Scenarios for a US-Israeli strike on Iran
With recent events in Iran, US-Israeli hawks are again pressing for strikes on Iran. Galal Nassar
examines options and bleak consequences
While in Baghdad recently, US Vice-President Joseph Biden stated that his government could not keep Israel from staging a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Obama hastened to alleviate the alarm and anger Biden's remark triggered, saying that the US had not given Israel a green light for unilateral action. These and other statements reflect the tug-of-war between Tehran, Tel Aviv and Washington and bring us face to face with the fact that the more strident their tone, the closer these parties are moving to the brink of a military confrontation. Whether a strike is imminent or will be deferred until regional and international circumstances are more conducive, plans are in the top drawer in offices of the chiefs of operations in the Israeli and US armies, ready to be taken out when higher political levels issue the orders. Here we will attempt to shed light on what these plans might hold in store.
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Israel prepares F15 Eagle jets for long-range attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities
A military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities could emerge either as an independent option or as a last resort after a series of harsher sanctions. It could come with a Security Council stamp of approval, but it is equally conceivable that it could be launched by a US alliance forged outside the UN umbrella. Israel is a primary party in the war against Iran, both because of its determination to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities and because of its vested interest in the success of US political projects in the region.
With the rise of Binyamin Netanyahu to power in Israel and his appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as his foreign minister, Israel has been behaving in provocative ways that betray a burning desire to strike Iran as soon as possible. They say that the purpose of the strike would be to prevent Tehran from manufacturing a nuclear bomb, citing Israeli intelligence claims that Iran could possess the technology for this within a year. Because of the dangers of undertaking such a step unilaterally, Israel has been furiously pressing Washington to act either independently or in cooperation with Tel Aviv.
Analysts agree that the plan is to mount an aerial assault -- or a combined missile and aerial assault -- against Iranian installations and not to invade the country. Nevertheless, their estimates of the number of targets vary enormously. Some predict as few as 20, others foresee between 200 and 300, and yet others offer figures of over 1,000, including nuclear installations, military sites and other strategic targets.
PRIMING INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC OPINION: For any plan to succeed the international climate has to be prepared for military actions the scope and potential victims of which could extend well beyond Iran's borders to other countries in the Middle East and Central Asia. Laying the groundwork for favourable international public opinion, or at least not actively opposed to such a prospect, will require various measures and stages. Most likely, Washington will strive to gradually sap Iranian will through increasingly harsh economic sessions and, in the meantime, continue to prime public opinion on the basis of Iranian intransigence.
As any military strike against Iranian nuclear installations will call into action numerous military bases and naval units in the region, one can easily picture an extensive theatre of operations. On sea, one can envision it extending from the Gulf to the Indian Ocean and eastern Mediterranean, in which the fleets of the US and its allies will be deployed. On land, it would extend outward from Iran to Iraq and Afghanistan, where US forces are stationed, and perhaps further outward to Central Asia and Anatolia and the Arabian Peninsula, should countries in these regions lend logistical or active support to the operations and, therefore, be vulnerable to Iranian ballistic missile reprisals.
In spite of the assurances of US and Israeli military planners that land forces would not be deployed in the battle, they nevertheless have to reckon with the possibility of a land engagement with Iranian and, perhaps, Syrian forces. For example, if Iranian forces moved into Iraq in order to confront the US-led coalition directly and Syria moved to open a second front, Israeli forces would inevitably attack Syria. In such a scenario, the conflict could easily spill over northward into the Caucasus to encompass Georgia and Azerbaijan, and it could just as easily engulf Lebanon should Hizbullah decide to act in solidarity with Iran, break the truce in the south and enter into confrontations with international peacekeeping and Israeli forces. It is therefore possible to conceive of a land theatre extending from the Mediterranean coast to Afghanistan and from the Gulf into Central Asia.
