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Targeting Iran

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
6 July 2005

The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran on 24 June is not an easy event for Washington to digest. The more convinced neo-conservatives find it especially difficult. The assumption on the American right has been that Iran is ripe for internally fomented regime change, with all that is required to bring people onto the streets being a perceived chance of success.

The United States can plausibly present Ahmadinejad as a hardline theocrat, and the Iran he leads as more dangerous than it would have been under the canny pragmatist he defeated, Hashemi Rafsanjani. The problem for the US right is that Ahmadinejad clearly has extensive popular support, and his sizeable victory cannot be explained away by any electoral irregularities (see Fred Halliday’s openDemocracy article, “Iran’s revolutionary spasm”).

Ahmadinejad has defended Iran’s right to develop its civil nuclear-power programme, and in this too he is supported by much of the Iranian population (see “Confident Iran”, 10 March 2005). The reported resignation of Iran’s nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, makes it more likely that talks with the “EU3” (France, Germany and Britain) will not produce a solution acceptable to Washington.

In that case, any subsequent referral of the issue to the United Nations Security Council will face Chinese support for Iran, evidenced in the increasingly close economic links between the two countries (see “Iran’s nuclear politics”, 2 December 2004). Moreover, Tony Blair’s domestic political pressures would make it difficult for him to support another war. As a result, the United States would have to go it alone.

The US neo-conservatives would be unfazed: their clear-cut view (virtually synonymous with that of the Israelis) is that Iran cannot be allowed to develop a civil nuclear-power programme, let alone nuclear weapons; Tehran must be stopped, by military means if necessary.

America’s temptation

It is a difficult decision for the Bush administration, already mired in troubles in Iraq and Afghanistan, and facing the challenge of preparing American opinion for yet another conflict. But other factors work in its favour. The Iranian hostage crisis in 1980 is still etched into the American psyche; it would be easy enough to represent Iran as a potential nuclear threat and to condemn its support for terrorism; and there remains a deep well of support for Israel in the United States – reinforced by their shared views over Iran’s military ambitions.

What all this means is that the risk of a US confrontation with Iran remains. It may even be time-limited by the need to act well before next year’s mid-term elections to Congress and before the Bushehr nuclear power station begins to get its uranium fuel rods – with the consequent risk of a Chernobyl-type disaster from a subsequent bombing raid.

The US neocons still talk about the need for wholesale regime change in Iran, but they also recognise that military action to such an end would have to be substantial. It would involve attacks on the leadership, and the bombing of economic targets as well as destruction of a range of nuclear facilities, airfields, air defences, missile production plants and missiles already deployed. It would also even involve US troops on the ground, given the presumption that this time they really would be welcomed by cheering crowds in Tehran.

The political realities of Iraq make this prospect seem absurd, but it is worth noting that the more hawkish US commentators believe Iraq went wrong because the US military has been too constrained from using force against the insurgents. During the second Fallujah assault in November 2004, Mackubin Thomas Owens of the Naval War College, wrote that the Fallujah tactics had to be applied to all major urban centres of insurgency if it was to be brought under control (Mackubin Thomas Owens, “Two, Three, Many Fallujas”, The Weekly Standard, 6 December 2004).

Some on the American right certainly advocate regime change in Iran, but post-election realities in Iran and Bush’s troubles in Washington make a narrower military option more likely: concerted attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities, missiles, air defences and air fields, together with any anti-ship missiles currently deployed close to the key oil shipment route through the Straits of Hormuz.

This might not lead to regime change but it would set back Iran’s military developments by several years. At the same time, some kind of Iranian military response would be almost inevitable and this would enable the United States to escalate an air war against a much wider range of targets.

What has to be factored in is that the US air force and the US navy are not experiencing the strains and tension that exist in the army and marine corps through the “overstretch” caused by Iraq and Afghanistan. Substantial elements of the air force and also the navy’s carrier-based air power are readily available for action against Iran. They do not currently have sufficient forces available in the region, but these could be deployed within perhaps six weeks of an attack being ordered.

Israel’s determination

All this means that US action against Iran is still possible, is made rather more likely by Ahmadinejad’s election, and could come at any time in the next twelve months. More immediately, though, an attack by Israel is becoming relatively more likely.

