Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mustafa El-Labbad

Scenarios of an American strike

The risks are great if Washington's neo-cons choose military options to prevent Iran from blocking US imperial designs for the Middle East, writes Mustafa El-Labbad

Anticipated scenarios of an American military strike against Iran depend on a reading of pre- emptive force and Washington's military experiences since the end of the Cold War, in addition to military and regional balances in the Middle East area. The analysis outlined here does not take as its goal the defence of a theocratic Iranian regime; rather, it works to represent the underdog -- in this case the deep-rooted Iranian nation, historical neighbour to Arabs, which is holding fast to its right to possess nuclear technology according to international law.

Geographic distribution of Iranian nuclear facilities

In contrast stands America's use of force, the strongest military arsenal in history, unrestrained by moral or legal fetters, America preaching to the world about universal empire based on "divine" vision. True, force has been a primary factor in the building of empires throughout history, but it is also true that wisdom and aptness to rule has always been essential to the development and continuance of empires. Wisdom in the art of dominion has historically curbed the excessive use of force as a means of solving conflict. This qualification is lacking among the neo-cons of the current US administration, which has the world by the throat without mandate.

Despite the fact that Iran remains in accordance with international law, as well as the charters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that allow for the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes, and the fact that it is signatory to the Additional Protocol that allows for surprise inspection of nuclear facilities, Iran did not succeed in confronting American pressure on member states in the IAEA board of governors, which led to the referral of Iran to the UN Security Council for action. If the fundamental legal principle is normally that one is presumed innocent until proven guilty, in the case of Iran the logic is reversed: Iran, the accused, is guilty until proven innocent beyond all shadows of doubt.

The basis of the US case against Iran is that Iran does not need a nuclear programme while it has immense reserves of oil and gas. Yet the irony is that it was Washington that brought nuclear technology to Iran for the first time ever during the era of the shah. Nuclear weapons remain a political and strategic tool allowing states to exert influence at a regional and international level. As such, the possibility of Tehran possessing such arms without American assent is a red line in Washington. In the history of the UN Security Council, there has not been one case of a state threatened with economic sanctions or military action successfully extricating itself without meeting the council's conditions.

Until now, Washington has succeeded in pulling Iran up before the UN Security Council without providing evidence to substantiate its allegations. Transferring Iran to the Security Council is considered a necessary step on the path to punitive measures, military strikes justified down the line on the argument that economic sanctions did not meet their goal. The military solution seems to be the final solution favoured by Washington in the case of Iran for numerous reasons, despite media claims that "the military scenario is not being considered now".

For its part, a regional role has long been a priority for Iran's national security establishment regardless of who has ruled in Tehran. Because its environs are crowded with nuclear powers (India, Pakistan and Israel, as well as US presence in Iraq and the Gulf), it is a given that Iran cannot play a regional role in this context without possessing nuclear capacities. Iran may wish to barter its "nuclear ambitions" or forfeit them, but only in the event of it participating as an internationally recognised regional power in the formation of the region's policies. This is exactly what Washington insistently rejects, considering this ambition as enabling Iran to lead with greater effectiveness the camp resistant to its "Greater Middle East" plan.

Western intelligence agencies -- particularly American -- fear the idea of Iran producing nuclear weapons within a short period, estimated at three years if no other party assists it or if Tehran makes technical changes to its nuclear programme. Western intelligence agencies believe that Iran maintains an open and acknowledged nuclear programme while concealing a parallel nuclear programme for non-peaceful purposes.

Because continued enrichment of uranium, even for limited research purposes at a very small number of facilities, raises questions about the possible presence of a secret programme to produce nuclear weapons, Iranian insistence on enriching uranium incites doubts over the peaceful intent of its nuclear programme. A programme to produce arms requires advanced enrichment of uranium with 80-90 per cent purity, as opposed to only five per cent for the purposes of generating energy. The work of Western intelligence agencies is complicated by the fact that Iranian nuclear facilities are located deep underground. Their distribution also makes intelligence gathering difficult.

Decision-makers in Iran have confirmed on more than one occasion their skill in strategic cunning. They excel in calculated attacks when conditions permit, bending with grace before storms when they hit. In all circumstances, consideration and protection of Iranian regional ambition is a constant. Nearly 30 years after the Iranian Revolution, during which time Iran faced an American economic and diplomatic embargo and a devastating war with Iraq that lasted more than eight years, Iran's regional influence is the strongest it has been in its modern history. For the first time since the establishment of the republic of Iraq in 1921, Iran's allies sit in seats of power in Baghdad, even forming the parliamentary majority due to American floundering following occupation.

In addition to Iraq, Iran continues to maintain allied relations with Damascus that have become more entrenched with successive pressures placed on Syria. And in addition to Iraq and Syria, Hizbullah is considered the strongest Lebanese entity, particularly after its success in ending Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon. Hizbullah is tied to Iran by way of religion, its arms and presence in Southern Lebanon allowing Iran and allies a military purview into the depths of Israel for the first time. Thus the area between the western Iranian border and northern Israel has become an area of competing Iranian- American influence in which Iran is stronger despite America's intense military presence in the region.

