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The countdown to war

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Paul Rogers
5 April 2006

In the months before the start of the Iraq war in March 2003, most commentators expected that the developing crisis would end in some kind of diplomatic settlement, and that war would be averted. But not everyone took this view, and a few specialists attempted to assess the likely outcome of the United States's infliction of "regime termination" on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Among them were some experienced analysts at the US army war college, who pointed to the difficulties of any post-war occupation and the probability of an insurgency developing against occupying troops.

The views of such dissidents (a term appropriate in the context of the overwhelming balance of opinion at the time) were ignored, and the Iraq war went ahead with the results now evident in the daily stories of shattered lives and polarised communities.

Today's equivalents of the more sober and far-sighted analysts of Iraq in 2002-03 are equally clear about the consequences of a war with Iran. Indeed, several studies suggest that Iran's military capability to create problems for the United States and any coalition partners might make the outcome there even more violent (see "Iran, the real focus", 16 February 2006).

Iran's ability to react, especially in terms of asymmetric warfare undertaken at a distance, is likely to be far more potent than that of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, with recent reports from the United States supporting the view that paramilitary attacks would extend beyond the middle east (see Dana Priest, "Attacking Iraq May Trigger Terrorism", Washington Post, 2 April 2006).

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The prospect of an Iran war leading to even greater problems than those faced in Iraq might be thought to be recommend caution to the George W Bush administration, especially in light of the widespread view – reinforced by the flurry of discussion around Francis Fukuyama's new book America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy – that the broader neo-conservative agenda is in retreat.

But this commonly stated position fails to recognise that the concern about Iran as a threat to United States security stretches well beyond the neo-conservatives. A much wider swathe of foreign-policy opinion, often termed the "assertive nationalists", sees Iran as a consistent threat to US interests in the immensely important, oil-bearing Persian Gulf region. This outlook includes significant figures within the Democratic Party such as Hillary Clinton, and it links up with the pro-Israel lobby whose interest-base encompasses millions of evangelical Christians.

This means that the current defensiveness of the neo-conservative position should not be confused with a decline in the willingness of the Bush administration to take on Iran. The importance of separating them is underlined in a perceptive commentary in the journal Foreign Policy by Joseph Cirincione, director for non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an astute observer of the Washington scene ("Fool me Twice", 27 March 2006).

Cirincione says that the uncanny similarities between the pre-Iraq war period and the present ratcheting up of tension over Iran have forced him to change his mind about the likelihood of war, after months of telling interviewers "that no senior or military official was seriously considering a military attack on Iran". He notes the way in which the US administration is increasingly presenting Iran as the key threat to the region can no longer be dismissed as posturing, but may rather "be a coordinated campaign to prepare the way for a military strike on Iran".

Moreover, Washington now declares Iran to be the main state sponsor of terrorism, just as it targeted Saddam Hussein's Iraq in 2002; it makes repeated claims of Iranian interference in the Iraq war; and – perhaps the most significant element of the rhetorical assault – says that Iran's uranium-enrichment research is approaching a point of no return within a matter of months.

A few days after Cirincione's piece was published, the Sunday Telegraph reported that British military chiefs were meeting to consider the consequences of a US strike on Iran. The paper presenting a detailed assessment, including striking graphics, of what an attack would entail. Although officials immediately denied the story, the paper's reportedly close links with the security establishment gives at least some credence as to its accuracy (see Sean Rayment, "Government in secret talks about strike against Iran", Sunday Telegraph, 2 April 2006).

Such indications of across-the-board preparations for the consequences of a military showdown with Iran are reflected too in a blunt warning to Tehran on 23 March from Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Iraq, about the risks it took in aiding Shi'a militias in the country. Khalilzad said: "Our judgement is that training and supplying, direct or indirect, takes place, and that there is also provision of financial resources to people, to militias, and that there is presence of people associated with the Revolutionary Guard and with (Iran's ministry of intelligence and security)" (see Jonathan Finer & Ellen Knickmeyer, "Envoy Accuses Iran Of Duplicity on Iraq", Washington Post, 24 March 2006),

The mention of the ministry of intelligence and security is significant in that this department is widely recognised as a power-base of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG), the most radical component of the Iranian security forces. The US-led coalition in Iraq has, for example, long seen the sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which have caused them such damage as evidence of IRG involvement. Thus, Khalilzad's naming of the ministry implies that the Tehran government is helping sustain the Iraqi insurgency and adds the US government's weight to the view that Ahmadinejad's long-term links with the Revolutionary Guard underpin his militant views on foreign policy.

