Are War Plans for Iran Already Underway? (posted
January 14, 2007 by Jonathan Vigh)
News news reports and blogs are humming about an upcoming
war with Iran. For examples, see:
Taking on almost the aura of a conspiracy theory, the assertion of an
impending U.S. attack on Iran is bolstered by the following "facts":
- The fact that President Bush's new Iraq strategy calls for 21,500
additional troops to be in place in Iraq by the end of February (some are
already arriving). It is argued by some that this is not enough troops to
stabilize the sectarian strife, so they might have another purpose.
- The fact of the recent detention of Iranian officials in Iraq -
this has sparked a diplomatic row between Iran and the U.S. in the past few
- The fact that the U.S. is diverting the U.S.S. John C. Stennis
aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf from a planned deployment in the
Pacific (reported in the
news media Dec 19, 2006).
- The fact that the U.S. has deployed warplanes to the Turkish air
base in Incirlik.
- The fact that a Navy colonel has recently been named
to replace the Army's General Casey as commander to oversee the Afghanistan
and Iraq war efforts (it is widely believed that a U.S. attack would likely
come from the sea).
- The fact that we are already two weeks into a 60-day deadline
(issued by the Security Council) that Iran stop enriching uranium.
- The rumor that President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, and
others have recently held intricate discussions about plans for the upcoming
war, and that they'd like to start before April 2007 which would be Tony
Blair's last month in office.
- The recent leaks to the media that the Israeli Air Force is
training to strike Iran's nuclear facilities.
I believe that an alternate interpretation of these facts
is more realistic, but first let's consider the consequences of a U.S. attack on
Iran by examining a few questions: Is the U.S. really gearing up for a "hot" war
with Iran? If so, what would such a war look like? What would be the aims of
such a war? More importantly, what would be the consequences? How soon could
Iran build nuclear weapons? Does the Iranian threat really justify such drastic
Does the Iranian threat justify drastic action?
Starting with the last question, I do believe that Iran
poses a grave threat to the stability of the Middle East. Despite what they say
about only wanting peaceful nuclear energy, their actions indicate that they are
pursuing nuclear weapons (in a previous entry I
make the case of why Iran should not be allowed to build nuclear weapons and why
we shouldn't believe their statements about only wanting peaceful nuclear
energy). Iran's other overt actions, such as holding an academic conference for
Holocaust deniers and previous statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
threatening to wipe Israel off the map do not engender any confidence that they
have pure motives (even if such actions were made purely to obtain support in
the Muslim world). But it is their covert actions which are cause for more
concern. Iran has been a longtime state sponsor of terrorism. More recently,
Iran (and Syria) is widely believed to have supported Hezbollah in last summer's
Israeli-Lebanon conflict - indeed, the entire war could be viewed as a proxy
battle between Israel and Iran. Also, Iran has been playing a destabilizing role
in Iraq, fomenting sectarian conflict by supporting Shiite militias. Iran's
policy of creating "managed chaos" is thwarting the U.S. goals of stabilizing
Iraq and withdrawing troops. It is Iran's way of gaining leverage against the
U.S. to allow them to continue with their nuclear ambitions. A nuclear Iran
would further their goals of Iranian hegemony in the Middle East - as events in
the past year have shown, even the threat of a nuclear Iran has brought
increased attention and influence to Iran.
How soon could Iran build nuclear weapons?
Assuming that Iran is trying to build nukes, it is widely
believed that they do not have them yet. How soon Iran can obtain them
determines the urgency of meeting this threat. So what kind of time frame are we
looking at? Well, the official U.S. intelligent assessment estimated Iran would
have the bomb within the decade, which was taken to mean 5-10 years. Some have
claimed that the Bush administration may be trying to distort the time frame in
order to build urgency for action. But an assessment (When
could Iran get the Bomb? by David Albright | Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists |
July/August 2006) details an optimistic scenario in which Iran could
conceivably obtain nuclear weapons by 2009. So to be on the safe side, we are
talking about a few years, not a decade. It is entirely possible that Iran has
already installed centrifuges in unknown underground facilities and is plugging
away. While this is complete conjecture, Iran's president has engaged in an
interesting course of bravado up until his party's recent setback in the
municipal elections. It would be a rather stupid course to defy the
international community take if he did not have an ace up his sleeve.
What would a war with Iran look like?
I'm not a military expert, but from my reading of news
articles and analyses over the past few years, it seems that the preferred
military option for dealing with Iran (assuming sanctions and diplomacy fail),
would be targeted strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities. The goal would be to set
Iran's nuclear program back several years and perhaps spur the Iranian
population to replace their current leaders in favor of leaders who will be more
pragmatic. However, such an air strike is fraught with risk. First of all,
Iran's most important nuclear facilities are likely located underground, and the
true extent and location of such facilities may not even be known. Destroying
facilities on the surface would be relatively easy, but even our best
bunker-busting bombs would be ineffective against deeply buried targets. While
there has been some talk of developing bunker-busting tactical nuclear weapons
in the past, I do not believe that such weapons are technically feasible. It is
a very difficult problem to deliver a viable nuclear payload deep enough below
ground so that the resulting nuclear blast is contained. Indeed, some of Iran's
facilities are likely beneath cities - a strike, even with low yield nuclear
weapons would likely generate a base surge and intense radioactive fallout
within a few miles of the blast, causing devastating collateral damage - this
would not look very good to the rest of the world. But a conventional air strike
would likely prove ineffective.