Iran's geographic overlook of the entire Arab Gulf, including the Hormuz Strait in the north, adds to its demographic strength and military capability, confirming that Iran is a major regional power in the Gulf. Iran's reach, however, also extends to Afghanistan through the Northern Alliance and the Hazara and Tajik militias, allowing it to shake the Afghan state founded on American security presence at will. Iran's regional presence extends from Afghanistan to Central Asia in Tajikstan and Turkmenistan, climbing the shores of the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus region. An American military strike on Iran would elicit responses on a geographic expanse wider than that of Iran's political-geographical borders. In the end, successive ramifications, or what is called the domino effect, will play a decisive role in forming conceptions of a military strike and its outcomes.

Additionally, the Iranian regime appears stable. Iran's nuclear programme is a top priority for the Iranian leadership, particularly since the arrival of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the summer of 2005. Since that time the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran has succeeded in tying nuclear ambition to Iranian national honour, making the nuclear file a point of national consensus, whether within Iran or among the overwhelming majority of the opposition abroad. The regime's survival and popular support for Iranian sovereign ambitions are tied; the latter becoming a new source of legitimacy of the Iranian regime.

Further, Iran's capacity to produce chemical weapons is estimated at approximately 1,000 tonnes per year. Iran may also possess a small arsenal of biological weapons. Iran's decision to resume enriching uranium in its Isfahan facility leads one to conclude that any military strike on this facility would result in a catastrophe of an extent and geographic scope that cannot be foretold due to the large probability of the spread of nuclear radiation and biological viruses. On the other hand, Iran possesses a relatively advanced missile defence system whose main component is a network of ground-to-air S-400 missiles deployed along Iran's borders with a target striking range of 400 kilometres, relatively effectively counteracting the threat of invading warplanes. American forces cannot neutralise Iranian ground defences with the ease it experienced in its military actions waged previously in Somalia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Iran's nuclear facilities, moreover, are protected by an additional network of Russian S-200 missiles that, while suffering from incompatibility between the directing systems controlling them and modern technological developments, provide a second network of defence around Iranian strategic targets. In addition, Iran concluded a pact with Russia in late 2005 to purchase 30 Tor M-1 ground-to-air missiles with a reach of only 12 kilometres but which are capable of striking targets at a height of 10 kilometres, whether airplanes or missiles fired from planes. These 30 missiles will most likely be employed to form a third ring of air defence against warplanes, specifically around nuclear facilities.

In terms of attack capabilities, Iran possesses the ability to transport unconventional weapons by solid fuel missiles (Shihab-3) with a range of approximately 1,800 kilometres. Using solid fuel to propel missiles increases their launching speed, which is an extremely important advantage. This development also allows the heads of Shihab-3 missiles to carry an additional load, whether chemical or biological, which multiplies its capacity for destruction.

This is the context in which to understand projected military scenarios. Before doing so directly, however, it is essential to underline one fact: political targets determine the nature of military operations. It is not possible to conceive the commencement of military operations, large or small, without first determining their political targets. In following, the intensity and force of military actions depends on the political target to be reached. In the case of Iran, there are four possible scenarios of graduated intensity and force.

First scenario: a limited military strike. According to military logic, Washington is capable of easily directing a limited strike on the battalions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and selected military targets. It is possible for it to exhibit its technological products and use trans- continental missiles for which Iran has no military defence. There is no dispute over the American military's ability to do this with a high degree of success, striking Iranian targets and affecting the morale of the Iranian leadership and people, while exiting with near zero American human casualties.

Despite these facts, an essential question remains without theoretical answer: What are the political gains America would reap from a limited military strike? It is most likely that the Iranian regime would gain from the outcome politically, its being "wronged" before the world and underlining its "steadfastness" before its people. With this logic, it can be expected that a limited military strike would not halt Iran's nuclear programme, thus conflicting with the political goal of military action. This removes it from the list of possibilities for practical reasons.

The second scenario: the Israeli option. The air routes assumed for Israeli planes to reach Iran are over either Turkey or Jordan and Iraq. Because each route incurs regional costs that must be paid, it is most likely that the Israeli choice would be for the second because it would cost less. Turkey is a large regional state whose considerations, and also gains, must be considered. From a military perspective, Israeli planes are not able to target all Iranian nuclear facilities in one air raid due to a number of intertwining factors. Iran is more than 1,600 kilometres from Israel, requiring Israeli planes to cover 3,200 kilometres there and back, a feat impossible without the ability to refuel on the territory of a third state.

Further is the distribution of Iranian nuclear facilities around the country, which increases the mission's difficulty and differs from the case of the Iraqi Ozirak facilities Israel destroyed in the early 1980s. Moreover, any third state that would allow Israeli planes to cross its airspace would be placed in confrontation with Iran and would be subject to Iranian retributive strikes.

