Advantage: Iran

The recent insurgency by the Shia extremist supporters of Muqtada al—Sadr has finally brought to light the operations of Iranian agents of influence in Iraq.  For those in the intelligence and operations cells of the Coalition Provisional Authority and Combined Joint Task Force—7, the infiltration into Iraq of Iranian covert operators is not a surprise.  As early as July 2003, the Coalition was seeing signs of Iranian agents traversing the porous Iraq—Iran border and moving into safe houses in Southern Iraqi cities and even into certain areas of Baghdad.  These operatives are not the only problem; there are also an undetermined number of agents who masqueraded as legitimate religious pilgrims crossing into Iraq ostensibly to visit Shia holy sites in the cities of Najaf and Kerbala.

Whether this is part of a Coalition 'bring 'em on' strategy in order to conduct battles of annihilation, or is the result of a passive acceptance of Iranian infiltration, cannot be determined as of yet.  What can be said is that this regional maneuvering by Iran has been going on for more than a decade, and that the previous administration had largely wished it away with a faulty policy of 'containment,' just as it did with Saddam Hussein and Iraq.

Since the collapse of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact it has been somewhat unfashionable to view foreign policy problems in a traditional geopolitical sense.  Global and regional 'maneuver by proxy' was thought to be an outmoded concept.  There was just one problem with this view: Iran continued to play the game.  It saw opportunity in gaining footholds in strategic areas where vacuums existed because of the withdrawal of Western or Soviet advisors and support structures.  In particular, Iran focused on those areas that controlled choke points of strategic waterways.  The Horn of Africa is just such an area, since it dominates the commerce lanes of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.  To Iran, then, Somalia was one of its most obvious strategic objectives.

In November 1991, the Somali capital of Mogadishu was the scene of heavy fighting between the clans of General Mohamed Farah Aidid and the "interim President" Mr. Ali Mohamed Mahdi.  In fact, entire sections of the country were run by bandits and warlords, since there was no form of central government.  By 1992, the UN estimated that 'almost 4.5 million people, more than half the total number in the country, were threatened with starvation, severe malnutrition and related diseases.'  The time was ripe for Iran to extend its reach.

Iran's agents quickly allied themselves with General Aidid, and provided materiel, training, and intelligence support.  Nevertheless, a UN brokered cease—fire was enacted on March 3, 1992, with the provision to deploy UN combat forces to monitor the cease fire and to protect humanitarian aid convoys.  The initial contingent of security forces was found to be insufficient, so an increase to about 4200 personnel was authorized in September of 1992.

However, these forces were also hard—pressed to do a satisfactory job, as there were continuing firefights, hijacking of vehicles, and looting of convoys and warehouses.  Bush 41 responded on December 4, 1992 to a UN request via UN resolution 794, by starting Operation Restore Hope, under which the US would not only establish a unified command, but would also contribute up to 28,000 troops to the effort.  The first elements of US forces came ashore on the beaches of Mogadishu without opposition (but greeted by members of the Western press) on December 9, 1992.  On December 13, lead elements had secured the airfield at Baledogle, and by December 16 they had seized Baidoa.

It was apparent that the Bush 41 Administration viewed the recent developments in Somalia between Aidid and Iran with their realpolitik glasses on, and had finessed a classic strategic counter—maneuver.  Under the auspices of the UN, and under the umbrella of a humanitarian aid mission, they had effectively stymied, at least for the short—term, the Iranian maneuver to control the strategically significant Horn of Africa.  Even so, by the time of President Clinton's inauguration in January of 1993, experts on Iran said Aidid's tactics, in what had evolved into an urban guerrilla war with the US and UN, were typically Iranian.

The new Clinton Administration, either through naivet or an overwhelming desire to avoid confrontation, actually came to believe the prime objective was the humanitarian aid aspect of the mission, rather than a counter to a powerful Iran.  The strategic retreat of US forces from Somalia by the Clinton Administration as a result of the 'Blackhawk Down' ambush in October of 1993, allowed Iran to finally secure its influence in Somalia.