Ultimately, political objectives set the agenda for military operations. In the Iranian case, Tehran's response (its ability to weather an assault and the forcefulness of its retaliations) will largely determine the scenarios, which could vary considerably in degree of intensity and scope. Nor is escalation necessarily linked to a particular timeframe or process. If the major powers feel that raising the level of sanctions fails to produce the desired effect they could move up to the military option. The same might apply if negotiations between Iran and the 5+1 group freeze or breakdown. One can also imagine the growing sway of an influential wing in the US administration pushing for a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities on the grounds that Tehran's possession of a nuclear bomb is only a question of time. But one can equally see a more cautious wing applying the brakes to such a scenario and pushing, instead, for the safer European course.
SCENARIOS FOR A MILITARY STRIKE AGAINST IRAN: Working on the assumption that the West, and the US and Israel in particular, would operate on the principle of delivering a pre-emptive strike in order to prevent Iran from possessing nuclear weapons one can envision the following scenarios:
1. The limited war scenario: Washington could easily deliver limited strikes to Revolutionary Guard targets and selected nuclear installations. After all, it does possess the most powerful and sophisticated military technology in the world. Its intercontinental missiles could, with pinpoint accuracy, take out a number of military targets and Iranian defences could do little to stop them. The moral and political impact of such a strike on the Iranian leadership would be enormous while the military and human risks for the US would be minimal because there would be no direct contact between the two sides.
This scenario could unfold in two phases. First, the US would issue a cautionary strike against a single major installation, thereby affirming its intent and ability to resort to force in order to resolve the crisis and offering Tehran some room to review its calculations. The immediate international repercussions and side effects of the cautionary strike would be minimal, although there is no guarantee that this, alone, would curtail Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
In phase two, US forces would strike the major nuclear installations that form the backbone of the Iranian nuclear project. The operation would both deliver an enormous setback to the project and sap the Iranian leadership morally and politically, forcing it back to the negotiating table in a much weaker position. This option reconciles the strategic aim of ending the Iranian nuclear crisis with the practical aim of minimising the risks of a protracted and full- scale war. On the other hand, it might not attain the greater political goal of breaking Tehran's will and demoting it to a second string player in Middle Eastern equations.
2. Massive aerial and missile bombardment: This scenario would cover a much more extensive range of targets, deploying a fuller array of missiles and bombs, as well as Special Forces. Special sources revealed to Al-Ahram Weekly that such an operation would aim to destroy around 400 locations connected with the production, development and storage of unconventional weapons in Iran, and communications and command centres. The uranium enrichment plants at Natanz, the heavy water production plant at Arak, the light water reactors at Bushehr and the nuclear science academies in Isfahan and Tehran would be among the prime targets.
The aim of this scenario would be to decimate Iran's nuclear energy programme. As it would certainly invite a military response from Iran, the range of targets would also cover the entire Iranian military infrastructure from ballistic missile sites and air and naval bases to communications and command systems, the purpose being to forestall the possibility of a protracted and full-scale war. If the intent of the US is to turn the Iranian nuclear crisis into an opportunity to deliver a fatal blow to the Iranian regime, it could expand the range of its operation yet further to cover vital economic and infrastructural targets, such as oil and gas refineries and distribution networks, electricity generating plants, thereby causing near total paralysis of normal life in the country.
Naturally, it would be difficult for Iran to defend itself against such an onslaught from the superpower that possesses a military machine with such vast quantitative and qualitative superiority. Against the US's warships, submarines, fighter planes, missiles, special projectiles and high- precision weapons, Iran does not stand much of a fighting chance, but failure to respond would proclaim the immediate political death of the Iranian regime with its regional stature and domestic legitimacy. One can, therefore, conceive of a number of Iranian responses, not least of which would be to attempt to target US military bases and forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Gulf, and to call in its allies to unleash their forces against American targets.
3. Proxy war: The proxy for the US, here, obviously is Israel, which has long been threatening a strike against Iranian nuclear installations. Yet while many politicians expect this scenario, there are many reasons as to why it is difficult for Israel to implement. First, any assault would have to pass via Turkey or over Jordan and Iraq. Both courses would be politically and strategically risky for the countries involved, for to permit Israel use of their airspace would open them to Iranian retaliation.
Second, the Israeli air force cannot target all Iranian nuclear installations in a single raid, if only due to the lack of sufficient aircraft to perform such a mission. On top of this come the logistical problems. Iran is more than 1,600 kilometres from Israel, which means that in their sortie and return Israeli planes would have to travel twice that distance, for which they would need to land and refuel in another country. Again, it is difficult to imagine what country would grant approval. The difficulty is compounded by a further factor, which is that Iranian nuclear facilities are spread out across the country, which would require longer flying hours and even more fuel.
Third, any aerial assault would have to contend with Iranian aerial defences, which are particularly thick around the nuclear installations. This, in turn, raises the spectre of the fallout of the operation on neighbouring countries.
Fourth is the enormous political and strategic price that Israel would have to pay for attacking Iran. Contrary to its previous acts of aggression, it could not even begin to pretend that it had been attacked first or even faced imminent attack. At the very least it would court missile bombardment from Hizbullah into northern Israel and an international outcry.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF RECOURSE TO THE MILITARY OPTION: The spectre of a "pre-emptive" war against Iran naturally stirs many fears and raises numerous questions regarding the political and strategic aftermath. No one can predict how a war would unfold and the repercussions it would have, no matter how minutely and precisely it is planned and carried out. Even supposing that one of the parties is the US, with its military might and strategic advantages, the outcome of a war remains shrouded, and when there is doubt the rule is to expect the worst. Setting aside the military results in terms of winners and losers, a military confrontation would have the following consequences:
1. For Iran and the region: Clearly a military strike against Iranian nuclear reactors would produce a nightmare far more extensive than Chernobyl. The immediate and long-term human toll from the nuclear fallout and radiation from so many reactors and plants is inconceivable. To Arab and Muslim public opinion, this would be the second war the US and the Christian West waged against an Islamic nation. It would strengthen extremist forces and impede democratic reform in Iran, and it would ignite hatred against religious minorities throughout the Middle East. It would fuel clash of civilisation rhetoric, further charging already existing tensions at the international level.
An international confrontation between the US-led Western camp and the Iranian axis would severely polarise many countries of the region, triggering renewed outbreaks of civil war in already fragile countries such as Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, and precipitating widespread civil strife in many others.
2. For the US: Since its occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, US forces have been effectively surrounding Iran on all sides. However, it is simultaneously true that US forces are now within range of Iran. Thus, in the event of a US attack on Iran, the possibility of Iranian response is not restricted to its missile capacities; it has more options at its disposal depending on where US forces are located. It can target US forces in Iraq from Iranian territory or through its allies inside Iraq. Similarly, it can attack US forces in Afghanistan from Iranian territory or through its allies in Afghanistan. It can fire missiles at US bases in the Gulf. If Israel takes part in the initial offensive against Iran or if the war theatre expands in that direction, Iran's allies in southern Lebanon (Hizbullah) can target military installations in northern Israel. In addition, Iran's recently unveiled Shihab 3 missile is capable of reaching the Israeli interior.
3. The economic impact: Iran is a major player in the international energy market. It is the second largest oil exporter in OPEC and it has the second largest natural gas reserves in the world. Simply by suspending its oil and gas exports, Tehran can send huge tremors through international markets. But not only can it turn off its own taps, it can also plug the taps of other oil exporters. Overlooking the Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz as it does, the Iranian navy and missiles could easily obstruct this strategic maritime route, halting the transport of oil from Gulf countries and a good part of Saudi Arabian oil shipments. This would hamper Saudi efforts to compensate for the cut-off of Iranian and Gulf oil by increasing its own daily production and shipping it to international markets from the port of Yanbu.
Consider, too, that the sinking of a single tanker or other large ship could obstruct navigation through the Gulf for several days at least, during which period the prices of oil on international markets would go haywire given the importance of that maritime artery to international energy supplies. Then turn northward and consider, too, that Iran by virtue of its strategic location could also strike the pipelines that transport oil from the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan and Georgia to the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Theoretically, it could also bombard oil and gas fields in Gulf countries and the Caspian Sea.
One would think that the magnitude of the economic havoc Iran could cause and the losses that industrial nations would incur are, in themselves, a powerful deterrent. But if that deterrent fails to work, then we can add the consequences to the aftermath of what in the minds of many are end-of-the-world scenarios for another war in an already tense and inflamed region.