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01 September 2007

Considering a war with Iran: A discussion paper on WMD in the Middle East

The Raw Story report here.

"...written by well-respected British scholar and arms expert Dr. Dan Plesch, Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, and Martin Butcher, a former Director of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and former adviser to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament..."
Key findings of the 70-page paper [see original for various hotlinks; click the title of this post for the PDF]:
There is considerable international discussion that the confrontation between Iran and the international community over its nuclear programme may change in character into a major war between Iran and either US or Israel or both in conjunction with allies such as the United Kingdom.

This study uses open source analysis to outline what the military option might involve if it were picked up off the table and put into action. The study demonstrates that an attack can be massive and launched with surprise rather than merely a contingency plan needing months if not years of preparation.

The study considers the potential for US and allied war on Iran and the attitude of key states. The study concludes that the US has made military preparations to destroy Iran’s WMD, nuclear energy, regime, armed forces, state apparatus and economic infrastructure within days if not hours of President George W. Bush giving the order. The US is not publicising the scale of these preparations to deter Iran, tending to make confrontation more likely. The US retains the option of avoiding war, but using its forces as part of an overall strategy of shaping Iran’s actions. [emphasis in original]

• Any attack is likely to be on a massive multi-front scale but avoiding a ground
invasion. Attacks focused on WMD facilities would leave Iran too many
retaliatory options, leave President Bush open to the charge of using too little
force and leave the regime intact.

• US bombers and long range missiles are ready today to destroy 10,000 targets in Iran in a few hours.

• US ground, air and marine forces already in the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan can devastate Iranian forces, the regime and the state at short notice.

• Some form of low level US and possibly UK military action as well as armed popular resistance appear underway inside the Iranian provinces or ethnic areas of the Azeri, Balujistan, Kurdistan and Khuzestan. Iran was unable to prevent sabotage of its offshore-to-shore crude oil pipelines in 2005.

• Nuclear weapons are ready, but most unlikely, to be used by the US, the UK and Israel. The human, political and environmental effects would be devastating, while their military value is limited.

• Israel is determined to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons yet has the conventional military capability only to wound Iran’s WMD programmes.

• The attitude of the UK is uncertain, with the Brown government and public opinion opposed psychologically to more war, yet, were Brown to support an attack he would probably carry a vote in Parliament. The UK is adamant that Iran must not acquire the bomb.

• Short and long term human, political and economic consequences of any war require innovative approaches to prevent the crisis becoming war.

This study does not address Iran’s nuclear energy programmes or Iran’s relations with other states. It focuses on the shape that a ‘military option’ might take if it is put into action.

US military, if not political, readiness for a war using minimum ground forces indicates that the current seeming inaction surrounding Iran is misleading. The United States retains the ability – despite difficulties in Iraq – to undertake major military operations against Iran. Whether the political will exists to follow such a course of action is known only to a few senior figures in the Bush administration.
General Wesley Clark claims that he became aware of the Bush Administration’s instructions concerning the overthrow of the Iranian regime in September 2001. He states that he was told this in the Pentagon by a serving General holding the order in his hand.1

“He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, “I just got this down from upstairs” -- meaning the Secretary of Defense’s office -- “today.” And he said, “This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.”

In various forms, regime change or change of orientation favouring the US has occurred in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Somalia in the ensuing six years.

Seymour Hersh's articles claim that President Bush ordered war against Iran shortly after the President's re-election in 2004. His claim that Bush is determined not to leave Iran to a future president and that he has support from leading Democrats is born out by numerous conversations in Washington. As a senior staffer to Senator Kerry put it: "why should people object if we carry out disarmament militarily?"

There have been reports since 2003 that war with Iran is either underway or in preparation. Pat Buchanan in American Conservative argued like Hersh that vice-president Cheney prepared a war plan for Iran including the use of nuclear weapons by summer 2005. Scott Ritter claimed that President Bush ordered that the US be ready to attack Iran at any point after June 2005 and Newsweek reported that the administration was considering options for regime change. Atlantic Monthly concluded after conducting a wargame that attacking Iran was too risky. The powerpoint slides from that game provide a glimpse into the world of war planning. Their analysis assumes a large ground invasion, clearly not a favoured option of either Don Rumsfeld or the American public. The eminent investigative writer, James Bamford, has described a neoconservative push for regime change.

“We're now at the point where we are essentially on alert,” Lieutenant General Bruce Carlson, commander of the 8th Air Force, the heart of Strategic Command, said. “We have the capacity to plan and execute global strikes in half a day or less.”