Almost unnoticed or ignored by the Bush 41 Administration was that, while Iran's left hand was busy in Somalia, the right hand was conducting the other half of a double envelopment for achieving control of the strategic waterways in the region.  In March of 1992, Iran started a long—term effort to effectively shut down the Straits of Hormuz, if it so desired, by seizing the island of Abu Musa.

Abu Musa island is located in the Persian Gulf about halfway between Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  It is only a few miles square, but has significant oil reserves, which make the island an important possession, which would boost the economies of either Iran or the UAE.  But the critical factor for the US and other oil importing countries is that Abu Musa is located in a position at the narrow mouth of the Persian Gulf allowing whoever occupied it to threaten the Gulf's valuable oil shipping lane or, given the weaponry currently deployed there, to entirely close off the Gulf to all shipping.  Shipping through the Straits of Hormuz must negotiate an 'S' turn which is only 35 miles wide at the Strait's narrowest point.  This puts shipping well within range of the Iranian weapons systems currently deployed on Abu Musa, which sits roughly at the midpoint in the channel.

Both the UAE and Iran have had longstanding claims to Abu Musa and the nearby Tumb Islands. But by 1971 the diplomatic conflict was reaching a head.  In November of that year, Iran and the UAE reached an agreement that allowed the UAE to maintain sovereignty over Abu Musa, while concurrently permitting Iran to station military forces on the island.  This somewhat uneasy situation remained the status quo until March of 1992, when Iran expelled all foreigners from Abu Musa.  Most of the foreigners were from South Asia, and were a mix of laborers and professionals to help run schools, technical facilities and infrastructure on the island.  In April, Iran took full control of the island.

Since the island had been jointly occupied by Iran and the UAE, the operation to secure the island was relatively easy.  Intelligence reports at the time of the takeover are sketchy as to what actually happened on the island and, of course, are clouded by the sources doing the reporting.  Some accounts paint a relatively non—lethal operation that amounted to closing all the schools and expelling all Arabs including UAE citizens.  Other reports painted a darker picture that involved execution of UAE security police and some Westerners.  Regardless, Iran lost no time in improving the island's offensive and defensive capabilities.

Iran moved additional troops to the island and began construction of improved defensive positions and emplacements for Chinese—made HY—2 Silkworm anti—ship missiles.  Iranian engineers also started to expand the airfield, and began a large—scale upgrade of the port facilities.  In October 1994, when Iraq was conducting one of its 'saber rattling' exercises against Kuwait, Iran increased its troop strength on Abu Musa. When the crisis was over, the additional troops remained.

In 1995, Iran increased its troop strength from 700 to 4000, many of them being Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) soldiers.  All told, Abu Musa's defenses now included SA—6 surface—to—air missiles, 155— millimeter artillery, Silkworm and Seersucker anti—ship missiles, and a US—made Hawk missile anti—aircraft battery.  Reports also indicated that Iran had deployed the highly capable C—801 anti—ship missile system which has a range of 35 km.  It should be noted that the C—801 anti—ship cruise missile is a Chinese version of the (ahem) popular French—made EXOCET anti—ship cruise missile.  Later, the advanced C—802 anti—ship missiles with a 60—mile range were deployed to the island.

As if this weren't enough weaponry and troops to defend an island a few square miles in area, in March 1995, during a week—long trip to the Gulf, then Secretary of Defense William Perry dropped the bombshell.  He stated in a press conference that Iran's buildup on Abu Musa Island involved chemical weapons and that:

"We do not know why Iran would choose to deploy chemical weapons there, but we consider it a very negative factor and a very threatening action on their part." — Secretary of Defense Perry, quoted on CNN, March 22, 1995

Given the maritime nature of this situation, this makes perfect sense.  Analysts view the Iranian Navy is the branch of service most closely tied to the IRGC and would be at the forefront of deploying NBC weapons on Abu Musa.

If the Bush 41 Administration failed to counter the initial Iranian 'right hook' on Abu Musa in 1992, the Clinton Administration's lack of response to several years of build—up of the island's forces represented the classic Clintonian 'we tried really, really hard' approach to resolve the problem.  During a March 1995 press conference regarding US efforts to control arms proliferation to Iran, Under—Secretary of State Lynn Davis, said

No administration has worked harder to try to stop the flow of arms and technologies into Iran than this administration. We have a global effort, as I've described; and we've focused not only on those who supply these technologies, but also upon those in the region who would wish to build support for these particular goals.