Ariel Sharon’s government is simply not prepared to have Iran get anywhere near a nuclear-weapons capability, nor is it prepared to allow Iran to develop an integrated civil nuclear-power fuel cycle. It is also increasingly concerned over Iran’s recent developments in missile technology, especially the reported testing of a solid-fuel rocket motor for the Shahab-3 medium-range missile (see David Isenberg, “Iran’s missiles on a solid footing”, Asia Times, 10 June 2005).

All of Iran’s current medium-range missiles are essentially 1950s-vintage Scud derivatives with liquid fuel motors that are difficult to prepare and even more difficult to maintain in a condition to launch. Solid-fuel rockets are far more reliable, can be stored in remote places away from fuelling points and can be maintained at a high state of readiness. They are therefore difficult to find and destroy. In combination with any kind of nuclear-weapons programme, Iran could develop a deterrent capability that would make it very difficult for either the United States or Israel to interfere in its affairs.

The problem for Israel is that destroying Iran’s nuclear and missile facilities is a much bigger military operation than the single air raid on Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear research reactor back in June 1981. What would be involved now would be several days of raids against targets in many parts of the country. On the other hand, their military strategy could be more limited than anything the more powerful United States military might envisage yet still have a useful effect from Israel’s perspective.

For a start, the Israelis would be far less concerned about the Straits of Hormuz, calculating that if Iran tried to close the straits in response to an Israeli attack, the United States would take vigorous counter-action against any threatening Iranian forces. Neither do the Israelis anticipate any kind of regime change in Iran in response to attacks from themselves or the Americans. They are far more realistic about internal Iranian politics and are aware that any military action would increase Iranian nationalist fervour, as well as support for the existing regime.

Israel has altogether more modest aims – the destruction of any facilities that could contribute to the development of nuclear weapons and the destruction of Iranian missiles and their production facilities. There is no expectation that any attacks would have long-term effects – all they would be seeking is a few years of delay, with the possibility of further attacks in the future. From their perspective, though, they might also have the added bonus of the Iranians retaliating against US facilities in the region, bringing the United States into a bigger conflict and at least ending up with substantial damage to the Iranian economy.

Until recently, the Israeli air force would have been hard pressed to even consider an attack on Iran, given that this would involve air strikes over a number of days at a range far greater than that of the Osiraq raid. What has changed is the systematic re-equipping of the Israeli air force with new longer-range US-built strike aircraft. One of these is the F-15I, a derivative of the American F-15E Strike Eagle. Israel has around twenty-five of these large and powerful planes that have a combat radius of 2,225 kilometres. Israel is also building up a fleet of over 100 of the smaller F-16I strike aircraft, a variant fitted with large conformal fuel tanks that give it a combat radius of 2,100 kilometres.

Most of the potential targets in Iran are within 1,500 kilometres of Israel and almost all are within 2,000 kilometres. Furthermore, Israel has a fleet of US C-130 Hercules transport aircraft modified for air-to-air refuelling and there are reports that it has been loaned some US KC-135 tanker aircraft. Israel also has a substantial number of redundant F-4 Phantom aircraft and some of these may have been modified to produce pilot-less strike aircraft. All in all, Israel certainly has the capability for sustained air strikes against Iran, with the great majority of the equipment being of US origin. In any case, it would be impossible for Israel to attack Iran without US knowledge and approval, given that the United States has almost total control of the air space between Israel and Iran.

There are two further reasons why we should look to Israel rather than the United States. One is that any raid on Iran would be a massive and politically desirable diversion away from the internal upheavals being caused by the withdrawal from Gaza. The other is that a raid on Iran would almost certainly result in attacks by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, giving the Israeli air force every excuse for a whole series of air raids against Hezbollah facilities, potentially setting it back years as a threat to Israel’s northern territory.

What all this means is that it is dangerous to assume that the increasing problems being experienced by the United States in Afghanistan, and the much greater problems now evident in Iraq mean that Iran is no longer a potential focus for conflict. What may have changed is that the lead candidate for attacking Iran may well have shifted in the past three months from the United States to Israel, and it is just possible that Israeli military action could happen a lot quicker than most people expect.

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