Earlier, I discussed the buildup to a possible conflict with Iran. Now, I’m going to engage in a bit of rampant speculation about how such a conflict might unfold, should it actually happen. Naturally, I’m hoping it won’t, but as I always say, “hope for the best and plan for the worst.”
Despite Iran’s open belligerence and posturing, there is very little that they can do to pose a serious threat to the United States proper. The thousands of miles of separation is too great an obstacle for them. But we’ve had about a century of experience in bringing the battle to the enemy, and have turned the air and seas into our highways. Distance is as much our ally as General Winter has been for the Russians. It’s almost easier for us to strike halfway around the world than to muster a military force in our own back yard.
While denied access to us, however, Iran can do a great deal to threaten our interests, as well as those of the rest of the world. Take a look at a map of Iran. Notice the city of Bandar Abbas, and where it sits. It’s at the gateway to the Persian Gulf, astride the Straits of Hormuz. And fully 25% of the world’s oil supply travels through that Strait. The Strait is 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, and practically speaking even narrower than that: there’s a one-mile-wide channel in each direction, separated by a two-mile “median.” If anything happens to block that channel, a very large portion of the world (not just the US) will be hurting.
Iran knows this, and has played this game before. Recall the “tanker war” of 1984-1987. Iran and Iraq, having exhausted most other forms of warfare in their struggle, started going after oil tankers. Iraq attacked those ships bearing Iranian oil exports, and Iran responded with Silkworm anti-ship missiles and mining the Straits. The US intervened then, reflagging tankers under US colors and having US warships escort neutral vessels. Two of our warships were badly damaged (the frigate USS Stark by an Exocet missile, and the cruiser Princeton by a mine), but eventually the conflict petered out.
Iran’s new strategy seems to be aimed at wreaking havoc, at punishing the world at large for having the nerve to deny them what they want. The first step will be to shut down the Straits of Hormuz. In addition to mines, missile boats, and anti-ship missiles (both land-based and air-launched), since the Tanker War Iran has acquired three Kilo-class Russian submarines. The Kilos were designed to operate in shallow waters like the Gulf, and in some ways are superior to attack subs. They are diesel-electric powered, not nuclear, so they’re quieter when submerged. They are smaller, so they are more maneuverable. And because the Soviets give their submarines a double hull, they just might be a bit tougher than ours.
On the other hand, there are only three of them, and our subs are far better armed and have much better sensors. And our submariners are simply better at their jobs by several orders of magnitude.
The other front Iran might choose to open is to try to escalate the fighting, to try to increase the scope of the conflict beyond our willingness to tolerate. They are frantically trying to increase the range of their long-range missiles, so they can threaten Europe and (especially) Israel.
This is the same tactic Saddam tried in the first Gulf War. On the surface, it seemed insane — if you’re losing a war, why on earth would you want to waste time and resources attacking a nation that isn’t even currently threatening you? Why in heaven’s name would you want to ADD to your enemy’s roster?
That’s where geopolitics came into play. If Saddam could provoke Israel into retaliating, then he could pretty much count on our Arab allies up and quitting the conflict. Under no circumstances would they stay part of any coalition that included Israel. While their military is without a doubt the best of any nation’s in the region, that was a conflict where quantity of allies was more important than quality. We didn’t need their expertise, we needed the political support of the Arabs — and keeping Israel on the sidelines was part of the price of gaining that support. So we did all we could to defend Israel while offering them all sorts of incentives to stay out of the conflict. And since Saddam’s attacks were largely ineffectual (he didn’t actually use any of the chemical or biological weapons he had, despite threats to do so), Israel sucked it up and took it.
This time, however, Israel might not be so obliging. The Jews are Old Testament people, and that’s the “eye for an eye” school. They don’t hold to the New Testament, with its talk of “turning the other cheek.” If they are hit hard enough, they hit back — and far harder than the initial assault. If that strike turns out to be nuclear, then they already have plans for dealing with it — Google up “Samson option,” if you’re curious.
So, Iran thinks that by playing an adapted version of the MAD doctrine, they can deter the United States. They believe that if given the choice between a nuclear-armed Iran and a full nuclear exchange in the Middle East, we will retreat and let them continue their plausibly-deniable nuclear ambitions. Instead of trying to stop them, we will allow them to make nukes and then use them to threaten others later down the road. Or, worse, give them to any of the dozens of terrorist organizations they support to use against the US, Israel, or whoever else ticks them off enough.
The problem with this whole strategy, though, is it’s based on one fatal miscalculation. George W. Bush doesn’t bluff. Twice nations have challenged his resolve, and two governments were toppled.
The US is doing a great deal to head off this conflict. While repeating firm statements of resolve, there’s also a great deal of quiet movement going on. We are actively working with the UN to get them to enforce their resolutions and treaties with Iran. IYeah, it was futile with Iraq, but one has to use every tool at one’s disposal.) We are firming up our relations with Europe, even France, as the threat Iran poses is a smidgen more immediate to them. And we are dusting off and updating our military contingency plans for striking at Iran.