The third scenario: destroying the Iranian nuclear programme. American military experts have estimated that this scenario would last between one and two weeks, during which nuclear facility sites would be shelled with trans- continental missiles via bases on land and at sea. American air weapons with high fire intensity would be used, as well as technological means of disrupting Iranian air defences. According to this scenario, a raft of Iranian facilities would be targeted -- approximately 125 targets connected to the production and development of conventional and unconventional weapons, along with storage facilities, communications centres, and the headquarters of various forces. This would be in addition to primary nuclear facilities in Natanz, Arak and Bushehr, as well as the scientific centres in Isfahan and Tehran. The likelihood of an Iranian response is great in this scenario, as successful execution of such operations without an Iranian response would mean a total political defeat for the Iranian regime, its regional prestige, and its local legitimacy.

The fourth scenario: changing the Iranian regime. Practically speaking, the third and fourth scenarios do not differ much from an Iranian perspective. It is thus expected that Iran would play all of its regional and military cards in the event of scenarios three and four. The fourth scenario requires more military preparation than the third, including unconventional operations executed by special units, manoeuvres employing ground forces and operations that influence and penetrate the Iranian interior. To complement this, Washington may activate armed Iranian opposition groups currently in Iraq -- the mujahid-e-khalq -- to act within Iranian territory. Initial American military estimates for this scenario place it at 200 days for deployment, mobilisation, air and ground operations and penetration. Even according to optimistic estimates, the shortest period of engagement would be the longest operational fighting period since American forces were in Vietnam.

As Iran is a primary player in the global energy market, Iranian pre-emptive responses are likely to focus there. Iran is the second largest exporter of gas in OPEC, and it maintains the second largest natural gas reserves in the world. Further, Iran's influence over the global energy market is not restricted to its own energy capacity. It geographically overlooks the Hormuz Strait, and this, added to its missile capacity and that of its naval forces, has allowed it to easily block maritime activity in the Strait and thus halt the pumping of Gulf oil into international markets. It is well known that two medium-sized submarines can halt maritime activity in the Gulf for extended periods, during which oil prices flare up in international markets because Gulf oil forms the primary artery for supplying world energy.

Due to Iran's geographic location, it is also able to strike pipelines transporting oil from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean that pass through Azerbaijan and Georgia via its allies there. Its missile capacity also theoretically allows it to target oil drilling and extraction sites in the Caspian Sea, most of whose shares are owned by American and European companies. All of these theoretical abilities allow Iran to devastate the global oil market and transfer its losses to the industrial states in particular and the global economy in general. These possibilities have not been available to any Third World country previously.

The US has, since its occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, become a neighbour to Iran, surrounding it in all directions. This fact produces another dimension; the fact that waging military operations between Iran and the United States places US forces within unprecedented reach of Iran. As a result, the possibilities for an Iranian response are not only tied to Tehran's military capabilities -- and mainly missile capacity -- but rather also to the array of geographical contexts in which American forces are present within proximity of Iran. Iran can (a) target American forces in Iraq from Iranian and Iraqi territory through Iran's allies; (b) target American military bases in the Gulf with Iranian missiles; (c) target American forces based in Afghanistan from Iranian and Afghani territory through Iran's allies.

Aside from targeting American forces, through regional proxies Iran may also target Tel Aviv. The Shihab-3 missile would deal a crushing blow to Israel, and while this remains a low possibility it is not improbable if the American administration decides on the third or fourth scenarios as its course of action on Iran. Indeed, it is expected that the current US neo-cons administration will prefer the third and fourth scenarios as the first and second allow Iran to mobilise a following beyond its political borders. Even following the success of military actions against it, this would make it more influential in the region. Yet the last two scenarios require more time for preparatory operations that include a number of regional and international measures.

As of now, it is expected that Washington will resort to exploiting Iranian efforts in deflecting pressure from the Security Council to prepare on various levels for waging military operations. The issuance of a resolution from the Security Council granting Iran a timeframe for submission of proof of its peaceful aspirations and permanently halting uranium enrichment activities or face sanctions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter will follow shortly. In the time it takes to issue subsequent resolutions imposing economic sanctions and intensifying the formulation of previous resolutions, Washington will both use to prepare and to interpret as justification for undertaking military action.

One aspect of Western preparation will be drastically increasing oil supply from OPEC and elsewhere to allow for the creation of massive reserves in oil-consuming industrial states. Completing agreements with the governments of Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Georgia to build military and air bases and expand existing ones to increase the capacity for air force units participating in military operations will also indicate the direction of events.

Finally, watch this space. Military wars are no longer followed by media wars. The media has become theatre of operations wherein wars are often won or lost in advance. Based on previous American experience, strategic media communications in the case of Iran will be split into three stages. First will be building the groundwork, emphasising the "evil" nature of the Iranian regime. This stage is currently underway. Second will be expanding the crisis within America and abroad, internationalising what is a US- Iranian confrontation. This stage will be accompanied by the imposition of economic sanctions on Tehran. The third and final stage will be to choose the appropriate timing for war. When this moment comes, the media will correlate step- by-step with the military, and any international initiatives to solve the problem peacefully will be derided and defeated.

This piece is published in special agreement with Sharqnameh , a quarterly magazine focussed on political affairs in Iran, Turkey and Central Asia.

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