Meanwhile, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard itself is this week carrying out a series of military exercises in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, under the operating name "great prophet". The exercises have been widely reported on Iranian TV, with the IRG's deputy commander Rear-Admiral Ali Fadavi even giving interviews to foreign journalists.

Iranian sources claim that two new weapons have been tested during the week-long project: the Fajr-3 multiple warhead missile, and an underwater anti-ship weapon (the Hoot [Whale]) said to be capable of travelling at more than 300 kilometres per hour underwater – more than three times as fast as a conventional torpedo. If true, this would be an astonishing breakthrough in weapons technology.

In reality, it is probable that the performance is being massively over-hyped. But this is less important than the fact that the Revolutionary Guard has chosen this very time to conduct the exercises and test new weapons. The purpose is threefold: strategic (to remind the United States of Iran's capacity to disrupt the oil routes through the Straits of Hormuz), psychological (to build a "war mood" in Iran), and political (to strengthen the IRG's position in Iranian society, and perhaps to divert attention from the Ahmadinejad government's domestic economic failures).

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris
(October 2005)

On the perimeter

None of this means that war with Iran is imminent. Moreover, the gradual escalation of tension may even mislead: any US attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would be far more likely to be sudden and unexpected than (as in Iraq) the result of a slow build-up of forces. This is because the assault would be conducted almost entirely by aircraft and stand-off missiles rather than ground troops, and any extra US units needed to supplement the extensive forces already in the region could be unobtrusively moved there.

The huge advantage of surprise is needed in order to cripple Iranian air defences and – the principal aim of the attack – destroy a wide range of nuclear facilities and kill as many of the scientists, engineers and technicians as possible. Any advance warning to Iran would enable the Iranians to disperse these people and indeed key equipment in advance.

The critical requirement of avoiding aircrew casualties or prisoners means that a key component of US action would be a strong dependence on the B-2 long-range stealth-bomber. This plane can carry sixteen individually-targeted, highly accurate bombs; thus, a single aircraft can attack sixteen separate targets in just one operation. The basing of the B-2 far from the region is useful in preserving secrecy, but the plane's dependence on specialised servicing equipment to maintain its "stealth" radar-avoidance ability puts the only four bases worldwide where these are available at an absolute premium.

These four bases are in the United States itself, Guam (Pacific), Diego Garcia (Indian Ocean), and RAF Fairford (Gloucestershire, England). The stealth support facilities already available in the first three locations were joined by Fairford, a major United States air force (Usaf) standby base, in December 2004. This serves as a forward operating facility, especially for heavy bombers such as the B-1B, the B-2 and the B-52. In the approach to the Iraq war, Usaf's 457th air expeditionary wing was based at Fairford; fourteen B-52s flew in from Minot (North Dakota) and deployed there for seven weeks while conducting more than a hundred bombing sorties over Iraq.

Fairford underwent a major two-year development and reconstruction programme, completed in May 2002. Another building project started barely a year later to equip the base with a specialised hangar to accommodate the B-2; the fifteen months since its it came into operation have seen occasional visits by individual planes (the B-2's immense costs and specialised facilities means that only twenty-one have been built and perhaps only fifteen can be deployed at any one time).

The need for an element of surprise in any attack on Iran makes it difficult to gauge exactly when it might be imminent. Fairford offers the possibility of two tangible advance signals. The first is a more coordinated presence of B-2s at the base. It is probable that training for an attack would involve deployments of B-2 aircraft there for a few days at a time, to familiarise air and ground crew with the details of combat operations from a new base. It is likely that the first such exercise took place last week when three B-2s flew into Fairford within a few days in what appears to be the first orchestrated deployment of this kind. This may well be an indicator of training now underway.

The second signal is a sudden increase in base security at Fairford, including the policing of an extended cordon and closure of local roads to minimise any external observation of activities there. If and when that happens, the countdown to war with Iran will almost certainly be well underway. The moment may arrive at any time in the next year or more, quite possibly when it is least expected.

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