04 Nov 2006

Getting Serious About Iran

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Arthur Herman, in Commentary, has a plan for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat.

The first step would be to make it clear that the United States will tolerate no action by any state that endangers the international flow of commerce in the Straits of Hormuz. Signaling our determination to back up this statement with force would be a deployment in the Gulf of Oman of minesweepers, a carrier strike group’s guided-missile destroyers, an Aegis-class cruiser, and anti-submarine assets, with the rest of the carrier group remaining in the Indian Ocean. The U.S. Navy could also deploy UAV’s (unmanned air vehicles) and submarines to keep watch above and below against any Iranian missile threat to our flotilla.

Our next step would be to declare a halt to all shipments of Iranian oil while guaranteeing the safety of tankers carrying non-Iranian oil and the platforms of other Gulf states. We would then guarantee this guarantee by launching a comprehensive air campaign aimed at destroying Iran’s air-defense system, its air-force bases and communications systems, and finally its missile sites along the Gulf coast. At that point the attack could move to include Iran’s nuclear facilities—not only the “hard” sites but also infrastructure like bridges and tunnels in order to prevent the shifting of critical materials from one to site to another.

Above all, the air attack would concentrate on Iran’s gasoline refineries. It is still insufficiently appreciated that Iran, a huge oil exporter, imports nearly 40 percent of its gasoline from foreign sources, including the Gulf states. With its refineries gone and its storage facilities destroyed, Iran’s cars, trucks, buses, planes, tanks, and other military hardware would run dry in a matter of weeks or even days. This alone would render impossible any major countermoves by the Iranian army. (For its part, the Iranian navy is aging and decrepit, and its biggest asset, three Russian-made Kilo-class submarines, should and could be destroyed before leaving port.)

The scenario would not end here. With the systematic reduction of Iran’s capacity to respond, an amphibious force of Marines and special-operations forces could seize key Iranian oil assets in the Gulf, the most important of which is a series of 100 offshore wells and platforms built on Iran’s continental shelf. North and South Pars offshore fields, which represent the future of Iran’s oil and natural-gas industry, could also be seized, while Kargh Island at the far western edge of the Persian Gulf, whose terminus pumps the oil from Iran’s most mature and copiously producing fields (Ahwaz, Marun, and Gachsaran, among others), could be rendered virtually useless. By the time the campaign was over, the United States military would be in a position to control the flow of Iranian oil at the flick of a switch…

Obviously, no plan is foolproof. The tactical risks associated with a comprehensive war strategy of this sort are numerous. But they are outweighed by its key advantages.

First, it would accomplish much more than air strikes alone on Iran’s elusive nuclear sites. Whereas such action might retard the uranium-enrichment program by some years, this one in effect would put Iran’s theocracy out of business by depriving it of the very weapon that the critics of air strikes most fear. It would do so, moreover, with minimal means. This would be a naval and air war, not a land campaign. Requiring no draw-down of U.S. forces in Iraq, it would involve one or two carrier strike groups, an airborne brigade, and a Marine brigade. Since the entire operation would take place offshore, there would be no need to engage the Iranian army. It and the Revolutionary Guards would be left stranded, out of action and out of gas.

In fact, there is little Iran could do in the face of relentless military pressure at its most vulnerable point. Today, not only are key elements of the Iranian military in worse shape than in the 1980’s, but even the oil weapon is less formidable than imagined. Currently Iran exports an estimated 2.5 million barrels of oil a day. Yet according to a recent report in Forbes, quoting the oil-industry analyst Michael Lynch, new sources of oil around the world will have boosted total production by 2 million barrels a day in this year alone, and next year by three million barrels a day. In short, other producers (including Iranian platforms in American hands) can take up some if not all of the slack. The real loser would be Iran itself. Pumping crude oil is its only industry, making up 85 percent of its exports and providing 65 percent of the state budget. With its wells held hostage, the country’s economy could enter free fall.

Read the whole thing.

One Feedback on "Getting Serious About Iran"

Dominique R. Poirier

That Iran is a growing threat is a truism. That Iran is already capable of building and dropping an atomic bomb on a given target with accuracy is perhaps a questionable assumption.
There has been a previous article written in May 2006 on Commentary by Edward Luttwak whose title is Three Reasons not to Bomb Iran Yet, which dealt with the Iranian capacity to enrich uranium and to build a home made atomic bomb. At that time Edward Luttwak said “The regime certainly cannot produce nuclear weapons in less than three years, and may not be able to do so even then because of the many technical difficulties not yet overcome.”

But, from May to November, 2006, the matter at hand as shifted from nuclear concerns only to nuclear concerns plus Iran fuelled insurgency spotted here and there in the Middle East. However, a good reason not to act precipitously is that the worst of its leaders positively want to be bombed, and are seemingly doing their level best to bring that about.