Under the command of Marine General James Cartwright, US Global Strike planning has the potential to destroy over 10,000 targets in Iran in one mission with "smart" conventional weapons. That number assumes only 100 strategic bombers with 100 bombs each. The actual number of planes/bombs and missiles is far larger. US government documents obtained by Hans Kristensen and analysed by William Arkin has described the development of this Global Strike capability.

Awaiting his orders, George Bush has more than 200 strategic bombers (B52-B1-B2-F117A) and US Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles. One B2 bomber dropped 80, 500lb bombs on separate targets in 22 seconds in a test flight. Using half the total force, 10,000 targets could be attacked almost simultaneously. This strike power alone is sufficient to destroy all major Iranian political, military, economic and transport capabilities.

Such a strike would take "shock and awe" to a new level and leave Iran with few if any conventional military capabilities to block the straights of Hormuz or provide conventional military support to insurgents in Iraq. If this was not enough, the latest generation of smart bombs, the Small Diameter Bomb, now in the US Air Force arsenal quadruples the number of weapons all US warplanes can carry.

Placing forces on high alert does not mean that the US will use them. However, in an atmosphere of mounting crisis, great care must be taken as events move forward.

Conventional Wisdom concerning any US attack on Iran:


a) Any attack will be limited to suspect Weapons of Mass Destruction sites and associated defences.

b) Iran will then have options to retaliate that include:

-interference with the Straits of Hormuz and oil flows, destruction of Gulf oil industry infrastructure;

-fire missiles at Gulf States, Iraq bases and Israel;

-insurrection in Iraq;

-attacks by Hizbollah and Hamas on Israel;

-insurrection in Afghanistan;

-use of sleeper cells to carry out attacks in the Gulf, Europe and the US; and

-destabilisation of Gulf states with large Shi’a populations.

c) This analysis is not convincing for the following reasons:

-Elementary military strategy requires the prevention of anticipated enemy counter-attacks. Iranian Air Force, Navy, Surface to Surface Missile and Air Defence systems would not be left intact. Although one option may be to leave regular Iranian armed forces intact and attack to destroy the regime including Revolutionary Guard, Basij and religious police. In this way regime change might be encouraged.

-President Bush will not again lay himself open to the charge of using too little force.

-US policy is regime change by political means and prevention of nuclear weapons acquisition by all means. The only logic for restraint once war begins will be continued pressure on Iran to acquiesce to US demands through intra-war deterrence.

-Long term prevention of Iranian WMD programmes may require regime change and the reduction of Iran to a weak or failed state, since all assumptions concerning attacks on WMD sites alone conclude that Iran would merely be held back a few years.

-US military preparations and current operations against Iran indicate a full-spectrum approach to Iran rather than one confined to WMD sites alone.

Isn’t war unthinkable?

"There's a strong sense in the upper echelons of the White House that Iran is going to surface relatively quickly as a major issue - in the country and the world - in a very acute way," said NBC TV's Tim Russert after meeting the President in January 2007.2

The political context as seen from inside the White House is that we are in a war as serious as the Second World War. John Bolton exemplified this outlook when he compared US problems in Iraq with the fighting with Japan after Pearl Harbour.
There are eight arguments currently in circulation that deny the idea of a looming war. How do they stand up?

First, is it likely that Iran will “do a Libya” – open all its facilities to United Nations inspectors, and surrender any illicit weapons along with its missile programmes? Such a policy would command little support amongst the Iranian public, let alone within the political-religious leadership. While the United States refuses to offer any form of security guarantee to Iran, and indeed is actively engaged in attempts to undermine Iranian authorities, this possibility seems extremely remote. The refusal of the White House to consider an Iranian offer to join the Arab League Beirut Declaration and consider recognition of Israel indicates that at least at that time that the White House was not even prepared to accept such an opening from Iran.

Second, will the European Union succeed in brokering a compromise in which Iran fully satisfies the International Atomic Energy Agency ’s inspectors, the United States and Israel? Privately and not so privately, senior US officials – such as vice-president Dick Cheney, newly appointed undersecretary of state Robert S Joseph, and onetime United Nations ambassador John Bolton – deride the EU’s efforts as futile.

