be given reason for second thoughts. Consider the story of FUSAG.  In 1944, a completely bogus army group supposedly based in Southeast England under the command George Patton was fabricated, backed by evidence ranging from fake vehicle parks and supply dumps down to 'lost' paperwork and imaginary unit insignia. It so convinced the Germans that numerous units of Army Group B — units that might well have turned the tide in the Normandy battles following D—Day — were held in reserve to meet a completely fictitious Patton—led invasion of the Pas de Calais.

It wouldn't be necessary to concoct an entire army. Miracles have been worked with mere paper. Consider Richard Meinertzhagen's elaborate ruse
that cleared the way for the British attack on Beersheba in 1917, or the famed Man Who Never Was operation carried out by British intelligence agent
Ewan Montagu a quarter—century later. There's no reason why it can't be attempted again, on all kinds of levels.

Southern Iraq is supposedly overrun with Iranian agents. Fine —— let's consider them as a resource. A series of contradictory, incomplete, and frightening reports backed up by maps, documents, and a few troop movements are just what the ayatollahs have coming. The point of these deceptions is that, no matter how suspicious an enemy may be, he cannot ignore them. He has no choice but to expend resources to meet the possible threat. A nice variation, always useful when dealing with a totalitarian dictatorship, lies in documents suggesting that one or more of the ayatollahs (or Ahmadinejad's goons) are traitors. The possibilities are endless.

And don't forget that fleet either. After 1988, there may well no other military force the thinking mullah fears more than the U.S. Navy. The U.S. exercises more control over the Gulf than it does some parts of its own coastline. Plenty can be done with it in the way of harassment, including close passes by Navy vessels, hounding (or seizing) Iranian vessels, strange events on oil platforms, and so on. There is also such a thing as a 'blockade', which appears to have been overlooked, and could be put in effect just short of open warfare. In fact, any workable sanctions regime will of necessity feature some aspects of a blockade.

Aircraft are also useful in this effort. One method pioneered by Harry Truman against the USSR involved what might be called the suggestive reconnaissance flight. Truman several times sent RB—36 recon planes, which at that time could not be intercepted, over Moscow during tense interludes to underline just how vulnerable the Soviets were. A variation involves sonic booms. In the late 80s, SR—71 spyplanes were sent over Managua to treat the Sandinistas to a good loud bang every time they began menacing their neighbors. Tehran should receive similar treatment on a regular basis.

* The Biggest Bang —— Which brings us to our final possibility, which can be carried out as the last action short of open war. This would involve setting off a low—yield nuclear warhead 50,000 feet over Tehran. At that altitude, a bomb of precise power would break every window in the city, blind a few unfortunates, but kill no one. This may seem a drastic proposal, but in a climate where even gentle souls like Michael Coren are suggesting far worse, 'drastic' is a matter of debate.

A nuclear explosion is the most foreboding sight in nature it is possible to witness and survive. Many eyewitnesses of atmospheric bomb tests speak of the almost unreasoning terror that the sight creates. During the 1960s, an Air Force officer suggested that a single exception be made to the atmospheric test ban treaty: that a single bomb be set off annually with the leaders of all major powers present. 'Once they see it, they will never forget it.'

That's the problem with the ayatollahs and their servants — they haven't seen it. A single example of what their longed—for toy actually is might concentrate their minds wonderfully. It might also result in every bearded man in Tehran being strung up by a terrified citizenry. And if it doesn't work? If the ayatollahs remain defiant? We set off another one 45,000 feet above Qum. Repeat as many times as necessary. Anything is better than genocide.

Those are our cards. If I were sitting in on this kind of game, those are cards I'd like to have. If we played any of them, they would inevitably cause difficulties for an Iranian government that is unstable and enjoys little backing from its own people. We could easily carry them out in the form of a ladder of escalation, one after the other, until we get results.

Or, and this is my preference, we could try them all at once (all except the last, which we hold in reserve). There may be no aces in that pile; Iran may be able to bluff until the end. But it's absurd and dishonest to claim that there are no alternatives, that we have to sit passively, hands folded, while a  pack of throwbacks dictate events. So let's pick up those cards. Who can say they won't add up to a full house? We'll never know unless we play the hand.

