Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Is the US Crazy Enough to Attack Iran?

Fox is reporting that the US is beginning operational planning to attack Iran. There have been rumblings about this for a while now.

I am far from a dove. I supported going into Iraq. I support staying there to avoid the consequences of failure. (I wish that the US hadn't screwed the pooch so badly for the first two-and-a-half years of the war, but that's a different post...) But I can't see how an attack on Iran would end well. Nevertheless, we should consider the strategic objectives and think about how well an attack would serve those objectives.

Let's assume that an attack would be a sustained air campaign, with limited or no ground forces committed. The US has huge capabilities in this area, while the ground forces simply don't exist for an invasion of Iran. So, whatever is done, it will be an unqualified tactical success, but it'll be over in a month or two and is unlikely to be repeated. Iran will eventually recover. It will be really mad when it does.

What do we hope to accomplish?

  • Prevent Iran from threatening the Middle East and Europe with nukes. Unfortunately, this appears to be the stalking horse that Bushco will use to justify the attack. It reeks of the casus belli used for Iraq. It's a PR loser, at the very least.

    But is it a strategic necessity? It may be, if for no other reason than if we don't do it, Israel will try. Either way, we're involved in a full-scale war, so maybe we'd be better off taking the initiative. Score one for the hawks.

  • Degrade Iran's ability to infiltrate weapons, special forces, and political/financial support into Iraq. It's unlikely that there's a spot on the map that says, "Bomb here to wipe out the EFP factory," and another one for, "All Quds forces sleep here." It is possible to screw up Iranian command and control. It is equally possible to give Iran a whole set of much more urgent priorities.

    But the easiest way for Iran to retaliate is to hit Iraq. They can cause the Iraqi government to collapse within 12 hours of the first bomb falling. (Maybe that wouldn't be so bad...) And they can exact significant US casualties through their proxies. I can't see attacking Iran as anything other than a short- to medium-term negative for Iraq.

  • Impoverish Iran to the extent that it can no longer project financial and political support to the Taliban, Hamas, and Hezbollah. The only way to do this is to wreak severe infrastructure damage and to completely destroy Iran's oil production. This entails huge civilian casualties (it'll look like a genocide by the time the Islamic press gets done) and requires that the price of oil goes up by at least $30 a barrel. (This SWAG only includes the world supply reduction. More below.)

  • Keep the Strait of Hormuz open. Keep the oil flowing. Iran currently has the military capability to sink ships in the Strait. It doesn't use this capability because it would result in the immediate destruction of its own oil production. But that will change as soon as the US attacks.

    The US has the ability to severely degrade Iran's military capability in this regard. But it may not have the ability to eliminate the capability completely without an occupation of Southern Iran. This is impossible.

    Furthermore, tankers and oil terminal infrastructure are fairly soft targets for terrorists. Iran would certainly direct its proxies to redouble efforts against Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The world market would add in yet another $30 per barrel risk premium. (We're up to $130 a barrel now, if you're keeping score.)

    Finally, while the Saudis would be secretly cheering, the rest of the Islamic world could easily wind up embargoing oil to the US and Europe. Indeed, the Saudis might have to take action just to maintain their street cred. If that happens, the US is going to suffer an economic shock that will make the 1970's embargo look like a game of pattycake.

  • Extra credit: Precipitate the collapse of the Iranian government. Iran is a theocracy. It may be true that a significant chunk of its population (maybe 70%) hates that theocracy and wants nothing more than a modern, secular state. It may also be true that our cultural intelligence is once again nonsense and a slim majority are happy as clams with the government, mod the usual bitching that occurs in any modern state. Either way, it is certainly true that Iran is also an ancient, cohesive, highly nationalistic society. In an area where national identity is tenuous at best, Iran is the real deal. When you attack Iran, its people will put aside politics for the duration of the crisis. (Even the US was unified for 18 months after 9/11.) Any hope of governmental collapse will be wiped away for ten years.

I hope this is a reasonably sober analysis of the situation. I can't see an attack as being anything but an unmitigated disaster for the US.

The Israeli question needs to be answered. It's clear that all the existing diplomatic gambits are toothless when it comes to eliminating Iran's nuclear program. The Israelis simply cannot exist if Iran is willing to use nukes against them. So the program must either be eliminated by force or Iran must be effectively deterred.

Deterrence takes a long time to establish and is metastable at best. It may be almost impossible for the Israelis to trust that such a strategy will work. There are a couple of things that would help. First, the US can more explicitly tuck Israel under its nuclear umbrella. ("It shall be the policy of the United States to regard any nuclear attack in the Middle East as an attack, by Iran, against the United States, requiring a full nuclear retaliatory response.") Second, we can provide lots and lots and lots of missile defense. But the first measure does nothing to mitigate the crazy factor and the second can't defend perfectly.

So, unfortunate though it may be, elimination of the nuke program may be essential, lest Israel do it and plunge the whole region into an instant war. But we've got to find a better way than a full-scale military attack.

Deniable sabotage might be a possibility. We can't get near the nuclear facilities, but it doesn't take very many oil pipeline explosions for Iran to get the message. When faced with economic ruin, they might back down. The risks of getting caught are enormous, though.

Blockade of gasoline and other key commodities has been discussed. This seems like a mighty fine way of getting Iran to throw the first punch, but the end result would be the same as if we'd just started bombing out of the blue.

So the last card to play appears to be to make all the operational preparations and hope that it scares the hell out of Iran. We have to assume that, proud nationalists that they are, they're somewhat sane. Any sane government should back down from a power play when faced with national destruction.

I hope that that's what this is about. The alternative is truly unimaginable.


James Wildspell said...

I don't know how crazy the U.S. as a whole is. But I do think that this President is foolish enough to precipitate yet another open-ended conflict in the most volatile region of the planet.

God save us all.

Endorendil said...

Please don't believe anything Fox reports. The German government did not block sanctions, and is ABSOLUTELY NOT signalling that it would privately condone an attack on Iran. Fox distorted the statement, the German government does not support increased sanctions at the next UNSC meeting (next friday), since it wants to wait for the IAEA report to come out in November.

Endorendil said...

As to the rest of your post, I largely agree. There is a big omission in the analysis, namely that Israel has a large nuclear arsenal, and the means to deliver it in Iran.

But I don't believe Israel will attack Iran, since it does not have the weaponry that could take out Iranian research sites. It will take extremely strong bunkerblasters, such as those that the US has, but it could be necessary to use nuclear versions of those things.

In your analysis you forget one other thing. There is a good reason why Iran may need a nuclear weapon, and that is the continued threat from the US to attack it. As North Korea shows, getting a nuclear bomb is a sure way to keep the US out. And as Pakistan shows, being a nuclear power does not have to mean you're a pariah. You just have to have something the West wants. Such as oil, or influence in Iraq and Afghanistan. The way the US behaves is almost as if they WANT Iran to go nuclear. I don't understand why they would want that, but it is the only rational explanation for the policy they conduct.

TheRadicalModerate said...


Actually, I'd had a separate report of staff-level planning and op-orders going out for Iran. I foolishly didn't bookmark it and haven't laid my hands on it yet. Will update if I find it.

As for Israel, the problem is that they can't mount a credible nuclear deterrent against Iran. Iran is so huge that Israel has no way of inflicting a lethal blow should Iran start a full-out nuclear attack. They also appear to have no cold war style launch-on-warning capability, which requires missile silos, to say nothing of a longer flight time than that from Iran to Israel. Most importantly, though, Iran can inflict a lethal blow on Israel with only a handful of nukes. Israel is geographically tiny and its population is quite concentrated.

It's this asymmetry that makes this such a tough problem. That's why I think a US guarantee of retaliation following an Iranian attack might be worth something. But even that presupposes that everybody stays on their meds.

Endorendil said...

With hundreds of nuclear weapons, and several ways to deliver them anywhere in Iran, Israel has a very credible deterrent against Iran. It may not be able to knock out all of Iran's military sites, but it can level Tehran - no question about that. No matter how cooky Iran's regime gets, it won't take that prospect lightly.

You're right that Israel does not have first strike capability, but is that something the US would want it to have? For one, they might use it. For another, it is hard enough to try to convince Middle-Eastern countries that they don't need nukes while Israel hoards plenty.

But Iran is also not able to develop first-strike capability. It can only level Israel completely if it levels part of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as well, with the aftermath turning large swaths of those countries uninhabitable. It would turn one of Islam's holiest sites into a big, glowing, glassy bowl. And let's not forget that muslims may want the state of Israel gone (as a Jewish political entity), but that is because they want the land back for the Palestinians that used to live there. Nuking the place would mean that millions of Palestinians would not be able to go back to their ancestral lands. That would be a defeat.

Iran may eventually develop nukes to balance the threat from the US and Israel, but it is very unlikely that they would use them first.