Another option would be to target Iran's nuclear
workforce - after it all, it takes technicians to run all those centrifuges.
This option could have some merit, but it is possible that Iran has underground
dormitories for their most critical personnel. So then one must consider the
possibility of a limited ground engagement in which the allied forces carve out
a small zone near the facilities and conduct a demolition of the facilities from
within. This would require a very sophisticated operation, and of course would
also require a great deal of intelligence on the nature of the facilities to be
Yet another option would be a symbolic strike against
Natanz and other known facilities on the surface, as well as a decapitation
strike against Iran's leadership. There is enough discontent with the current
regime that the removal of a few key leaders could provide the catalyst for a
popular revolution - or utter chaos. Either way, this would most likely put a
damper on progress towards a nuclear Iran.
Finally, there is the fearsome possibility that the U.S.
and it's E.U. allies are contemplating a full scale ground invasion. Given their
current tie-ups in Iraq, I doubt that this is their true intention. Such a war
could end up being much more of a mess than Iraq, since Iran is much larger than
Iraq, both in size and population. Iran's Revolutionary Guard might prove to
much more of a worthy adversary than Saddam's forces did, and contrary to
popular belief, Iran does possess a
force (click the links for summaries of their capabilities as of 2003 - more
information on Iran is also is available from GlobalSecurity.org). Although
both of these forces are significantly degraded from their peak strengths
(largely due to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war), Iran still retains the capability to
inflict significant harm to regional interests, especially shipping. They have
also demonstrated advanced missile technology.
What would be the consequences of a war with Iran?
Iran's president has threatened a "historic
slap in the face" for the West if they confront Iran over nuclear weapons.
Depending on the military option taken, the consequences could be very
significant, ranging from bad to catastrophic. It is widely believed that Iran
would respond to any attack by sealing off the Strait of Hormuz, cutting off the
world's access to Persian Gulf oil. It is believed that despite their degraded
naval forces, Iran does have the capability of making good on this threat. They
do have high speed ships capable of asymmetric attacks against U.S. warships or
oil tankers. They also possess submarines with mine-laying capabilities. So it
seems safe to assume that Iran would strike out against U.S. military forces,
possibly inflicting substantial losses. But perhaps more importantly for the
U.S., Iran could also turn the current situation in Iraq from bad to a real
nightmare. Finally, Iran might use their ballistic missiles against oil
infrastructure in neighboring countries, or perhaps against Israel. If that were
to happen, all bets are off - Israel might counterstrike with nuclear weapons,
and World War III could ensue.
An Alternate View of Current Events
In light of the severe consequences of a U.S. attack, I
find it hard to believe that our leaders are deadset on attacking Iran in the
next few months. I've come to this conclusion based on the following logic:
- The most likely type of attack, an air attack, would likely prove
ineffective against hardened underground nuclear facilities (if these even
exist). A symbolic or decapitation strike could possibly effect general
chaos or in the most optimistic scenario, a regime change, but the
consequences could also be very severe.
- The U.S. military is so tied down in Iraq that it is incredible to
think that they would even consider a full scale invasion of Iran.
- The use of American force against yet another Muslim nation would
in all likelihood prove entirely counterproductive, causing a further divide
between the West and Islam. An attack on Iran could radicalize their
population, strengthening the current regime rather than weakening it.
- The most optimistic scenario of Iran's nuclear progress indicates
that they are likely at least two years away from obtaining nukes. Time is
still on our side - for the moment.
- Given the current chaos in Iraq, it's hard to believe the U.S. is
even thinking about starting a hot war with Iran.
- It seems much more likely that President Bush's 'surge' policy is
meant to accomplish the stated goal of stabilizing Iraq. The extra troops
are not enough to completely stabilize all of Iraq, but they will likely
needed to root out and destroy the resistant parts of the Muktada Al Sadr's
So if the U.S. is NOT on a war path, then what is
going on? I would contend that the U.S. and the E.U. are engaged in
white-knuckle coercive diplomacy. The recent municipal elections showed that
domestic support is waning for Mr. Ahmadinejad's hard-line nuclear policies.
Furthermore, the U.S. probably hopes that the threat of force will fragment the
ruling power base and cause the moderates to demand that the hardliners give up
their nuclear aspirations. The U.S. also realizes that this is the last best
chance to solve the Iraq problem, so perhaps stepping up the pressure on the
nuclear issue will encourage Iran to stop meddling in Iraq. Finally, the
Security Council's deadline ends around the beginning of March - perhaps the
U.S. is simply preparing to make good on any eventual resolution. For the U.S.
military option to have any curry weight with Iran's leaders, it has to be
believable. Needless to say, it is entirely prudent for the U.S. to beef up
their naval forces at this time.
What will happen next?
I still think that a conflict can be avoided. The full
weight of economic sanctions has not yet been applied - I think that the next
logical progression of this conflict will be a new, harsher resolution by the
U.N. Security Council in March, possibly with an ultimatum, but more likely
severe economic sanctions. Iran's economy is already on shaky ground, and even
the threat of harsh sanctions could prove much more useful than a military
strike. Only time will tell. Let's hope for the best.
FT.com / In depth - Origins of the dispute
Special Coverage of U.S. - Iran Conflict
As a footnote, this last link indicates reports from Iran that the U.S. may
already be engaging in psychological warfare operations. Iran's leader is
currently out of the country, trying to build foster economic ties in the U.S.'s
backyard (Venezuela and Nicaragua). Perhaps the war has already begun?