Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 April 2012
Issue No. 1094
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Myths of a limited Israeli-Iranian war

Israel's projected "limited war" against Iran threatens to become an all-out regional conflict, with fatal consequences for the Middle East and beyond, writes James Petras*

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Cartoon by Latouff

The mounting threat of a US-Israeli military attack against Iran is based on many factors including: the recent military history of both countries in the region; public pronouncements by US and Israeli political leaders; recent and on- going attacks on Lebanon and Syria, prominent allies of Iran; armed attacks and assassinations of Iranian scientists and security officials by proxy and/or terrorist groups under US or Mossad control; the failure of economic sanctions and diplomatic coercion; escalating hysteria and extreme demands for Iran to end legal, civilian use-related uranium enrichment; provocative military "exercises" on Iran's borders and war games designed to intimidate and be a dress rehearsal for a preemptive attack; powerful pro- war pressure groups in both Washington and Tel Aviv, including the major Israeli political parties and the powerful AIPAC in the US; and lastly, the 2012 National Defense Authorisation Act, US President Barack Obama's Orwellian Emergency Decree of 16 March 2012.

The US propaganda war operates along two tracks. The dominant message emphasises the proximity of war and the willingness of the US to use force and violence. This message is directed at Iran and coincides with Israeli announcements of war preparations. The second track targets the "liberal public", with a handful of marginal "knowledgeable academics", or US state department progressives, playing down the war threat and arguing that reasonable policy- makers in Tel Aviv and Washington are aware that Iran does not possess nuclear weapons or any capacity to produce them now or in the near future. The purpose of this liberal back-pedaling is to confuse and undermine majority public opinion, which is clearly opposed to more war preparations, and to derail the burgeoning anti- war movement.

Needless to say, the pronouncements of the "rational" warmongers use a double discourse based on the facile dismissal of all the historical and empirical evidence to the contrary. When the US and Israel talk of war, prepare for war and engage in pre-war provocations, they intend to go to war, just as they did against Iraq in 2003. Under present international political and military conditions an attack on Iran, initially by Israel with US support, is extremely likely, even as world economic conditions should dictate otherwise and even as the negative strategic consequences will most likely reverberate throughout the world for decades to come.

US AND ISRAELI CALCULATIONS OF IRAN'S CAPABILITY: American and Israeli strategic policy-makers do not agree on the consequences of Iran's retaliation against an attack. For their part, the Israeli leaders minimise Iran's military capacity to damage Israel, which is their only consideration. They count on their distance, their anti-missile shield and protection from US air and naval forces in the Gulf to cover their sneak attack. On the other hand, US military strategists know that the Iranians are capable of inflicting substantial casualties on US warships, which would have to attack Iranian coastal installations in order to support or protect the Israelis.

Israel intelligence is best known for its capacity to organise the assassination of individuals around the world: Mossad has organised successful overseas terrorist acts against Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese leaders. On the other hand, Israeli intelligence has a very poor track record with regard to its estimates of major military and political undertakings. It seriously underestimated the popular support, military strength and organisational capacity of Hizbullah during the 2006 war in Lebanon. Likewise, Israeli intelligence misunderstood the strength and capacity of the Egyptian popular democratic movement as it rose up and overthrew Tel Aviv's regional ally, the Mubarak dictatorship.

While Israeli leaders feign paranoia by tossing out clichés about "existential threats", they are blinded by their narcissistic arrogance and racism, repeatedly underestimating the technical expertise and political sophistication of their regional foes. This is undoubtedly true in their facile dismissal of Iran's capacity to retaliate against a planned Israeli air assault.

The US government has now overtly committed itself to supporting an Israeli assault on Iran when it is launched. More specifically, Washington claims it will come to Israel's defence "unconditionally" if it is "attacked." How can Israel avoid being "attacked" when its planes are raining bombs and missiles on Iranian installations, military defences and support systems, not to mention Iranian cities, ports and strategic infrastructure?

Moreover, given the Pentagon's collaboration and coordinated intelligence systems with the Israel Defence Force (IDF), its role in identifying targets, routes and incoming missiles, as well as integrated weapons and ordinance supply chains will be critical to an IDF attack. There is no way that the US can dissociate itself from Israel's projected war on Iran, once the attack has begun.

MYTHS OF A "LIMITED WAR": Washington and Tel Aviv claim and appear to believe that their planned assault on Iran will be a "limited war" targeting limited objectives and lasting a few days or weeks and with no serious consequences.

We are told that Israel's brilliant generals have identified all the critical nuclear research facilities, which their "surgical" air strikes will eliminate without horrific collateral damage to the surrounding population. Once the alleged nuclear weapons programme is destroyed, all Israelis can resume their lives in full security knowing that another "existential" threat has been eliminated. However, the Israeli notion of a war that is limited in time and space is absurd and dangerous -- and it underlines the arrogance, stupidity and racism of its authors.

