June 21, 2007
Iran on a Collision CourseBy James Lewis
Unless something unexpected happens, Iran and the West are on a collision course. The key to the coming confrontation is a basic diplomatic fact. Israel has a widely recognized casus belli against Iran, having been threatened with national destruction by Ahmadi-Nejad and his boss numerous times. The conflict is therefore likely to start with an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities and their defenses.
The United States is less directly threatened, but if Israel attacks key nuclear targets in Iran, counter-attacking Iranian planes and missiles must necessarily pass over the surrounding American forces in the Gulf, in order to reach Israel. US fleet and air elements will be brought in to defend the Strait of Hormuz from a likely Iranian assault and the air space of surrounding countries.
Recent Israeli statements put the time for such a conflict as later this year or in 2008 at the latest. The timing is determined by Iran's rush to an irreversible nuclear capability. The model will be the 1981 Israeli pinpoint air attack on Saddam Hussein's Osirak nuclear reactor, which brought down his nuclear ambitions once and for all.
But the coming attack needs to be more complex. A recent MIT study argued that Iran has three critical target sites that are needed for its rising nuclear threat, located at Esfahan, Natanz, and Arak. The Russian-built Bushehr nuclear reactor was not considered to be critical to Iran's nuclear weapons program. These targets are heavily defended and bunkered sites. But they can be taken out. We have the capacity to take out command and control of air defenses and retaliatory capacities.
There is a case for attacking Islamic Revolutionary Guard bases, too, since the IRGC is the armed heart of the Khomeini cult in Iran. The fanatical Basij are also an attractive target, since they specialize in beating up Iranian civilians. Degrading the hated Basij may even be popular in Iran.
It is likely that the Iranian Army is receiving many secret entreaties to minimize its involvement in any defense effort, and to simply let the IRGC and Basij be wiped out. Iranian defector General Asghari and his fellow defectors are surely busy at this very moment in sending such seductive offers to Iran.
There are inevitable wild cards. Civilian casualties must be kept extremely low and invisible, including propaganda stunts like Saddam Hussein's baby milk factory fraud in 1992. The mullah regime can be counted on to try to manipulate the gullible and headline-hungry Western media as usual. Foreign casualties, like Russian engineers at Bushehr, probably can be avoided. In similar circumstances, France, which built the Osirak reactor for Saddam, also passed the blueprints and work schedule to the Israelis, so that they could conduct a very clean strike on a Sunday night in 1981. No French personnel were hurt.
The Russians are providing advanced air and missile defenses to Syria and Iran, but they are perfectly capable of simultaneously passing intelligence to the other side as well. It would appeal to the Russian love for a conspiracy. With their own Islamist war in Chechnya and fresh memories of national dissolution, they cannot want a subversive Islamist nuclear power on their southern border.
Iran has dispersed its nuclear capacities as widely as possible. It is therefore essential to follow up an armed strike with effective economic sanctions, leading to negotiations from a Western position of strength. That can only be accomplished if the international "community" views strikes on Iran as essentially defensive.
As soon as an Israeli "strike package" is known to be on its way, the Iranians will try to counterattack. Their precise targets can only be guessed, but oil traffic transiting the Strait of Hormuz is an obvious possibility. So are the Sunni Arab Gulf States and Saudi Arabia - countries that have been nervously assuring Iran that they would never, ever be involved in launching an attack. The Iranians may not believe them, but they may not want to incur the wrath of the Arab nations either.
So they may first try a strike at Israel itself, via Hezbollah or Hamas. Any Iranian strike against international shipping or strategically important straits will be met with fierce counter-attacks, along the lines of the "Tanker War" of the early 80s.
Iran is not well-placed to attack US forces in Iraq with a conventional invasion force. It could try that, but only at devastating costs, like the Taliban have been incurring in Afghanistan by engaging in medium-size unit attacks. The Taliban are constantly struck from the air when they gather in larger groups. The same would be true for Iran's conventional forces if they tried to invade Iraq.
Which leaves Iran with the same strategy it has been pursuing so far, i.e., infiltration, subversion, and advanced guerrilla tactics against US and Iraqi forces. The Iranians would no doubt use proxies to fight US forces in Iraq, like the Mahdi Army, but that would expose those forces to US and Iraqi Army firepower.