The reason may be partly about religion, and partly about more down-to-earth considerations such as domestic policy.
On the one hand, we have religious rulers who believe in the return of the twelfth imam and the end of life on earth, and who additionally believe that this redeemer may be forced to reveal himself by provoking a nuclear catastrophe. But religious rulers in Iran are loosing their prestige. They are corrupted and their abuse of power is well known by the Iranian population.
On the other hand, we have an Iranian population which, except for a narrow segment of extremists, do not view themselves as enemies of the United States, but rather as the exact opposite. At a time when Americans are unpopular in all other Muslim countries, most Iranians become distinctly friendlier when they learn that a visitor is American.

So, on the basis of such facts, one could hazard the hypothesis that the Iranian governing elite would make great profit of U.S. bombings on their soil. It would reverse a trend to make the Iranian population feeling they are attacked by the foreign country they most admire, and with which they wish to restore the best of relations. Beside, it will fuel further anti-Americanism in other parts of the world.
So, such long-term consequences of a military action cannot be disregarded, and a careful review of this important factor deserves to be compared with how Iraqi civilians perceived U.S. bombings in 2002, and to which extent those bombings changed their attitude toward their liberators. Arthur Herman seems to be well aware of this, though he doesn’t develop much on it, since he wrote in his article that “(….)many will worry that decisive U.S. action will boomerang politically, by alienating Iran’s democrats and dissidents and thus jeopardizing the hoped-for eventuality of a pro-Western government emerging in Tehran.”

Overall, the matter is quite tricky since, on the one hand, it is irresponsible to argue for coexistence with a future nuclear-armed Iran on the basis of a shared faith in mutual deterrence; and, on the other hand, a military intervention is likely to trigger a reversal of a situation that is now favorable to the U.S. interest.

Technically, U.S. air intervention and naval blockade in Iran is possible, while full terrestrial deployment on the Iranian territory is not a sustainable option. Iran is a much bigger country than Iraq, it is mountainous, and it has more than 60 millions inhabitants. Beside, the mere idea of launching a military intervention of such scale, as suggests Arthur Herman, is incompatible, today, with a general mood of the U.S. public opinion that is growing dissatisfied with the Iraqi issue. So, what next, once all targets have been successfully hit?

There are also external problems questioning such military option, which are the Chinese and the Russian expected attitudes. Iran ranks as second oil provider of China, with up to 13 percent of the Chinese oil consumption, and the demand is going to go up. The Chinese have a growing relationship with Iran; all this in the frame of a will of China to increase its influence in the Middle East and to have good relations with all potential oil suppliers.

In an interview released by the CFR, in January 2006, Adam Segal, a CFR expert on Chinese technological and military policies, expressed his opinion about a possible Chinese attitude in the case of U.S. sanctions on Iran. The sanctions envisaged by the interviewee were not of the same kind of these Arthur Herman, but Adam Segal’s answer gives us a hint, at least. He said at that time that “the U.S. and European effort to bring Iran to the Security Council for its decision to continue research and work on its nuclear program puts China in an uncomfortable spot. While there is no question, Segal says, that China’s much more interested in good relations with the United States than it is with Iran (….)

While asked about if the Iran issue gets to the United Nations, he answered:

“it’s an extremely difficult tightrope for the Chinese to walk down, (…..) But I think…they would very much like the Russians to take the lead. They’re unlikely to support sanctions, but they’re likely to let the Russians take the heat for that. (…..) they will expect Russia to take the lead in blocking aggressive sanctions from the U.S. or EU (…..)
China has enormous trade with the United States, too, and it must be a tough decision for them to decide which side to stand on this. (….) I think it is clear which side they are tilted to; in their overall relationships, the United States is so much more important.

Russia has interests similar to those of China, but it has also some strategic others of its own. Whether Russia’s second choice is to prevent Iran itself from becoming the dominant player in the region, as Arthur Herman thinks, is an option with which one would be wary not to reckon with. Some facts suggest that Russia has long term goals and aims somewhat different of China’s.

In his article, Arthur Herman suggests that “By ensuring a continuous flow of oil from the Gulf, and leaving untouched Russian and Chinese investments in the development of Iran’s Caspian Sea fields, an aggressive military strategy could actually work to those countries’ advantage.”

To my benighted point of view, I think that this suggestion may keeps the road, until one focus one’s attention on conflicts of interests already existing, and not yet resolved, relating to the Caspian Basin in particular and to central Asia in general.

There is no doubt Iran does little to appease tensions in several parts of the Middle East, and in Iraq in particular, thus pressing the United States to envisage prophylactic measures well before Iran will get the nuclear capabilities it is looking for; that is to say, according to Edward Luttwak, within the next three years.
From this on few options other than this Arthur Herman is suggesting are possible, but there may be some in the frame of which U.S. allies may find a vested interest in offering their suggestion, participation or assistance at some point. It is regrettable indeed that there is seemingly no way toward a taw in the U.S.-Iran relations, because the “Arthur Herman alternative” would constitute the worst case scenario and is likely to lead us toward further uncertainties.


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