The Costs Of Attacking Iran
An attack against Iran's nuclear weapons research facility won't be an easy thing.
Ralph Peters lays out a warning for the people advocating military action against Iran’s nuclear program on the theory that it will be a quick operation:
Let’s look at what “Bomb Iran!” really means: The Iranians may appear mad, but that doesn’t mean they’re fools, and they’ve studied the errors of other rogue states that sought nuclear weapons. The results? First, the Iranians have dispersed their research, development and production facilities. Second, they’ve fortified a number of vital sites in bunkers deep underground. Third, they’ve placed other link-in-the-chain laboratories and research sites in populated areas so that any attack upon them would generate large numbers of civilian casualties ― and very ugly images in the global media. Fourth, the Tehran regime has made this program a matter of nationalist pride. An attack on Iran’s nukes would be viewed as an attack on Iran, period, by the great majority of the population (even many regime opponents would “rally ’round the flag,” in an Iranian version of the 9/11 effect). Fifth, Iran would respond promptly and asymmetrically in the wake of such an attack ― unless its extensive capabilities to hit back were also attacked and disabled from the start.
How would Iran respond to strikes on its nuke facilities? Inevitably missiles would be launched toward Israeli cities ― some with chemical warheads ― but these tit-for-tat attacks would be the least part of Tehran’s counterattack strategy. The Iranians would “do what’s doable,” and that means hitting Arab oil-production infrastructure on the other side of the narrow Persian Gulf. Employing it mid-range missiles, aircraft and naval forces, Tehran would launch both conventional and suicide attacks on Arab oil fields, refineries, storage areas, ports and loading facilities, on tankers in transit, and on the Straits of Hormuz, the great chokepoint for the world’s core oil supplies. The price of a barrel of crude would soar geometrically on world exchanges, paralyzing economies ― exactly as Iran’s leaders intend. Ten-dollar-a-gallon gas would be a brief bargain on the way to truly prohibitive prices. And, in the way of the world, Tehran would not get the blame. We would.
None of what Peters lays out here seems out of bounds. It seems rather obvious that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, whether by the United States or Israel, would not be the kind of one-off attack that we saw in Iraq in 1982, or in Syria in 2009. As Peters notes, Iran has learned from those examples to the point where an attack would require hitting multiple targets with weapons capable of penetrating hardened bunkers in multiple locations. We’d never know if we took everything out in one strike, and we’d have to worry about counterattacks. In other words, it wouldn’t be an “attack,” it would be a war:
So…if we are forced to attack Iran’s nuclear-weapons facilities at some point, what would it take to do it right and limit Tehran’s ability to respond with such devastating asymmetrical attacks?
At the most-basic level, we would need to conceive of the operation as a war, not just a brief series of raids. In addition to the standard requirements to knock out Iran’s early-warning and air-defense systems, we would have to strike the headquarters facilities of the Revolutionary Guards, the military and the various intelligence arms. We would need to destroy Iran’s combat aircraft on the ground, and then destroy any aircraft ― including passenger jets ― that could be used as flying bombs against oil facilities. It would be essential to destroy, early on, Iran’s navy and the Revolutionary Guards’ naval arm, right down to the Zodiac-boat level. We also would need to sink any commercial vessel that attempted to leave an Iranian harbor throughout the period of hostilities, since it could be used in an attack scheme. Not only would we need to disable Iran’s government and military communications infrastructure on the first day, but we also would have to disrupt civilian communications indefinitely. Then we would have to parry years of Iranian attempts to take revenge, not just regionally, but globally. We certainly would see a resurgence of state-sponsored terrorism ― and it could be taken to a whole new level.
Is America ready for another war in the Middle East, and one that could make Iraq and Afghanistan seem like a cakewalk by comparison? Frankly, I’ve got to doubt that the public support for such a commitment will be there regardless of who the President is unless we find ourselves in some situation where Iran has taken aggressive action against the United States. Yes, there’s a history of animosity against the Iranians that goes back to the Hostage Crisis (which began 32 years ago yesterday), but there was also a history of animosity against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi and yet the public never really got behind the minimal action that President Obama took there beginning in March. Would they really go along with an Iraq style war halfway across the world based on fears of an Iranian nuclear program based mostly on intelligence that, as I noted earlier this week, has been contradictory at best? Frankly, I don’t think they would.
Coincidentally, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has an article today that paints a similarly grim picture of the prospects of war against the Islamic Republic:
How will an Israel-Iran war look if it breaks out eventually? This question is at the center of a new study compiled by the Defense Ministry. Researcher Dr. Moshe Vered writes that such a war could go on for a long time. He believes that the Iranian’s typical willingness to sacrifice many victims for a long period of time in a conflict with Israel will dictate a prolonged war between the two states, which will be difficult to end.
Dr. Vered, a physicist, occupies various roles in the defense establishment’s technology division. He published his study this week as part of a sabbatical at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University. He argues that the length of an Israel-Iran war “will be measured in year, not in weeks or days.” This stems from the Shiite perception by which one must fight and sacrifice for the sake of justice and to correct wrongs to Islam and to Muslims. “This outlook sees Israel’s existence as a wrong that must be corrected for the sake of world redemption. The achievement of this goal will only be possible once Israel is annihilated. The Iranians will continue fighting this war, as much as it is up to them, until they achieve their objective, despite the heavy toll that will be exacted in battle,” Vered writes.
Vered argues further that only the fear the Iranian regime being toppled could bring such a war to an end. But, it seems unlikely that Israel will be able to pose a real threat to the Iranian regime, and “in the absence of a way out, acceptable to both sides, the war could continue for a very long time.”
Vered mentions the fact that the Iran-Iraq war, in the 1980s, lasted eight years. Iran fought many years to achieve its demands – to correct the basic wrong of Iraq’s invasion into its territory, Iraqi recognition of its culpability, and the removal of the head of the Iraqi regime Saddam Hussein.
Iran paid an inconceivable price in that war – half a million dead and economic damage higher than the country’s entire oil income in the 20th century – before it agreed to a ceasefire. The ceasefire came only when there was a real danger that the Iranian regime would not survive.
Vered rejects the assumption that in the absence of a shared border, the Israel-Iran war will be fought only with surface to surface missiles. Such warfare shouldn’t last a long time because Iran’s supply of long-range missiles isn’t large. However, he writes, it is more plausible to assume that Iran will want to continue the fighting against Israel via messengers: Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, and maybe even an Iranian force on Syrian soil, as part of a defense treaty between Tehran and Damascus. He plays down the likelihood of a short confrontation (Israeli assault followed by a punishing counter assault and then an immediate ceasefire under international pressure while both sides realize that the war has played out), he thinks that the ideology of the Iranian regime will dictate a prolonged war. Yes, this isn’t exactly what you would call relaxing reading material for the weekend.
No, it’s not, but it’s a must-read for anyone who thinks about these issues. It stands as a helpful counterweight to the arguments made by the John Bolton’s of the world who seem to argue for military action against Iran on every day that happens to end in a “y” and dismiss any concerns about the consequences of such action. It’s very unlikely we’re talking about a one-off bombing run here. Instead, we’re talking about a prolonged campaign that could potentially ignite a spark of terrorism against the United States and Israel around the world. Would that really be worth it, especially when we don’t even know if we’d be successful in knocking out the nuclear program? I have serious doubts about it to say the least. Hopefully, this is exactly the kind of assessment that the people who actually make decisions in the United States and Israel and, hopefully, they’ll be honest with the public if they ever do decide to travel down this road because we’ll all be living with the consequences of their decision.
H/T: Stephen Green