Iran has highly vulnerable civilian targets, like its sole oil refinery, which could strangle its domestic supplies of gasoline. The refinery could be degraded without starting large oil fires, using special operations teams. Iran could conduct an oil counter-embargo, but only by starving itself of badly needed foreign currency. The Tanker War of the 1980s is the closest model, and that led to only a temporary spike in international oil prices.
A direct Iranian strike against Israel or the Gulf States by air or missile attack is unlikely to work, since the United States has essentially a maritime picket defense against Iran's air force and missiles in their first stage (the boost stage of any ballistic missile is slow and vulnerable to attack). Aegis-equipped US Navy ships patrol the Gulf, and a NATO fleet was last heard off the Northern coast of Israel and Lebanon, ready to intercept cruise or ballistic missiles, or jet bombers, on their way to Israel and Europe. Israel has state-of-the-art defenses, but the technology has not been definitively tested. Thus a multi-layered defense is crucial, together with an air offensive to take out the attacking forces in their bases.
If Iran counter-attacks, US power will get involved in knocking out Iranian command and control facilities, including, possibly, the regime itself. More likely, Saddam-style no-fly restrictions will be imposed, to put a lid on Iranian air and missile power once it has been degraded. This was extremely effective after the First Gulf War of 1992 put Saddam in a box.
The United States will get secret but effective help from all the nations whose oil sales or purchases depend upon free traffic through the Gulf, including the Saudis. Since all of the surrounding nations are now feeling threatened by Iran's nuclear weapons plans, any denunciations at the UN will be purely pro forma.
The Iranian regime is may try nonconventional strikes against Israel, the US, and NATO. Undoubtedly it could explode suicide bombs in European cities and perhaps the United States. Israel is highly defended, but it can never rule out the possibility of a 9/11 style attack or worse.
The ultimate objective must be regime change in Iran. Under the Shah, Iran was a strong American ally, and thrived from that relationship --- certainly compared to its later regression into the Dark Ages. If an indigenous secular government could take over in Iran, that would be the best of all possible worlds. But the population has been so thoroughly terrorized and intimidated that the chances of a popular uprising may be small. External pressure could encourage a coup d'etat by the Iranian Army. Because the US has had its fill of nation-building in Iraq, it will simply keep its ground forces out.
The critical question about the mullah regime in Tehran has always been whether it is a suicide-martyrdom regime, like the Japanese Emperor-worship cult in World War II, or whether it is rational, in serving its own basic survival needs. We don't know the answer, and maybe even the mullahs themselves will not know until that question is tested in practice. At the first sign of trouble, we can be sure that Tehran will be inundated with warnings to try nothing dangerous. Decapitation strikes may be tried against the top mullahs in the regime, and against the large IRGC penetration at high levels of government. These are inherently unpredictable.
In the very worst case, the regime will plant a big bomb in some enemy city like Tel Aviv, New York City or London. That could be a "dirty bomb" or a large, conventional device. The effect of such a large-scale counter-attack would be finally to mobilize the sleeping giant of Western power. It would destroy the Ayatollahs, and could even lead to widespread immigration restrictions in Europe against Islamist countries.
Any effective strike against Iran's rising threat will be difficult and unpredictable. The quiet, rising consensus in the West seems to be that it is unavoidable. Because of the West's psychological weaknesses, it is crucial for military-political actions against Iran to take place very quickly, and with minimal visible damage. Osirak is again the model, but Iranian counter-attacks could drag out the conflict. The mullahs are warrior-priests, constantly preparing their followers for the sacrifices of war. The West, by comparison, is the opposite: the general population has little inner strength. But the West can rise to the occasion if it is convinced that a real threat exists. Any Iranian attacks on oil countries or supply lines, not to mention the West itself, would do just that.
In sum, an Israeli-initiated strike on Iran's core nuclear facilities would probably trigger Iranian retaliation efforts. Those can be stymied by US and allied defensive and counter-offensive power. The result would be to leave the radical Ahmadi-Nejad regime severely weakened. These actions are hardly risk-free, but are rationally preferable to nuclear weapons in the hands of a fanatical and imperialistic martyrdom regime.
James Lewis blogs at dangeroustimes.wordpress.com/