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Iran: Gulf War III?

Attacking the Islamic Republic would mean steep costs and uncertain victory.

If gas breaking the $3/gallon barrier could dominate the evening news and send Congress into a frenzy, imagine Americans’ horror if oil, now $75/barrel, suddenly tops $200. Neither our political will nor our wallets are prepared, but a few stalled SUVs may be the least of our concerns if the U.S. makes good on its threats against Iran.

On April 10, President Bush drew his line in the sand: “We do not want the Iranians to have a nuclear weapon, the capacity to make a nuclear weapon or the knowledge about how to make a nuclear weapon.” The next day, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that his country had “joined countries with nuclear technology” by successfully enriching uranium. Now Iran maintains that its nuclear ambitions are peaceful, but many analysts believe the real purpose is to build nuclear weapons—which the White House says it will not allow.
President Bush insists that he wants to resolve the situation diplomatically, but his recent pronouncements sound eerily like the run-up to the Iraq War, and his ultimatums have significantly narrowed the range of options. According to New Yorker columnist Seymour Hersh, “The Bush Administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy in order to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack.”

The blueprint for a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program is based on Israel’s strike against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981. But this would not be Osirak redux. Unlike Osirak, attacking Iran’s nuclear program would require striking multiple targets. The three main targets would likely be Bushehr, which is a complex of light-water reactors where spent fuel rods could be diverted to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons; the previously secret Natanz nuclear facility, believed to be used for uranium enrichment that could be used for nuclear weapons; and Arak, which is the site of two planned heavy-water reactors that could produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. But a decapitating strike against Iran’s nuclear program would involve more than just three targets. According to GlobalSecurity.org, “there are perhaps two dozen suspected nuclear facilities in Iran.”
In a war game run for The Atlantic in the fall of 2004, retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner identified 14 locations for Iran’s nuclear-related facilities but developed a pre-emptive strike target list of 125 nuclear, chemical, and biological facilities with approximately 300 aim points—20 of which would require penetrating weapons or bunker busters. The main cause of all the additional aim points is the need to suppress Iran’s air defenses, including advanced Russian S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missiles.

In addition to more aim points that must be attacked, Iran’s air capabilities mean that a successful strike would require several days to degrade air defenses sufficiently before the primary targets could be hit. (It is important to remember that one of the reasons U.S. air power was so successful at the outset of Operation Iraqi Freedom and could operate with relative impunity was that Iraq’s air defenses had been rendered virtually ineffective by 10 years of no-fly-zone enforcement.)

Certainly the United States military is capable of conducting a complex large-scale air strike against Iran using aircraft armed with precision weapons or cruise missiles. Assuming all the weapons hit their intended targets, the success of such a military operation would rest on three factors:

  • All known targets comprise the full extent of Iran’s nuclear program and there are no secret facilities
  • Minimal collateral damage
  • No retaliation by the regime in Tehran

Recalling pre-Iraq War predictions about the United States being hailed as a liberator while Iraqis embraced democracy, how likely is this outcome? The odds aren’t good.

A covert reactor would be a difficult undertaking for the Iranians but cannot be ruled out. A secret uranium-enrichment facility is a more likely possibility. After all, it was two years before the Natanz facility was revealed and then only because it was disclosed by the National Council of the Resistance of Iran, not because it was discovered by U.S. intelligence. We also know that many of Iran’s nuclear facilities, like the Tehran research reactor, are located in urban areas, so civilian casualties are almost a certainty. If the U.S. resorts to tactical nuclear weapons, as Hersh suggests it might—and President Bush has said that option has not been taken off the table—a Defense Department-sponsored report by the National Academy of Sciences stated that they could “kill up to a million people or more if used in heavily populated areas.” Finally, it is hard to imagine that any government would sit idly by after being bombed on a relatively massive scale: 300 aim points would require at least two weapons each for reliability and to assure a high probability of kill.

