Sunday, November 18, 2007

What If the US Attacked Iran?

Reading an article What if the US Bombed Iran from the San Francisco Chronicle:

In recent days, I have spoken to a half-dozen Iran experts from across the ideological spectrum, including several Iranians. And while opinions diverge on some key issues, I found important areas of consensus. For one, Iran, unlike Syria, would face an unambiguous political imperative to strike back.

"They would feel a lot of pressure to respond - for their own political survival," said Vali R. Nasr, an Iranian scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations.

What form that would take is a matter of debate, but most of the experts suggest it would be subtle, indirect. The mullahs who rule Iran would not want to give Bush a blatant excuse to launch a "shock and awe" bombing campaign over Tehran. And for all the bluster coming out of Iran right now, "I don't think it would be anything like the Iranians are predicting," Bolton added. On that point there is wide agreement.

Count me outside of the wide agreement.

I don't believe there will be an attack in the near future, meaning the rest of the Bush term and the next US presidential term. So I don't expect that my prediction on this issue can be tested.

When the first explosions are reported in Iran, the Iranians will not know that this is a limited strike. In fact, most likely there would not be a strike of under 20 or so targets because at minimum, the US would aim to take out Iran's air defense systems.

A general attack on Iran means that Iran's missiles are in a use them or lose them situation and I can't think of any possible reason why Iran would not launch everything it can at targets in Israel, Iraq, the Gulf and other regional countries with US bases.

I don't see how Iran could be made to trust a US communication that the current attack is limited and does not warrant a full response.

US soldiers in Iraq and the region would be in or getting to bomb shelters. Iran would take US soldiers going to shelters at the same time as at least a reason to go to high alert and would certainly know about it. So the initial bombing would cause a significant but limited amount of US deaths in the bases.

A few missiles would be shot at Israel. Not enough to cause military-level damage but enough to make a statement. A small number of Israeli deaths would occur, possibly more Arabs than Jews, but maybe the opposite.

The Chronicle claims that Iran would not attack Israel because Ahmadinejad is already popular in the Arab street. This is a totally bizarre argument that relies on a common misconception of Iran's motives in opposing Zionism. Ahmadinejad is not playing to the Arab street. He is doing what he sees as the right thing. If he is playing to a street, it is the Iranian street. The mainstream Iranian view on Israel is that it is an illegitimate state and Zionism is an illegitimate political movement. Polls consistently show that, like the rest of the Middle East, 70 to 90 percent of the Iranian population shares this view.

Israel could retaliate if it wants. But is it going to add the five fighter-bombers that it could get into the area to the hundreds that the US already has there? What would be the point except to validate the argument Iran's leadership makes firstly to its own people and also to the rest of the region that it is the victim of an attack on Islam by the West that uses Israel as a focal point? Any Israeli response to Iran's attack just would not figure into Iranian calculations.

I don't expect an attack. But if there was to be an attack I expect the sequence to be:

  1. Major US strike on Iranian targets that looks like the opening airstrikes of the 1991 Gulf War. Probably hitting at least some highly sympathetic targets like children's hospitals and things. Several thousand Iranian civilian deaths.
  2. Major Iranian attack on US targets in the region plus Israel. Iran is aiming for at least five hundred dead US soldiers. If it gets lucky it could beat that substantially.
  3. US control of Iranian airspace. Communications targets in Iran taken out, severely limiting, but not destroying Tehran's ability to issue orders throughout the country.
  4. Iran periodically launching missiles from Iranian territory to various targets. Iran's leadership decentralizing with local republican guards killing any prospective collaborators.
  5. A substantial ramping up of attacks on US troops in Iraq and in Afghanistan rendering the US troops in both countries unable to protect themselves at current manpower levels.
  6. The US either begins a draft, to watch an anti-war candidates win by landslides until the US leaves the region or skips that step and just leaves the region.

The Chronicle presents arguments that Iraqis would not increase their attacks on Americans after a bombing that strike me as delusional. The people in Basra don't like Iran? Does that mean that the ruling Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (later cosmetically renamed SIIC?) does not like the product of the Islamic Revolution in Iran? Or does it mean they'll turn to Sadr, who in a press conference in Tehran, asked by an Iranian military officer two years ago how he would respond to an attack on Iran said that his Mahdi Army is an army not just for Iraq but for all of Islam and that he'd retaliate for an attack? Or does it mean they'll listen to Sistani - who turned down Iraqi citizenship saying he was born an Iranian, he will die an Iranian?

Please don't let anyone tell you that any large group of native Iraqis, even the Sunnis, like the Americans more than they like the Iranians. Anyway, Iran does not have to order attacks to increase. Iran can just stop ordering the recipients of its arms not to use them on Americans, which Iran is doing now just for the purpose of keeping a deterrent reserve.

I don't see the US actually committing ground troops to invade Iran at any point. Iran will try its hardest to provoke the Americans to come in though. I also don't see the US withstanding the increased casualties in Iraq and remaining there for two years after the attack. Iran would be able to declare Mission Accomplished relatively quickly. This would not be an 8 year Iran/Iraq war.

When the issue is resolved, Iran is certainly going to be in a far stronger position in the Middle East than it is today. It will rebuild Tehran. Hussein rebuilt Baghdad under a degree of sanctions that the US will never get for Iran. An attack would also eventually put an unbearable amount of stress on the US relationship with Israel.

An observation is that there is no policy the US can undertake to regain the dominance of the Middle East it had in 2002. The US choices are between a slow slide and a fast slide out of power in the region. Not only does a slow slide prolong the benefits the US currently gets from dominance of the region, but it gives time for unexpected events that may be favorable to the US to occur.

The difference is so great between the expected outcomes of slow slide policies versus fast slide policies such as bombing that no plausible US strategic community could enact fast slide policies. The US can talk about a fast-slide policy like attacking Iran. And it can hope Iran and other audiences such as Europe, Russia, China and Gulf States feel pressure from that talk. But to actually bomb Iran would require the United States to be a different country than it is.

No comments: