Thursday, April 06, 2006

Iran Next?

griftdrift is very sad that he wasn't here during the run up to the Iraq War. Oh the opinions would have flowed like the Tigris and Euphrates. But by gum, I ain't gonna miss the next one!

So far the saber has only rattled quietly. Let's hope it stays that way until all options are exhausted.

Let's start with the undisputable fact that sets Iran apart from Iraq. Iran is deadly dangerous in the present. Not in some theoretical future. Right this minute, Iran has the capability to to cause chaos in the Strait of Hormuz. For those of you too young to remember the "Tanker Wars" of the early 80s, the Strait of Hormuz is the choke point between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. On one side of the strait are all the oil distribution points. On the other side is the rest of the world. Both Iraq and Iran played shoot the fish in the barrel with tanker ships of all persuasions until the Soviet Union and the U.S. allowed neutral tankers to fly their national flags. An attack on one of those tankers would constitute a direct assault on either the U.S.S.R. or the U.S. Despite some frightening skirmishes, the strategy worked and the oil kept flowing. Of course at the time we supported the Iraq regime in the war while also secretly selling arms to Iran. Twisted eh?

The point of the history lesson is that Iran sits squarely on the narrowest part of the Straits of Hormuz and they have a penchant for showing off sparkly new weapon systems. Like this week's test of a new torpedo. I think the intention for the new toy is pretty obvious. Just a trial run of the new system sent oil up $2 a barrel.

Just because Iran is dangerous does not mean we shouldn't address it. The thought of Iran having a nuclear weapon of any kind should send a case of the willies across the flesh of even a pacifist. The question is how.

Hans Blix, the U.N weapon inspector, states that Iran is at least five years away from developing a weapon. In his mind, plenty of time for achieving a peaceful settlement. According to Chris Nelson, Israel also wants to pursue options other than a hot war. These are not appeasers. Israel has never been shy about using its military as the spear of the diplomatic spear. Even if you don't believe Hans Blix, you must believe the Israelis. Why would they advise prudence on a scenario where they are the most likely casualty? (This also begs the question of where in the middle of the massive intelligence failure prior to the Iraq war was Israel? Surely if Saddam had been that dangerous, the Israelis would have known. But that's another subject for another day.)

But let's look at this strictly from a tactical point of view.

Anyone with any sense agrees that attempting to contain the chaos in Iraq has overextended our ground and support forces . I can conceive of no scenario where we would be able to pivot our forces to attack our northern flank. Any attack into Iran would place Iraq to our rear. We already have difficulty transporting supplies from green zone to green zone within Iraq. Imagine if we had to supply an army across the breadth of the country. A basic rule of war is before any engagement you must secure your rear.

Also, Iran is not Iraq. Iraq is mostly desert. Iran is mostly mountains. A problem with the geographically challenged American consciousness is we visualize the entire middle east as one vast flat desert. Not so in Iran. The most populous regions actually lay in basins between imposing mountain ranges. If invasion moved forward, there would be no dash to Tehran as there was to Baghdad. The likely scenario would be months if not years of slogging slowly towards the population centers.

We would also face a fighting force of a quarter million-front line troops. The quality of the Iranian army units is disputable. They may fold like the infamous Iraqi Republican guard. However, over 20 million Iranian men are of military age. The thought of battling conscript militias through rocky terrain should frighten even the most ardent hawk.

Describing what might result from a ground invasion as a quagmire might be kind. In order to generate the manpower needed for this kind of war, the draft would have to reinstituted. That will not happen. Ground invasion is out of the question.

If we can't invade, we could always opt for the very American strategy of air strikes. First of all, it must be understood that we would receive no help from the Israelis. When they knocked out Iraqi nuclear facilities in 1981 the sites were within ranges of their airbases. To attack Iran, not only would the I.A.F. have to cross hostile airspace but they would have to refuel on the way. The Israeli's have already stated this scenario would not be possible.

However, we probably do not need the Israeli's assistance.Our air power is still unmatched and at the moment practically unused. The strategic and tactical strike groups have not had much to do since Iraq spiraled into guerilla warfare. F/A-18s are not really needed for house to house fighting.

The problem is Iran is not Serbia. Air war worked in Serbia because the targets were ground troops intent on civilian slaughter. Targets were easily recognizable and out in the open. The aforementioned Hornet could fly in at safe altitude, bomb a Serbian death battalion to the depths of Hades and return to its ship unscathed. In Iran, the targets are buildings not people and they are probably hidden underground. According to most intelligence, way underground.
If we are fortunate enough to have accurate intelligence (insert pre-Iraq intelligence joke here) and the Iranians were kind enough to leave the facilities in the open, we can possibly do damage ala Israel / Iraq 1981. Realistically, the Iranian facilities are hidden, disguised and even if found, protected so well that none of our current weapons could cause damage. If they were easy to hit would the military be testing conventional weapons with the ability to produce nuclear type holes in the earth?

So we can't invade. We can't bomb them back to the stone age. We are left with diplomacy and economic pressure. So far this seems to be the tactic the Bush adminstration is pursuing. Let's hope that it works and the power of the Tehran mullahs is dulled by the will of the millions of moderate Persians in the country.

Let us keep our hand on the saber, but not rattle too loudly just yet.

As Jay Bookman of the Atlanta Journal Constitution puts it,

"it can sometimes be useful to have other people think you're crazy.But it is
never useful to actually BE crazy."

Contributing to this post: Wikipedia and Military Factory.

Inspiration for this post came from articles by Steven C. Clemons and Jay Bookman. I highly encourage you to read both.The AJC requires subscription but go ahead and sign up. They won't spam you and it's worth it.

Also h/t to Andrew Sullivan where I first encountered the Clemons article.

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