If Iran’s ballistic missile sites were not taken out in the initial strike, Tehran would have some 500 Shehab ballistic missiles at its disposal for retaliation. The shorter-range Shehab-1 and -2 missiles, variants of the Russian Scud missile, are capable of reaching U.S. targets in the Gulf, including Iraq, where some 130,000 American soldiers are currently stationed. The longer range Shehab-3 missile, based on the North Korean Nodong missile, could reach Israel—and Iran has made clear that this will be an early target: “We have announced that wherever America does something evil, the first place that we target will be Israel,” Revolutionary Guards Commander Mohammad-Ebrahim Dehqani said last week. Like the V-2 missiles used by Germany against Britain during World War II, the Shehab missiles would be most effective against civilian populations rather than military targets due to their relative inaccuracy. How well U.S. forces in the Gulf region and the Israelis could withstand an onslaught of Iranian Shehab missiles would depend on the effectiveness of U.S. Patriot and Israeli Arrow missile-defense systems. To date, the Patriot has not lived up to its expectations against Iraqi Scud missiles. On paper, the Arrow has better performance than Patriot PAC-3—greater speed and higher altitude—but it has not proved itself in combat. Moreover, relying on missile-defense systems to blunt Iranian retaliation fails to account for the possibility that Iran’s Shehab missiles could be armed with chemical warheads.

Iran could also retaliate by sowing further chaos in already unstable Iraq. In a February 2006 threat assessment presented to the Senate Select Committee On Intelligence, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte stated, “Iran provides guidance and training to select Iraqi Shia political groups and weapons and training to Shia militant groups to enable anti-Coalition attacks. Tehran has been responsible for at least some of the increasing lethality of anti-Coalition attacks by providing Shia militants with the capability to build IEDs [improvised explosive devices] with explosively formed projectiles.” But we have yet to feel their full fury. He added, “Tehran’s intentions to inflict pain on the United States in Iraq have been constrained by its caution to avoid giving Washington an excuse to attack it.” If the United States attacked Iran, Tehran is prepared to step up its activities in Iraq, including covertly deploying elements of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

And Iranian retaliation need not be limited to military action. Iranian oil production is fourth in the world and second to Saudi Arabia in the Gulf—nearly 4 million barrels a day. (Iran’s oil reserves are third largest in the world after Saudi Arabia and Canada.) While withholding oil from the market to inflict economic damage on the United States would not be economically rational since the Iranians would lose their main source of revenue, it cannot be ruled out. The Iranians could also disrupt the global oil supply from the Persian Gulf either by mining the Straits of Hormuz or sinking tankers to block the straits, which can only be transited via two one-mile-wide channels. According to the Department of Energy, roughly 20 percent of the world’s oil passes through the Straits of Hormuz and closure “would require use of longer alternate routes (if available) at increased transportation costs.” If Iranians shut down the straits, the price of oil will skyrocket—with shock waves felt throughout the global economy.
More chilling is the possibility that the Iranians would feel unrestrained about resorting to terrorism—their best bet against America’s military might. According to recent State Department Country Reports on Terrorism, “Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism” by providing support to Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Hezbollah was responsible for the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 people and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. solders, but it has not targeted Americans subsequently. The al-Qaeda terror threat is already grave—and would be much worse if now constrained Hezbollah were unleashed. Former CIA Director George Tenet called Hezbollah “an organization with capability and worldwide presence … [al-Qaeda’s] equal, if not a far more capable organization.” And former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said, “Hezbollah may be the ‘A-team’ of terrorists and maybe al-Qaeda’s actually the B-team.” Set aside which is more lethal and consider a scenario where the two organizations overcome Sunni-Shi’ite divisions to form a tactical alliance against a common enemy: the United States.

Beyond direct retaliation, there are also the ripple effects of unintended consequences—and there are always unintended consequences. After Afghanistan and Iraq, attacking Iran would likely be viewed by many in the Muslim world as confirmation that the U.S. is waging a war against Islam, a tipping point that would incline many to sympathize and side with the radicals. Not only would we earn the hostility of youthful Iranian reformers in whom the U.S. has previously put faith, but we could ignite destabilizing violence in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Indonesia. Add precarious Afghanistan and nuclear-armed Pakistan, governments we can ill afford to unsettle, and we stand to accomplish exactly what bin Laden wants but is unable to achieve on his own.