J.R. Dunn edited the International Military Encyclopedia for twelve years, among many other accomplishments. He is a frequent contributor.

A dangerous fatalism has gripped too many people with regard to the threat posed by Iran's nuclear weapons program. America holds much better cards than the mullahs. We have let ourselves be spooked for far too long. History is full of instances that instruct us in the dangers of wallowing in pessimism.

General Abel D. Streight plumbed the low point of his life in the spring of 1863. His cavalry raid into Alabama got off to a good start, but then he came to the attention of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a nightmare situation for any
Union horseman. A four—day series of running battles followed, stretching right across the northern tier of Alabama into Georgia.

At last, on May 3rd,  his exhausted horses and men able to go no further, Streight watched in despair as dozens of Confederate artillery batteries rolled past two hills flanking his position. He surrendered shortly afterward, to discover that he'd heavily outnumbered Forrest all along (Forrest was forced to draft local civilians to guard his prisoners), and that the vast array of Confederate artillery was a single battery trundled repeatedly over the same spot.

The point of this story is: never allow your opponent all the aces. Don't assume that the odds are on his side, that he outnumbers you, can outfight you, that there's no such thing as bad luck in his corner. The iron laws of war — the risk factors that make it such a perilous enterprise in the first place — apply to both sides.

All else being equal, it's a matter of will, ability, and pure luck, any of which can tip the result one way or another. It's very possible —— as we saw in recent weeks in Lebanon —— to take a winning hand and throw it away. It's also possible to take the worst imaginable situation and spin it into victory —— think of Great Britain in 1940. Whatever the case, it remains an egregious error to concede superiority, of any sort, to the enemy. That's an important lesson to contemplate in the wake of the rejection of  U.N. Security Council Resolution 1696, because it appears to be exactly what's happening with Iran.

Fatalism has become the dominant attitude toward Iran. The mullahs' acquisition of nuclear weapons is inevitable, there's no possible counterstrategy, the best we can hope for is some kind of accommodation. The latest expression of this attitude comes from Stanley Kurtz, who predicts a universal return to Cold War civil defense complete with 'duck and cover' drills. This is probably not a bad thing in and of itself  (the civil defense aspect of the current conflict has been completely and dangerously neglected), but it certainly does not rate highly as a substantial response to Iran.

The Iranians are probably not as clever as Forrest (though they may well match the ex—slave trader and Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan for sheer nastiness).  But they've proven his superiors as far as bluff goes. Forrest at least had a cannon to display. The ayatollahs don't even have that much. Their atomic weapons have barely passed the design stage. All they've been trundling back and forth is crazy rhetoric from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad  — which has been more than enough to cow Europe and the international commentariat. Not at all bad for a phantom weapon. No wonder they want the real thing so much.

Aside from the blueprints, the Iranians possess a third—rate army (one, count it, one fully—equipped armored division), a nominal navy stocked with quarter—century—old warships, and a large cache of semi—obsolete missiles. Their most feared hole card, the Hezb'allah, has suffered a severe drop in reputation over the past six weeks. The quiet support of Russia and China may be handy but cannot be relied upon. Neither can their alliance with Moqtada al—Sadr,   a man rapidly approaching the end of his string.
 
Not a particularly impressive hand, on the face of it. It's impossible not to feel some grudging admiration at how far the ayatollahs have gone with it — along with considerable puzzlement as to why we, the West at large, can't bring off something similar.

Because there are, in fact, aces on the table. Aces that the Iranians don't hold. Aces that are lying there waiting to be picked up. Here's the short list:

* Nationalities — It's odd how often it's pointed out that Iraq is a state created from a patchwork of nationalities while the same is never mentioned about Iran. In truth, the situation in Iran makes Iraq look like Sweden.

Aside from the Shi'ite Persian majority, there exist substantial minorities of Kurds, Baluchis, Azeris, Armenians, Bakhtiaris, and Turkomans, in addition to a large Sunni population comprisng 8% of Iran's total (most of the Kurds, Baluchis, and Turkomans are Sunni). Relations between the minorities and the dominant Shi'ite Persians are about what you'd expect. Persian arrogance, coupled with Shi'ite fanaticism, have created a pressure—cooker atmosphere.