TheRadicalModerate said...


Don't confuse launch-on-warning with first-strike. LOW means that you can put your missiles in the air when you detect an incoming attack. LOW is important to deterrence because it complicates an attacker's calculation of the damage it will receive in retaliation. If the attacker believes it can destroy your retaliatory capacity on the ground, things start to get dicey.

Even if Israel could put hundreds of nukes on target after absorbing an attack (unlikely), Iran could probably survive as a society. Iran is huge--almost three times the size of Texas. That's a lot of room to hide enough military infrastructure and enough arable land to recover from a retaliation. Mind you, Iran would have no cities left, so they'd have to be a certain brand of crazy. There is some evidence that they may occaisionally shop for that brand.

Israel, by contrast, is slightly smaller than Vermont. It is actually possible to devastate a significant fraction of its territory. Doing so does not entail hurting Jordan or Egypt. Even a big nuke will devastate less than a hundred square miles and fallout can be minimized with air-bursts.

Having said that, I hope you're right that Israel finds its deterrent credible, even in the face of Iran building three or four bombs a year for the foreseeable future. This is obviously a matter of national survival for them. If they calculate that Iran isn't completely deterrable, they won't hesitate to strike.

This will make the US position in the Middle East virtually untenable. Since it is essential that the US is able to project power in the Gulf, we really would be better off striking in Israel's stead. We are seriously hemmed-in in this situation.

Endorendil said...

"Don't confuse launch-on-warning with first-strike."

My mistake. But don't forget that LOW is as simple as having nuclear bombers at the ready (preferably in the air, which is what Russia does). And are you willing to bet that Israel hasn't armed its submarines with nuclear missiles? I doubt that Iran is.

"Even if Israel could put hundreds of nukes on target after absorbing an attack (unlikely), Iran could probably survive as a society."

Not really. While Iran is huge, most of its population is concentrated in large cities. A single bomb on Tehran would take out most of its government and economic infrastructure, and pretty much end life in one of the oldest cities in the world. One or two nuclear bombs could easily kill a million Iranians.

While it is true that in principle the country could survive a few nuclear bombs, its political system would not. Between internal uprisings (you did what???) and full-fledged invasions from neighbouring countries (opportunistic as well as out of self-protection), Iran's establishment would be torn to shreds. Remember, it only took two small bombs on relatively small cities to make the Japanese give up.

"There is some evidence that they may occaisionally shop for that brand [of crazy]."

Their rhetoric is different than we're used to in the West, but their foreign policy looks very effective and very realistic. I don't see them losing many opportunities to gain influence in their region, do you?

"Israel, by contrast, is slightly smaller than Vermont. It is actually possible to devastate a significant fraction of its territory. Doing so does not entail hurting Jordan or Egypt. Even a big nuke will devastate less than a hundred square miles and fallout can be minimized with air-bursts."

If you would try to limit the fallout for the neighbouring countries, you'ld have to avoid bombing large areas under Iraeli control (everything within say 20 or 30 miles from the border, perhaps, and around the main waterways). That would mean sparing many military installations. You just can't have it both ways - either you leave yourself open for a counter-attack, or you destroy large parts of neighbouring countries. And do you nuke Gaza, the West Bank, or the Golan heights? How about Jerusalem or the Sinai? Iran would have some serious 'splainin to do.

"If they [Israelis] calculate that Iran isn't completely deterrable, they won't hesitate to strike."

That is probably true, and it is this kind of reasoning that makes so many people believe that Israel and the US are more dangerous countries than the rogue states we usually worry about. As Iraq showed so clearly (and Pakistan and India), western intelligence varies from poor to preposterously wrong. Worse, the political guards against unnecessary wars were shown just as clearly to be insufficient.

"This will make the US position in the Middle East virtually untenable."

It is tenable now? Sooner or later the US will leave Iraq, and Iran's influence in that country simply must increase. The same goes for Afghanistan. It is conceivable that the Middle East will be the first major region where the US is more or less defeated by a regional power. Which, I'm sure, is going to be very interesting for China, and other regional powers that figure their time has come to claim a backyard.

"Since it is essential that the US is able to project power in the Gulf, we really would be better off striking in Israel's stead. We are seriously hemmed-in in this situation."

I usually follow your reasoning, even when I disagree, but this I don't get. If our protectorate strikes Iran, we're in more trouble than if we do it ourselves? I can only assume that you mean that we would strike earlier than Israel? But that would mean that we would strike when even the (rather paranoid) Israelis don't think it is necessary?