To approach Iran's nuclear facilities, Israeli and US forces will confront well-equipped and defended bases, missile installations, maritime defences and large-scale fortifications directed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and armed forces. Moreover, the defence systems protecting the nuclear facilities are linked by civilian highways, airfields and ports, and are backed by a dual purpose (civilian-military) infrastructure, which includes oil refineries and a huge network of administrative offices.

To knock out the alleged nuclear sites will require expanding the geographic scope of the war. The scientific-technological capacity of the Iranian civilian nuclear programme involves a wide swath of its research facilities, including universities, laboratories, manufacturing sites, and design centres. To destroy Iran's civilian nuclear programme would require Israel (and thus the US) to attack much more than research facilities or laboratories hidden under remote mountains. Instead, it would require multiple, widespread assaults on targets throughout the country, in other words, a generalised war.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has stated that Iran will retaliate in equivalent fashion. Iran will match the breadth and scope of any attack with a corresponding counter-attack. "We will attack them at the same level as they attack us," he has said. This means that Iran will not confine its retaliation to merely trying to shoot down US and Israeli bombers in its airspace, or launching missiles at offshore US warships in its waters, but instead will take the war to equivalent targets in Israel and in US- occupied countries in and around the Gulf. Israel's "limited war" will thus become a generalised war extending throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Israel's current delusion about its elaborate missile-defence system will be exposed as hundreds of high-powered missiles are launched from Tehran, southern Lebanon and just beyond the Golan Heights.

MYTHS OF A LIMITED TIMEFRAME: Israeli military experts confidently expect to polish off their Iranian targets in a few days, some might think a mere weekend, and perhaps without the loss of even a single pilot. They expect Israel to celebrate its brilliant victory in the streets of Tel Aviv and Washington. However, they are deluded by their own sense of superiority.

Iran did not fight a brutal, decade-long war against US-supplied Iraqi invaders and its western/Israeli military advisers in the 1980s, in order just to turn over and passively submit to air and missile attacks by Israel. Iran has a young, educated and mobilised society that can draw on millions of reservists from across the political, ethnic, gender, and religious spectrum, all of them galvanised in support of their nation under attack.

In a war to defend the homeland, all internal differences will disappear in order to confront the unprovoked Israeli-US attack that threatens their entire civilisation -- its 5000-year-old culture and traditions, as well as its modern scientific advances and institutions. The first wave of US-Israeli attacks will lead to ferocious retaliation, which will not be confined to the original areas of conflict. Any such act of Israeli aggression will not end when and if Iran's nuclear research facilities are destroyed and some of its scientists, technicians and skilled workers are killed. Instead, the war will continue in time and extend geographically.

MULTIPLE CONFLICT POINTS: Just as any US-Israeli attack on Iran will involve multiple targets, the Iranian military will also have a plethora of easily accessible strategic targets. Though it is difficult to predict exactly where and how Iran will retaliate, one thing is clear: the initial US-Israeli strike will not go unanswered.

Given Israeli-US supremacy in long and medium-range sea and air power, Iran will probably rely on short-range objectives. These would include the highly valued US military facilities and supply routes in adjoining terrain (Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan) and Israeli targets, with missiles launched from southern Lebanon and possibly Syria. If a few Iranian long-range missiles escape Israel's much-vaunted "anti-missile dome," Israeli population centres may pay a heavy price for their leaders' recklessness and arrogance.

The Iranian counter-strike will then lead to an escalation by US-Israeli forces, extending and deepening their air and sea war to the entire Iranian national security system -- military bases, ports, communication systems, command posts and government administrative centres -- many in densely populated cities. Iran will counter by launching its greatest strategic asset: a coordinated ground attack involving the Revolutionary Guards, together with their allies among Iraqi Shia troops against US forces in Iraq. It will coordinate attacks against US facilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan with the growing nationalist-Islamic armed resistance in these countries.

The initial conflict, centred on so-called military objectives (scientific research facilities), will spread rapidly to economic targets, or what US and Israeli military strategists refer to as "dual civilian-military" targets. These would include oil fields, highways, factories, communications networks, television stations, water- treatment facilities, reservoirs, power stations and administrative offices, such as the Defence Ministry and headquarters of the Iranian Republican Guard.

Iran, faced with the imminent destruction of its entire economy and infrastructure (something which occurred in neighbouring Iraq with the unprovoked US invasion of 2003), would retaliate by blocking the Straits of Hormuz in the Gulf and sending short-range missiles in the direction of the principal oil fields and refineries of the Gulf states, including Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. These are a mere 10 minutes' distance away, and attacks on them would cripple the flow of oil to Europe, Asia and the United States and plunge the world economy into depression.