The ripples could reach far beyond Muslim countries. Our European allies host large immigrant Muslim populations—over 4 million in France, over 3 million in Germany, and over 1 million in the United Kingdom—that are susceptible to radicalization, as demonstrated by the July 2005 terrorist attacks on the London tube system. A U.S. attack on Iran could unleash a wave of terrorist reprisal throughout Europe.

Another consideration is how Muslims in the Balkans might react. With few exceptions, almost all al-Qaeda and radical Islamic terrorists have been of Arab origin. Thus the tendency has been to equate “Muslim” with “Arab” in creating a profile of potential al-Qaeda terrorists. But Muslims from the Balkans are anything but Arab, and if al-Qaeda could successfully recruit Muslims from the local Balkan population, the war on terrorism would be thrown a dangerous curveball.

There is also the risk of radicalizing America’s Muslim population. While the vast majority do not support bin Laden’s terrorism, they are not unsympathetic to his arguments about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and Muslim world—particularly U.S. support for oppressive and autocratic governments in the countries they left behind. Bin Laden has tapped some core issues that many Muslims can agree with him about in principle, even if they do not condone the killing of innocents. But if American Muslims begin to believe that the United States has embarked on a war against Islam and their home countries, even if they consider America to be their home, how long can they be expected not to defend their religious and cultural roots?

Ultimately, it is impossible to predict the outcome of a U.S. attack against Iran’s nuclear program. None of the above scenarios—and they are not exhaustive—are mutually exclusive. Russia and China, powerful states with heavy financial investments in Iran, have consistently registered their opposition to a military solution regarding Iran; indeed they oppose Washington’s push for economic sanctions. A U.S. military strike against Iran would engage their interests in ways difficult to calculate. The ominous analogy pointed to by Washington commentator Steve Clemons deserves sober consideration: “This mess is looking increasingly like 1914—when nations fell into war because of ego, attitude, poorly thought strategies regarding basic strategic interests, and miscalculation.”

It is precisely because of this unpredictability that all of the outcomes must be carefully weighed. However big the potential payoff, the risks must be assessed, for Iran is not sanction-battered, diplomatically isolated Iraq, and the United States can ill afford another Operation Wishful Thinking.

One of the fundamental problems in war-gaming is the tendency to view the game as chess, where moves can be anticipated and so-called branch-and-block strategies employed to thwart the various combinations of moves by the enemy. But chess is the wrong analogy. As Iraq has clearly demonstrated, a kaleidoscope metaphor is more appropriate—moving one piece results in all the other pieces shifting into a new pattern that sets in motion a series of uncontrollable events.

Why, then, would the Bush administration be willing to roll the dice with military action against Iran? The answer lies in the new National Security Strategy issued on March 16:

    As important as are these nuclear issues, the United States has broader concerns regarding Iran. The Iranian regime sponsors terrorism; threatens Israel; seeks to thwart Middle East peace; disrupts democracy in Iraq; and denies the aspirations of its people for freedom. The nuclear issue and our other concerns can ultimately be resolved only if the Iranian regime makes the strategic decision to change these policies, open up its political system, and afford freedom to its people. This is the ultimate goal of U.S. policy.

This gives the game away: administration strategists understand that if the United States bombs Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Iranians will likely retaliate using terrorism against American targets, which would then become justification to invade Iran for regime change. But far from spurring the democratic transition of the Bush administration’s fantasies, this will galvanize the Islamic world against us—in addition to rocking the global economy, endangering our allies, and costing untold Iranian and American lives. The alternative—if diplomatic efforts prove unsuccessful—might be a price worth paying. Although the Iranians may eventually acquire a few nuclear weapons, they will not be able to ignore the reality of vastly superior American and Israeli arsenals. Deterrence could then begin its work, as it did with the Soviet Union and China once and with North Korea now.

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, senior fellow with George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute, adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project, MSNBC analyst, and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.



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