I figured that if we learned one thing, it's that preemptive strikes are a bad idea. But we could also have relearned that carrying a big stick is useful, but using it is not. Especially when you're shown to be in the wrong, but even when you're right, using the stick shows what you can and cannot do. Bush has managed to show just how useless US military power is when it is wielded thoughtlessly, and how overstretched the US is right now. Yes, we can take any smallish, non-nuclear country back to the stone-age, but then what?

Bush also convincingly showed the world that there is only one thing more dangerous than developing nuclear weapons, and that is to be a country without a nuclear umbrella.

Consider this. The US savagely attacks the Iranian military installations (many of whom are in populated areas), killing tens or hundreds of thousands. The nuclear radiation coming from the twisted remains is seen as proof of a nuclear attack. Iran offers cheap oil and access to limitless amounts of uranium ore to China in return for protection under China's nuclear umbrella. Would the US still attack Iran if that would provoke a war with China?

The truth is that a resurgent Iran is not bad for the US. When Iraq was still powerful, it neutralized Iran. Since's Iraq's demise as a regional power in 1991, Iran's growth was simply a matter of time. But if we eliminate Iran, who will step into the power vacuum? A resurgent Russia? Resource-hungry China? Perhaps India or Pakistan will try to play a bigger role? Iraq shows that we may be able to "win" in the short run, but that we may not be able to hold the battlefield indefinitely.

It's too late to save Iraq. Its infrastructure is gone, its society falling apart, its educated elite is dead or on the run. Its living standards have dropped to third-world country levels, to the point where cholera is returning as an epidemic. All because of a lie. Or poor intelligence, your choice, but either way, it is the American people's fault.

Let's not make the same mistake in Iran. It is immoral, and counter-productive, to reduce other countries to rubble, just because we're scared of our own shadows.

TheRadicalModerate said...

I'll buy your argument about Israeli missile subs, but they can't do alert bombers. They don't have the range, they don't have the refueling capacity, and most of all, they can't afford to lose a nuke, even a disarmed one, even over their own territory. They can't risk it falling into the wrong hands.

Iranian population is 67% urban. That's higher than I thought and it does indeed make them more vulnerable. That's good, in a perverse way.

I'm still not buying your argument that you'd have to damage Egypt and Jordan to wipe out Israel. First of all there's not a lot near the borders (for obvious reasons). Yes, you'd destroy the West Bank. I'm not sure the Iranians would care that much. (They might care about nuking Jerusalem, given its religious significance.) Second, nukes are pretty clean as long as bomb debris and dust don't get comingled. Airbursts meet that criterion and they work better on soft targets like cities, so fallout will be minimal.

As for the US position in the Gulf being tenable or not: I agree with you that we're going to be mostly out of Iraq one way or another pretty soon. I also agree that Iran will have a fair amount of influence.

But what Iran won't have is 30 brigades sitting on the border of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. That simply can't happen. If we soft-land Iraq (in this case, "soft-land" will be kinda like that 1989 DC-10 crash in Sioux City), we'll be left with a decent military presence in Kuwait and probably something in Iraq itself. This protects the Iraqi, Kuwaiti, and Saudi oil fields and leaves us enough basing to control the Gulf.

If we were to attack (raid) Iran, there'd be hell to pay. The Arab world would say nasty things and things would get really, really tense. But secretly the Arab world--especially the Saudis, the Kuwaitis, and the Gulf States--would be fine with Iran getting its teeth pulled, even if it was only temporary.

On the other hand, if Israel were to attack, it'd be almost impossible for the Arab world to tolerate us in the region as a supporter of Israel. We'd lose our basing throughout the entire Gulf. That simply can't be allowed to happen.

Finally, in re. your comment about a resurgent Iran: There is of course, a middle ground between an Iran so devastated as to leave a power vacuum and a dominant Iran. There's the status quo ante, which wasn't so bad. It is within the US's power to restore that, if we're careful. Mind you, I'm not counting on Bushco to do this, but maybe the next guy or gal will be a bit more competent. One can only hope...

Don't get me wrong--I continue to think that attacking Iran would be calamitous for the US. It's just that I'm afraid that the only thing even more calamitous would be Israel attacking Iran.

I really hope you're right that a robust deterrence will grow up between Israel and Iran. It's just that you want to be really, really, really sure that it's robust enough, soon enough.