Continual ill—covered riots and demonstrations have been accompanied by serious attempts at assassination of government figures, including Ahmadinejad, who nearly fell victim to a group of Baluchis. Recent Iranian attacks against Kurds in Iraq can't have done much to calm things.

It would be surprising if overtures haven't been made to some of these groups. Anything beyond that is speculation.

* The Sunni States — It's clear that the bulk of the Gulf states are worried about Iran. They are, after all, Sunnis contemplating the sudden apotheosis of a Shi'ite state, a radical Shi'ite state at that. Some of them, such as the United Arab Emirates, already have blood in their eyes over Iran concerning lost territory (Iran seized a group of islands belonging to the UAE early in the Iran—Iraq War and has refused to discuss their return).

How deep all this goes can be gauged by the fact that several of these same states gave the nod to Israel's attack on Hezb'allah in the first days of its recent Lebanon incursion. It shouldn't present much of a challenge to form a pressure group of Muslim states — not all, necessarily, on the Gulf — to lean on the Iranians. Myriad possibilities suggest themselves. While such an effort might not provide a complete solution, Middle Eastern states having the tendency to fade in the clutch, it would complicate things for Iran. And it's certainly superior to attempting anything further with the Europeans.

* Gasoline — It is now widely understood that Iran possesses no capability of refining the higher petroleum fractions, including gasoline. Refineries do exist in Iran, but apparently they're intended only to separate various grades of petroleum from crude. This lack of technology is a serious vulnerability. Cutting the country off would be a simple matter of sanctions, perhaps reinforced by a blockade directed at tankers. This is probably the most straightforward method of putting serious pressure on the ayatollahs. It's difficult to impress the world with plans for conquest when your Mercedes limos are being pulled around by oxen.

Of course, a riposte, probably involving oil exports, must be anticipated. But that can be handled (see below).

* Oil — Another open secret involves the actual locations of Iranian oilfields. A glance at a resource map reveals that most are located on or near the shoreline, with a smaller though still substantial fraction further inland. Most of Iran's oil resources could be interdicted by naval action. But the most interesting point is that the largest fields aren't located in Iran at all. They're offshore, in the middle of the Gulf which, since 1988, has been completely controlled by the U.S. Navy.

Not only can the U.S. cut Iran off from the bulk of its oil resources with little in the way of effort — it's also possible, by taking over working oil platforms, that Iranian oil could continue flowing to the outside world with little interruption, negating one of the more serious objections to such a strategy. Many fields are run by foreign third parties (e.g., the Romanian installation the Iranians attacked so inexplicably), but a number of these are either allies or else states long deserving some kind of black eye.

Such a move would be the penultimate effort — but it's something that should not be overlooked.

* The Forrest Effect — We shouldn't forget that Forrest was an American (of sorts). Iran has, for past eighteen months, held the stage by its lonesome. Thanks to Ahmadinejad a new threat or bizarre proposal comes every other day. (the latest is an offer to debate President Bush on television — or was it the newest claim that the Holocaust never happened? I don't know — it's hard to keep track.) This stuff is transparently designed to generate confusion and dismay, and to keep the diplomatic and political elites guessing.

It's about time that we started acting in turn — throwing a few curves in the direction of Tehran designed to cause the same — if not greater — unease and foreboding. One possibility is a campaign aimed directly at the Iranian peasantry consisting of leaflets condemning Ahmadinejad and alleging to originate from the 13th imam himself, backed up by radio broadcasts and so forth. Iran remains a relatively unmodernized society and is very susceptible to this kind of stimulus. (Think Orson Welles' Martian invasion broadcast — though the U.S. was more advanced than Iran even then.) The U.S. is not as vulnerable due to the media — we've been inoculated, in a sense. Rumors begin, and flash past quickly through the tube, talk radio, or the Internet, but they seldom settle in.

