Iran's Strategy and Application of Force

While the Bush Administration clearly asserts that a nuclear armed Iran is not in the national security interests of the United States, the fractious political environment in Washington is blunting the effectiveness of that message. Iran sees a hesitant adversary, while the American public remains misinformed of the true situation in the Middle East. 

At this juncture, the U.S. should not be asking its leaders what would you do. It should be demanding what are you going to do. Iran has systematically murdered hundreds of US soldiers and citizens. It has repeatedly threatened one of our staunchest allies, Israel, with annihilation.  Allowing a country with this disposition to obtain the crown jewel of destructive weapons would be an unmitigated disaster.

The US needs a clear and unified message that articulates our policy of resistance to Iran pursuing nuclear weapons. Whether the US chooses a military option, covert action, or more diplomatic measures, the US government and its people need to take a clear stand. The US public needs to also understand that there may be hardships as a result of their decision.

Tehran will continue to push for nuclear weapons as a means to solidify the hard line regime's death grip on political power. Both the US and Israel would be much more hesitant to destabilize, much less attack, a country that possesses nuclear weaponry. The regime needs this weapon to partially secure its placement at the mantle of power in Iran and has formulated a plan to serve as a deterrent against US/Israeli unilateral military action. They have been diligently working on this plan for the past 5-6 years.

Iran knows the US military, backed by a unified country, would easily win any conflict. However, the regime also knows how to compromise the will of US decision makers to follow through with policies if a direct conflict ensues. The attached thoughts serve as an analysis of Iran's contingency plan to respond to any direct conflict with the US and/or Israel.

Iran's Contingency Planning: Missile Threat

One of the most prominent weapons that Iran would use in retaliation for any preemptive US or Israeli military action are missiles possessed by both Iran and their supporters in the region. Some of those weapons, such as the Shehab-3 Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM), could be launched from Iran, since a variant of the Shahab has a 1,200 mile range. With that type of range it is able to reach the bulk of US military assets in the region as well as the entire nation of Israel.

Another dimension to the missile threat is Iran's supplying of its most trusted surrogate, Lebanese Hezb'allah, with missiles so that attacks could also take place from Israel's northern border area. According to press reports, Hezb'allah claims it has now received missiles from Iran that can now target virtually all of the state of Israel. In the event Iran were directly attacked by the US/Israel, Lebanese Hezb'allah would also engage in rocket attacks.

There is another element to this threat that is not discussed often enough. Since 9/11, Iran and her surrogates have been systematically involved in smuggling Katyusha rockets in countries like Iraq and the lands governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA). For example, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno announced in January of 2007 that US forces recently seized weapons in Iraq, including Katyusha rockets, complete with Iranian serial numbers.

Another prime example where Iran tried to smuggle similar weapons occurred on 3 January 2002. Israeli security forces seized the Karine A, a ship which was attempting to deliver 50 tons of weapons to groups within territory governed by the Palestinian Authority. According to Israeli government sources, the weaponry seized aboard the Karine A included 122 mm and 107 mm Katyusha rockets, 120 mm and 80 mm mortar shells, low and sagger anti-tank missiles.  

Although the ship was reportedly owned and operated by the Palestinian Authority, the crates used to store the weapons were Iranian-made, waterproof, and capable of floating or submersing themselves to a preset depth. Hezb'allah members were alleged to have assisted in transferring those specialty crates from Iranian ships to the Karine A. These are just examples of the known shipments.

Although these types of shipments are used to fuel the existing conflicts in Iraq and Israel, they could just as easily be an attempt by Iran to create additional platforms by which they could stockpile weaponry in different areas for future launches. Given Iran's and Hezb'allah's penchant for caching weapons and explosives for the proverbial rainy day, this scenario should not be discounted. In fact, it should be anticipated.

Iran's Contingency Planning: Terrorism

In the wake of any US- or Israeli-led strikes Iran will employ their security services and their surrogates (Lebanese Hezb'allah, etc) to conduct terrorist attacks on US and Israeli targets worldwide. In terms of their respective approaches to conducting terrorist attacks, Iran and Iranian surrogates do not behave like al Qaida and her affiliated organizations. For instance, al Qaida mainly focuses its operational resources on targets they intend to attack immediately or in the very near future. The 9/11 commission report and the East African bombing transcripts clearly lay out that when they decided on a target the organization's intelligence, logistical, and operational assets focused on those targets.

Iran and Lebanese Hezb'allah approach their enemies a bit differently. They spend a disproportionate amount of time compiling intelligence for contingency plans in the event that future attacks are deemed necessary to either drive home a political point or retaliate for "transgressions." This approach to intelligence collection gives Iran and Hezb'allah a large degree of operational flexibility and does not limit the scope of their attacks to one particular region.