It should not be forgotten that the Iranians are probably more aware than anyone in the region of the devastation suffered by the Iraqis after the 2003 US-led invasion, which plunged that nation into chaos and devastated its infrastructure and civilian-administrative apparatus, not to mention the obliteration of its educated scientific and technical elite. The waves of Mossad-sponsored assassinations of Iranian scientists, academics and engineers are just a foretaste of what the Israelis have in mind for Iran's scientists, intellectuals and skilled technical workers. Iranians should have no illusions about the Americans and Israelis, who seek to thrust Iran into the brutal dark ages of Afghanistan and Iraq. They will have no more of a role in a devastated Iran than their counterparts had in post- Saddam Iraq.

According to US general Mathis, who commands all US forces in the Middle East, Gulf and southwest Asia, "an Israeli first strike would be likely to have dire consequences across the region and for the United States there," as stated in the New York Times in March this year. But Mathis's "dire cost" estimate only takes account of the US military losses, probably several hundred sailors on warships within missile distance of Iranian gunners.

However, the most delusional and self-serving assessment of the outcome and consequences of an Israeli air attack on Iran emanates from top Israeli leaders, academics and intelligence experts, who claim superior intelligence, superior defences and supreme (if also racist) insight into the "Iranian mind". Typical of these is Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who boasts that any Iranian retaliation will at worst inflict minimal casualties on the Israeli population.

The Israeli view of re-ordering the balance of power in the region, which is prevalent in leading Israeli war circles, overlooks the likelihood that war will not be decided by Israeli air strikes and anti-missile defences. Iran's missiles cannot be easily contained, especially if they arrive at a rate of several hundred a minute from three directions -- Iran, Lebanon, and Syria -- and possibly also from Iranian submarines.

Secondly, the collapse of its oil imports will devastate Israel's highly energy dependent economy. And thirdly, Israel's principal allies, especially the US and the EU, will be severely strained as they are dragged into Israel's war and find themselves defending the Straits of Hormuz, their army garrisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their oil fields and military bases in the Gulf. Such a conflict could ignite the Shia majorities in Bahrain and in the strategic oil-rich provinces of Saudi Arabia. The generalised war that results will have a devastating effect on the price of oil and the world economy. It will provoke the fury of consumers and workers everywhere, as factories close and powerful shocks throughout the financial system result in a world depression.

Israel's pathological "superiority complex" results in its leaders consistently overestimating their own intellectual, technical and military capabilities, while underestimating the knowledge, capacity and courage of their regional (in this case Iranian) adversaries. They ignore Iran's proven capacity to sustain a prolonged, complex multi-front defensive war and to recover from an initial assault and develop appropriate modern weaponry to inflict severe damage on its attackers. And Iran will have the active support of the world's Muslim population, and perhaps also the diplomatic backing of Russia and China, which will obviously view an attack on Iran as another dress-rehearsal to contain their growing power.

CONCLUSIONS OF AN ISRAELI WAR: War, especially an Israeli-US war against Iran, is indissolubly linked to the asymmetrical US-Israeli relationship, which sidelines and censors any critical US military and political analysis. Because Israel's Zionist power configuration in the US can now harness US military power in support of Israel's drive for regional dominance, Israeli leaders and most of its military feel free to engage in the most outrageous military and destructive adventures, knowing full well that in the first and last instance they can rely on the US to support them with American blood and treasure.

But after this grotesque servitude to an isolated country, who will rescue the United States? Who will prevent the sinking of its ships in the Gulf and the death and maiming of hundreds of its sailors and thousands of its soldiers? And where will the Israelis and US Zionists be when Iraq is overrun by elite Iranian troops and their Iraqi Shia allies and a generalised uprising occurs in Afghanistan?

The self-centred Israeli policy-makers overlook the likely collapse of the world oil supply as a result of their planned war against Iran. Do their Zionist agents in the US realise that as a result of dragging the US into Israel's war the Iranian nation will be forced to set the Gulf oilfields ablaze?

How cheap has it become to "buy a war" in the US? For a few million dollars in campaign contributions to corrupt politicians, through the deliberate penetration of Israel-First agents, academics and politicians into the war-making machinery of the US government, and through the moral cowardice and self-censorship of leading critics, writers and journalists who refuse to name Israel and its agents as the key decision-makers in US Middle East policy- making, the US is heading towards a war that will reach far beyond any regional military conflagration and towards the collapse of the world economy and the impoverishment of hundreds of millions of people.

* The writer is author of The Arab Revolt and Imperialist Counter-attacks.

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