Are War Plans for Iran Already Underway?

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Are War Plans for Iran Already Underway?

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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":

    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 action?

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 destroyed.

    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 navy and air force (click the links for summaries of their capabilities as of 2003 - more information on Iran is also is available from 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:

     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.

More Resources / In depth - Origins of the dispute

English-Xinhuanet 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? 

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