An analysis of a simulated war between the West and Iran reveals multiple scenarios in which Iran could prevail. This information is known to Pentagon and NATO officials but it has not been disclosed to their respective publics. Leaders in the U.S. and NATO continue to blissfully believe that they will prevail in any conflict with Iran, but the unique circumstances in the Middle East call that into question.
First of all, Iran is not Iraq or Libya or the Taliban-led Afghanistan. It is a nation of 78 million people with a standing military of 545,000, with another 650,000 in reserves. It has an admittedly old air force of about 1,000 aircraft, a fairly modern 261-ship navy (with an estimated 19 submarines), and a growing surface to surface missile force, which includes anti-ship cruise missiles. What is most important is that Iran has seven dedicated mine warfare vessels and it is believed to have a capable arsenal of anti-ship mines. The unfortunate fact is that offensive mine technology appears to have outstripped the performance of defensive countermeasures, thus giving the edge to the country seeding the sea lanes with mines. While Iran’s military (other than its special forces units) has very limited capabilities beyond its borders, it does not need a significant offensive capability in order to close the narrow Strait of Hormuz.
On January 4, 2012, The Washington Post published an opinion piece written by CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria entitled, “Iran’s Growing Sense of Desperation.” Mr. Zakaria’s amazing evaluation of the Iran crisis reflects the old adage that one can have conflicting opinions about an issue while insisting that each opinion is correct. He praises the Obama Administration for weakening Iran to the point that the country faced an “economic free fall.” Thereafter Mr. Zakaria insists that it would be “madness” for Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz because of the economic injury that it would suffer by doing so. Wars are rarely logical and countries have gone to war over less. Mr. Zakaria seems to be laying the groundwork for Obama Administration officials to spin (when war comes) that such a war could not have been foreseen or prevented by them. Apparently the editors of The Washington Post failed to see the incongruity in these two conclusions of Mr. Zakaria and failed to probe the motives of Mr. Zakaria. As will be detailed below, closing the Strait of Hormuz is neither madness nor should it be unexpected.
In summary, if Iran struck first when U.S. carrier task force deployments were at their lowest and when weather conditions blocked satellite surveillance, and if Iran:
mined the Straits of Hormuz;
cut the one precarious Tian Shan mountain rail link from Qarshi in Uzbekistan to Hairaton that is supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan;
sent forces into Afghanistan to aid the Taliban;
used missiles and special operations personnel to attack the limited number of airfields on the Arabian Peninsula available to the U.S. and NATO; and
then began to systematically attack the Saudi and Kuwaiti oil refining facilities;
the United States and NATO would be hard-pressed to respond. Luck, which is a key component of many military victories, tends to favor the bold.
Under this scenario, if Israel decided to join with the U.S. in a counter-attack against Iran, that would likely trigger a military response by Hesballah and Hamas. Such an escalation could draw Lebanon into the conflict and perhaps Syria. The nightmare scenario of an all-out war with Israel, waged by Palestinians who increasingly see no hope but violence, might prompt elements in Egypt to close the Suez Canal to U.S. and NATO ship transit and close Egyptian air space to over flights. If Turkey remained neutral, the U.S. and NATO might not be able to forcibly reopen the Persian Gulf to safe transit before the world community began demanding a cease-fire, an end of sanctions on Iran and a removal of the mines. The world’s economies could not long continue to function with up to 40% of crude oil shipments disrupted. All of this would mean that Iran could prevail, depending on how one defines “victory.”
The fact is that Iran is a huge country which the United States could never successfully occupy as it lacks the manpower. Forcibly reopening the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf sea lanes and keeping them open might well require the invasion and occupation of Iran’s Hormozgan Province, which has 1,000 kilometers of coastline and (as of 2007), 69 cities and towns and 2047 villages. That would be a formidable task to accomplish and maintain.
While the United States might eventually be able to build up a coalition force to invade Iran, Iran would never give it the time to do so and the Persian Gulf could not remain closed for such a long period. In addition, the participation of many European countries in such a campaign is doubtful as they currently lack the financial resources for such an effort. The question under the War Powers Act is whether the U.S. Congress would ever agree to field another army of 200,000+ and appropriate another trillion dollars for yet another decade-long war.
Even if the U.S. Congress agreed to support another long war, both sides would face the specter of a conventional, mutually assured destruction. Many of the oil production and refining facilities in the Gulf are easy to destroy and time-consuming to rebuild. The destruction of oil facilities on both sides would herald a worldwide economic depression for most countries and could ignite military conflicts over the remaining facilities. Non-Gulf oil producers such as Russia, Brazil and Venezuela would become overnight economic giants.
Within this war simulation are numerous unknowns. As reported by The Kabul Press, The Washington Times, The Jerusalem Post, The Cleveland Jewish News, and others, Iran is believed to have acquired multiple tactical nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Republics. It may also be on the verge of fielding its own crude nuclear warheads. It is undisputed that Iran possesses an advanced surface to surface missile capacity with the potential to at least reach Europe, and possibly beyond. It is also believed to possess an array of chemical munitions and possibly biological. An all out war could result in both sides using all the weapons in their inventories. That could result in the war reaching the American mainland and it could result in a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel. In such a situation, there would be no cease-fires. Such a conflict might only end when one side or the other had been utterly destroyed. It is unlikely that the West is prepared for such a conflict.
Last week Iranian officials briefed the world’s press on their plans to close the Straits of Hormuz if the United States and its allies pushed to halt Iranian oil revenue, a tactic endorsed this week by President Obama and agreed to in principal by EU Ministers. Economic strangulation by the United States was the “official” rational the Japanese Government used as its pretext to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941. Japan considered economic sanctions to be an act of war. International law on this point is not clear. In 1862, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of President Lincoln to impose an economic blockade on Confederate ports; however the court ruled that such right only belongs to a “belligerent” which is in an actual or implied state of war against the target country. Whether the pending embargo on Iranian oil constitutes a blockade and thus an act of war may be debated by scholars. The discussion of such fine points is irrelevant if Iran views the embargo as a war measure. If Iran is faced with the option of either surrendering to Western demands or confronting the West, an historical analysis would conclude that it would opt for the latter. So called experts such as Mr. Zakaria should not in any way be surprised by such a policy decision.
There are some within the Obama Administration, the European Union and the media who seem determined to push Iran over the edge. The goal of this effort is to precipitate a military exchange in which the West will be able to destroy many of Iran’s nuclear research sites and degrade its military. The Western assumption is that a nice tidy limited war can be conducted on Western terms and pursuant to U.S. Central Command planning. The reality is that wars are messy and the risks of a war with Iran getting out of hand and spreading into a major conflict are credible. The risks that Iran might actually prevail in that war are also real.
The debate in the West should not be over whether to proceed forward with this crippling new round of sanctions against Iran, but whether Western Governments should prepare their citizens for the costs and ramifications of these worst case scenarios. One should never bumble into war, especially when it is a war of choice.