Finally, in mid—1996, Defense Secretary William Perry stated that Iran is "a growing threat" to stability in the Persian Gulf region, and confirmed, albeit belatedly, that Iran had built up its forces around the mouth of the Gulf, and would now have the capability of shutting off one—fifth of the world's oil supply.  Again, President Clinton's actions were typical of his version of 'getting tough.'  He immediately authorized sanctions against Iran and Libya that he hoped would deter international firms from doing business with the two nations.

In other words, the flawed policy of containment and sanctions had allowed another festering sore to come back and haunt the Bush 43 Administration, and the forces of CENTCOM and the Coalition.  As recently as February 2002, then Commanding General of CENTCOM, Gen. Tommy Franks, stated before The House Armed Services Committee that 'Iran has developed the Shahab—3 medium—range missile to augment existing SCUD—B and SCUD—C systems, and as these programs mature they pose a significant risk to the region and to our deployed forces.'  And that '...the dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates over the islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tonb, and Lesser Tonb continues to threaten peninsula security.'

It is clear that Iran's long—term plan of seizing control of the strategic waterways in the CENTCOM region is being successfully implemented.  It may well be that the Bush 43 Administration's reluctance to forcefully confront the mullahs' infiltration of Iraq is partially or wholly due to implicit, or even secret explicit, threats by Iran to shut down the Straits of Hormuz, if America acts in ways the mullahs deem unacceptable. That may be why Iranian operatives have been so free to help fund, train, and staff Muqtada al—Sadr's Mahdi Militia in Iraq, and why in the last few days, al—Sadr's thugs have also carried out attacks against British forces in and around Basra. 

This sort of blackmail, if genuine, cannot be allowed to continue.

So, what are our options?

CENTCOM appears, in the eyes of the Middle East, to have lost the initiative, especially when it comes to solving the problem of Iranian backing of the renegade Shia militia.  Some means of fighting back and regaining the initiative must be developed. Here are the principal alternatives:

1. A diplomatic strategy. The Iranian occupation of the island is not only disputed by the UAE, but also by the entire Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).  It may be feasible to line—up the much—coveted support of a large 'international community' to demand re—occupation of Abu Masa by the UAE, and the evacuation of Iranian forces. This could be phrased in a way which promises united military action, by the GCC, the United States, and a coalition of the nations dependent on the free flow of oil through the Straits, if the mullahs balk beyond a certain deadline. Such a coalition could theoretically include Europe, Japan, China, South Korea, and many other nations. But, of course, the advantage of a surprise attack would be lost, should diplomacy, combined with sanctions and threats, fail as badly as it did with Saddam for so many years.

2.  A military strategy. A surprise attack is one option, but it would need to be successful swiftly. The defenses arrayed on Abu Musa and Qeshm Island to the North are formidable; this would be no cakewalk for the Navy and Marines. But the balance of US air and naval power far exceeds that of Iran. Any prolonged fight would shut down a huge portion of the world's economy, causing untold suffering, especially in poorer countries, but also throughout the developed world. It would not be pretty.

3. A political strategy within Iran. The mullahs face a restive and unhappy population, a 'pre—revolutionary situation' as the Marxists used to term it. Diplomacy, combined with the threat of military action, combined with covert support for a mass uprising within Iran, might have the best chance of success.

None of the options is very good. The slack responses and strategic retreats of the past are now coming due. But inaction may be the worst option of all. And the risk of military action must be weighed against the risks of the tottering regime of the mullahs acting at a time, and in the manner of their choosing. Any action by Iran's initiative to slow or stop shipping at this strategic point would restrict oil supplies to Asia, Europe, and the US.  Japan, which gets about 66 percent of its oil from the Gulf region would be hurt the most by a closing of the Straits, but China is becoming increasingly vulnerable.  The only thing worse would be a video of a Japanese supertanker 'brewing up' after being hit by a volley of Silkworms.  Then, the strategic initiative, especially in the eyes of the Arab nations, would be almost impossible to regain.

Douglas Hanson is our military afairs correspondent