Third, are the military obstacles too great to permit a successful US attack on Iran? This may turn out to be the case. However for Washington – and indeed for Israel – this conclusion is literally unthinkable. The military strategy adopted under President Bush’s father, continued under President Clinton and accelerated under the current administration, is based on the idea that the US should have “full spectrum dominance” of all aspects of warfare and be so far ahead that, in the words of the current national security strategy, any state will be “dissuaded” from even trying to compete. An attack on Iran would have to take into consideration a number of risks. But from the perspective of those considering a military option, Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons merely makes all of these problems harder – and in that sense provides an additional argument for pre-emptive action. Perhaps more importantly, none of the arguments made about the consequences of an attack on Iraq – whether or not they proved true – influenced the decision to go to war; some, such as the need to provide enough troops to prevent the outbreak of disorder, were simply ignored.

Fourth, it is sometimes claimed that the US does not have enough troops to attack Iran. But the US Army is engaged in a reorganisation to provide more frontline forces from headquarters and training units, and in any case US Air Force and Navy offensive forces are available for the task of attacking Iran, as they have little role in fighting the insurgency.

Army overstretch from long-term deployments in Iraq is a significant problem, but providing forces for a short duration war (following the pattern of the initial invasion of Iraq) would be much less of a problem. Iran has little ability for conventional military attack outside its own territory, allowing the US considerable scope to sit back and await internal developments after the type of attacks described in this paper.

As John Pike of the indispensable globalsecurity.org puts it: “they think that they can just blow up what they want to blow up and let the ant-heap sort itself out afterwards.”

Fifth, it is argued that the Iranians may have hidden their activities in inaccessible parts of their huge country. This is likely to be the case – though whether these are banned WMD programmes or permitted activities is an open question. However, as Seymour Hersh writes in the New Yorker , special forces have long been in Iran preparing the target list. He may be wrong on the detail, but as we discuss below there is considerable evidence of US action inside Iran. An aerial attack would not involve a ground invasion and would leave the Iranians to pick up the pieces. Even a limited duration ground incursion from Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Iraq and onto the Iranian coast could cause significant damage to the government, rendering any reconstruction of nuclear activities much more difficult.

Sixth, could the Iranians cause immense trouble with Iraq’s Shi’a community and through Hezbollah with Israel? Perhaps, but how much stronger would Iran’s hand be if it was believed to have nuclear weapons? Moreover, the Iraqi Shi’a did not collectively defect to Tehran’s side during the Iran-Iraq war, and may be more concerned to develop their own interests than to be drawn into a new war. The present US pressure on Syria in Lebanon is partly related to Syria’s alleged involvement with the Iraq insurgency, but it can also be seen as isolating Hezbollah and clearing the way for action against it, prior to or in conjunction with an attack on Iran.

Iran’s military has considerable experience drawn from the long war with Iraq in the 1980s. It has, no doubt, closely watched US military tactics around its borders. It certainly retains some options to launch counter-missile attacks on Israel, as well as at the US navy and US bases along the Persian Gulf – from Kuwait to Bahrain and the straits of Hormuz. At the same time, the US armed forces have been preparing for this contingency for many years and it would be hard to be the military commander telling President Bush that Iran is just not “doable”. As the former counter-terror official Richard Clarke has written, a second-world-war-style advance by US armies to Tehran from the Gulf coast is not possible, but this is not part of the planning anyway.

Seventh, wouldn’t a war with Iran cost too much and risk plunging the US into recession? US conservatives are quick to point out that as a percentage of gross domestic product, US military spending is barely half the Reagan-era peak of 6.5% of GDP; and of course, military spending is the one Keynesian tool of economic policy that conservatives permit themselves. However, as an analysis by ING indicates, there would be significant economic costs to a war, including oil at the $85 per barrel level, and further damage to an already weakened dollar.

Eighth, would US public opinion and US politicians prevent the war? There are few who would come to the defence of what is widely seen as a fanatical religious state that repeatedly calls for the end of the state of Israel. Both Hilary Clinton and and Barak Obama are prepared to attack Iran if necessary, the Congress recently refused to insist on being consulted before any attack on Iran. The only consistent opposition comes from members of past administrations, such as Jimmy Carter’s national Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who earlier this year described an attack on Iran as ‘unilateral war’ and ‘impeachable’, not to mention counter to US interests and the establishment of security in the region.

A low intensity war already exists, nuclear weapons use is under active consideration but most unlikely as militarily ineffective and political disastrous, major conventional strikes become “the moderate option”. The US has the power and apparent plans to implement its 2002-2006 National Security Strategy and National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction; use Full Spectrum Dominance to conduct Shock and Awe and Escalation Dominance, minimising Iranian retaliatory capability and rendering Israeli action superfluous except to contain or eliminate Hizbollah and Hamas.

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