According to officials of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), they have collected intelligence on dozens of targets worldwide which they can choose to attack. As early as 2002, Iran apparently sensed a potential conflict with the US and has been diligently collecting intelligence on a variety of US military and strategic targets. As one unidentified IRGC official plainly stated
"[t]here are 29 sensitive sites in the U.S. and in the West. We have already spied on these sites and we know how we are going to attack them."
An example of this type of surveillance activity was noted by the New York Police Department's Commissioner Ray Kelly in testimony he gave to the City Council's Finance and Public Safety committees.  Commissioner Kelly testified that in June 2002 and again in June 2004, Iranian diplomats from their UN Mission were observed videotaping landmarks and infrastructure targets within New York City. In terms of targeting the US military, former Iranian Revolutionary Guard Ccommander Yahya Rahim Safavi alluded to similar intelligence collection efforts were completed on US military forces in the Middle East region as well. He stated  in December 2006
"[a]ssuming they [the US] attack Iran, their 200,000 troops, in their 33 bases are highly vulnerable. American politicians and military commanders both know this."
Safavi's alluding to these contingency intelligence collection activities on US forces in the region is part of a pattern of demonstrated behavior. For example, the Khobar Towers indictment outlined similar intelligence collection operations in 1995. Iranian military officers directly ordered their Saudi Hezb'allah surrogates to collect intelligence on targets in Jizan, Saudi Arabia and other areas in the Eastern Province for future attacks.

Statements made by these Revolutionary Guard officials are not hollow, and figure prominently into their national security plans. Contingency planning for future terrorist attacks provides a number of advantages. For instance, it enables Iran and/or her surrogates to assemble and execute large scale attacks in days or weeks not the months or years it usually takes to do so. When you examine al Qaida's 9/11 and East Africa operations you will see that the former operation took roughly two and a half years, while the latter took roughly 5 years after the initial decision was made to attack those targets.

An examination of Lebanese Hezb'allah's 1992 and 1994 bombings in Buenos Aires, Argentina provide an excellent contrast to al Qaida's operations. The first example features the 17 March 1992 Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED) attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. All indications clearly point to Lebanese Hezb'allah executing this attack in retaliation for Israel's 16 February 1992 assassination of Hezb'allah's then Secretary General, Abbas Musawi.

In essence, the time span from the impetus of the attack (Musawi's assassination) to the successful execution of the attack was roughly thirty days.

The next example was the 18 July 1994 attack on the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA). Although no one claimed credit for this specific attack, the likely culprit in this VBIED attack was, again, Lebanese Hezb'allah. The likely impetus for this attack was Israel's 2 June 1994 gunship attack on a Lebanese Hezb'allah training facility in Ayn Dardara, in which 26 Hezb'allah members were killed and 40 were wounded. This strike was the most successful Israeli operation against Hezb'allah at that time.

The time lapse between the impetus for this attack (killing 26 Hezb'allah members and wounding 40 more) and the successful targeting of the AMIA facility was roughly forty-five days.

While both al Qaida and Lebanese Hezb'allah had to conduct intelligence gathering, arrange logistics, acquire explosive material, assemble those explosives, and successfully deliver the attack, it is apparent that Hezb'allah did the bulk of their intelligence gathering and/or logistical work before the actual impetus for the attack arose. What is also important to note is that the impetus for these attacks took place in Lebanon, but the strikes were successfully executed thousands of miles away in Argentina. The truncated time tables and geographic scope of the Buenos Aires attacks effectively illustrate Hezb'allah/Iran's response time and operational reach. It also provides a window into how these organizations are able to immediately mount retaliatory operations for any "act of aggression."

Contingency Planning: Closing the Strait of Hormuz

Finally, no Iranian asymmetric plan could be complete without the threat to oil shipments made through the Strait of Hormuz. Since the Iran-Iraq war that raged throughout the 1980's, Iran has demonstrated and bolstered its ability to impede oil traffic moving through the strait. What is different now as opposed to the previous tensions in the Gulf is the amount of ships and weaponry, such as the Soviet made SS-N-22 "Sunburn" supersonic anti-ship missiles,  and the hyper-sensitivity of oil pricing today. The cascading economic effects of Iran specifically targeting oil flow through the Persian Gulf would be devastating. Tehran knows this and is counting on its deterrent effect.

The "Beirut Lesson"

What typically gets lost in this type of discussion is how the US's current fractious political environment is also figuring into Tehran's calculations. The current political environment is a signal to Tehran that even if there is a direct conflict, they can orchestrate a set of calibrated attacks that can manipulate the will of US decision makers and the US public to prevent any additional military actions directed against them. Much of this "lesson" was learned by Tehran's leadership in the early 1980's, specifically, the October 1983 Marine Corps barracks bombing perpetrated by Lebanese Hezb'allah in Beirut, Lebanon.

Soon after this VBIED attack, the US withdrew from Lebanon and effectively reversed its policy course in the country. This was largely due to public outcry and US decision makers' reevaluation of US policy in the region as a result of Hezb'allah attacks. In essence, the attack exposed/exploited a gap between US policy and the will of US decision makers and the public to support that policy. That attack and the resulting US behavior have made a definitive and lasting impression on Iran's hardcore leadership.

This brings us to the current situation we face in the Middle East. Whether it is by happenstance or a deliberate effort, Iran is choosing to push their nuclear and Iraq policies as the United States is divided about our mission in the region. This division clearly sends the message to Tehran that there is a good chance that a gap will exist between any policy implemented by the US to counter Iranian activities and the will of US decision makers and the public to unflinchingly support that policy.

The circumstances surrounding US policy in Iraq provide a recent benchmark for Iran to gauge our behavior. When the will of just a portion of our decision makers is compromised we have a tendency to focus our energies inward not on external adversaries. Therefore, Iran does not need to affect every US decision maker, just some of them to achieve the necessary effect.

Iran is supremely confident this strategy is going to deliver nuclear weapons and provide a check against outside forces pushing for (or trying to forcibly implement) regime change.

Brett McCrea served for ten years as an Intelligence Analyst for the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Defense. He currently teaches at Wilmington University in Delaware.