(One brief aside: OF COURSE the Pentagon has plans for attacking Iran. That’s what the brass does when they aren’t actively involved in a war — they make plans. I bet if one dug deep enough, you’d find bombing plans against Canada, invasion plans for England, and even contingency plans for nuking the Moon. These are exercises for military planners, and one never knows when they might come in handy. Who would have thought that after the Napoleonic Wars, England would need plans for a forced invasion of France? Or the United States need plans to invade the Philippines, its own territory?)
Some critics say we simply don’t have the resources to deal with Iran while also tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan. That argument simply doesn’t hold water.
I know it’s probably a mistake to keep returning to the World War II model, but it just seems to work so well. Also, they always say “write what you know,” and that’s the area of history I know best.
One of the ways the United States successfully fought two major conflicts during World War II was by essentially assigning one branch of the Armed Forces to each front. The European War was largely fought by the Army and its subsidiary, the Army Air Force, while the Pacific was the turf of the Navy and its subsidiary, the Marine Corps. (Yes, all branches fought in all theatres, but as a general rule this reflects their major focus.)
Likewise, the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are almost solely the province of the Army and the Marine Corps. The Navy and Air Force are largely relegated to supporting the other two branches.
And fortunately, the Navy and Air Force are the specialists in the stand-off strike conflict. They are the long-range heavy-hitters, specialists in destroying an enemy’s means of fighting. They are the ones who would be tasked with smashing Iran’s military and nuclear capabilities.
Critics say that we are in no position to invade and occupy Iran, and they are right. But so what? That’s not our objective. We don’t need to do that. All we need to do is mitigate the threats they pose right now. Long-term, Iran’s reigning mullahs are not viable. They are sitting on a pressure-cooker, trying to balance the internal and external threats to their power — and there’s a good chance that a sharp blow to their military might could cause them serious discomfort, if not let the lid off the pot they’re desperately keeping closed.
One more point: as I said, the Navy and Air Force are specialists in the deep strike. But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t use bases and local support in the fight. We currently have Iran surrounded, with Afghanistan to the east and Iraq to their west. The Navy owns the Persian Gulf — the Iranians can make a good stab at denying its use to us, but they can’t control it.
Let’s refer back to that map. Iran controls the northern side of the Straits of Hormuz. The southern side is a peninsula, an arm of the Arabian Peninsula. That would be a logical and tremendously useful place to use as a base for our Navy and Air Force. And historically, we have pretty good relations with the two nations that own that hunk of land, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
Such a pity that we’ve recently pissed off the UAE, over an utterly meaningless “security issue” as whether or not they can administer some terminals at six of our ports.
Meanwhile, the “nothing that might make Bush look good can be allowed” crowd is in full dither, desperately trying anything they can to prevent a confrontation with Iran while they are still most likely not a nuclear power. Seymour Hersh has a piece up in the New Yorker, discussing how the Air Force is planning air strikes (duh — as I said before, that’s how they justify their pay) and the like. Hersh has his usual assortment of anonymous sources, all repeating the anti-Bush mantras — he’s got a Messiah complex, he’s a war-monger, he has his mind set on going to war, etc. etc. But there are nuggets of truth in his piece that indicate that a lot of these plans are actually tactics themselves.
For example, Hersh mentions that US warplanes have been practicing the highly-specialized maneuvers used to launch nuclear weapons — the “over the shoulder” bomb-toss among them. Hersh specifically mentions that these are being done within Iran’s radar coverage — we WANT them to know just what we could do, if we wished. One puts on such displays where the enemy can see them for one purpose, and one purpose only: as a reminder of just what we can do.
How would a conflict between the United States and Iran go? My hunch is that it would be briefly furious, as large numbers of Iranian military assets and research facilities were obliterated. There would be a few missiles tossed off towards Israel, but with conventional warheads, and they would probably miss or fall short. (I see Jordan taking a few hits, and getting a bit annoyed.) There would be some intense activity in and around the Straits of Hormuz, as Iran tries to impede traffic and the US tries to stop them. (This is when bases in the UAE would be tremendously useful.) And ultimately another nation will intervene to broker a ceasefire, possibly France or Russia but possibly another Muslim nation.
No, I don’t think it will go nuclear — yet. Not unless Iran actually has built a bomb or two, and I have absolutely no faith that they will show the restraint Saddam showed in 1991, when he chose to not use his chemical and biological weapons. If they have even one, it will get used. If that happens, the US may well use nuclear “bunker-buster” bombs to destroy hardened underground facilities to make sure no more are launched.
I hope — I really, sincerely hope — that this won’t come to pass. But a negotiated settlement takes two parties who are willing to negotiate, and Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has shown absolutely no interest in meaningful negotiations. He’s willing to talk all we want, but has made it repeatedly clear that absolutely nothing will come of it.