Iran seems to have convinced itself that the U.S. is too enmeshed in the Iraqi insurrection to throw anything in their direction. They should be given reason for second thoughts. Consider the story of FUSAG.  In 1944, a completely bogus army group supposedly based in Southeast England under the command George Patton was fabricated, backed by evidence ranging from fake vehicle parks and supply dumps down to 'lost' paperwork and imaginary unit insignia. It so convinced the Germans that numerous units of Army Group B — units that might well have turned the tide in the Normandy battles following D—Day — were held in reserve to meet a completely fictitious Patton—led invasion of the Pas de Calais.

It wouldn't be necessary to concoct an entire army. Miracles have been worked with mere paper. Consider Richard Meinertzhagen's elaborate ruse
that cleared the way for the British attack on Beersheba in 1917, or the famed Man Who Never Was operation carried out by British intelligence agent
Ewan Montagu a quarter—century later. There's no reason why it can't be attempted again, on all kinds of levels.

Southern Iraq is supposedly overrun with Iranian agents. Fine —— let's consider them as a resource. A series of contradictory, incomplete, and frightening reports backed up by maps, documents, and a few troop movements are just what the ayatollahs have coming. The point of these deceptions is that, no matter how suspicious an enemy may be, he cannot ignore them. He has no choice but to expend resources to meet the possible threat. A nice variation, always useful when dealing with a totalitarian dictatorship, lies in documents suggesting that one or more of the ayatollahs (or Ahmadinejad's goons) are traitors. The possibilities are endless.

And don't forget that fleet either. After 1988, there may well no other military force the thinking mullah fears more than the U.S. Navy. The U.S. exercises more control over the Gulf than it does some parts of its own coastline. Plenty can be done with it in the way of harassment, including close passes by Navy vessels, hounding (or seizing) Iranian vessels, strange events on oil platforms, and so on. There is also such a thing as a 'blockade', which appears to have been overlooked, and could be put in effect just short of open warfare. In fact, any workable sanctions regime will of necessity feature some aspects of a blockade.

Aircraft are also useful in this effort. One method pioneered by Harry Truman against the USSR involved what might be called the suggestive reconnaissance flight. Truman several times sent RB—36 recon planes, which at that time could not be intercepted, over Moscow during tense interludes to underline just how vulnerable the Soviets were. A variation involves sonic booms. In the late 80s, SR—71 spyplanes were sent over Managua to treat the Sandinistas to a good loud bang every time they began menacing their neighbors. Tehran should receive similar treatment on a regular basis.

* The Biggest Bang —— Which brings us to our final possibility, which can be carried out as the last action short of open war. This would involve setting off a low—yield nuclear warhead 50,000 feet over Tehran. At that altitude, a bomb of precise power would break every window in the city, blind a few unfortunates, but kill no one. This may seem a drastic proposal, but in a climate where even gentle souls like Michael Coren are suggesting far worse, 'drastic' is a matter of debate.

A nuclear explosion is the most foreboding sight in nature it is possible to witness and survive. Many eyewitnesses of atmospheric bomb tests speak of the almost unreasoning terror that the sight creates. During the 1960s, an Air Force officer suggested that a single exception be made to the atmospheric test ban treaty: that a single bomb be set off annually with the leaders of all major powers present. 'Once they see it, they will never forget it.'

That's the problem with the ayatollahs and their servants — they haven't seen it. A single example of what their longed—for toy actually is might concentrate their minds wonderfully. It might also result in every bearded man in Tehran being strung up by a terrified citizenry. And if it doesn't work? If the ayatollahs remain defiant? We set off another one 45,000 feet above Qum. Repeat as many times as necessary. Anything is better than genocide.

Those are our cards. If I were sitting in on this kind of game, those are cards I'd like to have. If we played any of them, they would inevitably cause difficulties for an Iranian government that is unstable and enjoys little backing from its own people. We could easily carry them out in the form of a ladder of escalation, one after the other, until we get results.

Or, and this is my preference, we could try them all at once (all except the last, which we hold in reserve). There may be no aces in that pile; Iran may be able to bluff until the end. But it's absurd and dishonest to claim that there are no alternatives, that we have to sit passively, hands folded, while a  pack of throwbacks dictate events. So let's pick up those cards. Who can say they won't add up to a full house? We'll never know unless we play the hand.

J.R. Dunn edited the International Military Encyclopedia for twelve years, among many other accomplishments. He is a frequent contributor.