Monday, July 9, 2007

Iran's asymmetrical response options

By Vineyard Saker - an Axis of Logic exclusive

International public opinion is clearly worried about the prospects of a US aggression against Iran and many observers point to the risk to the world economy, of an Iranian attempt to block the Strait of Hormuz. Some also fear that Iran might sink a US aircraft carrier using some combination of missiles, submarines and small attack craft. It also is often suggested that Israel could become the first victim of such an Iranian counter-attack and that Iran could “rain missiles on Israel”. To be sure, most of these are possible Iranian responses, as unlikely as this may be. However, there are good reasons to doubt that the Iranian leadership would choose to respond to a US attack in that way.

One of the Planet's Most Vital Waterways, the Strait of Hormuz Has Iran on One Side, and the Gulf States of the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the Other.

The Strait of Hormuz Option

First, let's consider the “Strait of Hormuz” option. In a previous article called How they might do it, I outlined how the Pentagon could try to wage war on Iran while preventing the Iranians from shutting down the Strait of Hormuz:

"The first phase would begin by 2-3 days of combined cruise missile and air strikes. The aim would be to degrade, as much as possible, Iranian C3I capabilities and more importantly, to isolate the Iranian coastal areas from the main command centers and resupply routes. This degradation of Iranian air defense capabilities would be followed by intense bombardments and strikes all along the Iranian coast and the straight of Hormuz, combined with an effort to destroy all Iranian Kilo-class, advanced diesel, attack submarines. It's reasonable to expect "boots on the ground" *before* this phase will have been completed: U.S. Marines forces with Navy and Air Force Forward Air Controllers would land at key positions along the coast and surround pockets of resistance. Once beachheads have been secured, US Army troops would land heavy equipment and establish forward bases. The end goal of this first phase would be to control (but not necessarily occupy) most (but not necessarily all) of the Iranian coast, with the hope of protecting the Persian-Arabian Sea lines of communications from a threat of Iranian attack. This goal would need to be reached within 4-6 weeks to achieve the desired effect."

Once enough counter-battery capabilities have been concentrated along the coast (and to a depth of about 10-20km depending on terrain) and once Iranian active/passive detection capabilities have been sufficiently degraded, the USA could announce that the sea lanes are safe, open and protected from any further strikes.

The second phase would include strikes at the "national infrastructure" (read: terrorizing the civilian population into submission with the invader’s hope that the people would revolt against their leaders) and proactive support for various anti-government forces (Kurds, etc.) and an air/land/sea blockade against the remaining part of Iran. This second phase could be sustained for a very long time. In another article entitled Pentagon plans according to Scott Ritter (and the Saker), I added:

"The Strait of Hormuz is indeed narrow, and Iran does have mines and missiles capable of striking tankers in the strait. Iran also has very good Kilo-class Russian submarines which, in many ways, are better suited to coastal and 'green water' operations than AmericanSSNs. The problem is targeting: in terms of weapon- reach, the Strait of Hormuz is tiny, in terms of targeting it is huge."

To deploy mines Iran can use either small craft or submarines. The US Navy is, however, more than capable of finding and destroying such mine-laying craft. Missiles need to be fed targeting data, you cannot just shoot them across the strait and hope to hit a tanker, and in the event of an attack, this is exactly where the US Navy will lay down a huge electronic warfare blanket on the entire waterway combining both electronic countermeasures (such as jamming) and strikes (with anti-radiation missiles). Lastly, the Iranians could use coastal artillery (anything fromMRL to dug-in artillery positions). This is were the 17000 Navy Personnel currently sitting off the Persian coast come in: by physically taking over key sections of the Iranian coast and a number of islands in the strait, the US Navy would hope to make it much harder for the Iranians to close down the traffic. Once the strait is declared "safe", the Empire could then take its time to beat the Iranian "regime" (in US parlance all the governments not controlled by the White House are "regimes") into surrender or, as the Neocons always hope, to trigger a popular revolt against the "Mullahs" (again, US parlance for anybody inside the Iranian government).

This strategy would “work” in a narrow sense: it would keep the sea lines of communications (SLOC) open. In a broader sense however, I think that this strategy is based on a number of mistaken assumptions, two of the main ones are the probable length of the conflict and the likely Iranian responses to a US aggression. I will return to this issue in a moment, but first let us look at the other two options which seem to worry so many pundits in the West.

Attacking a U.S. Carrier

Could Iran really sink a US carrier? To answer this question we need to remember what the US Navy's strategy was during the Cold War.

U.S. War Ships off the coast of Iran, May, 2007

Among other things, the US had decided that in case of war with the Soviet Union in Europe it was important, in fact crucial, to protect the SLOCs across the Atlantic and that in order to do that US aircraft carrier battle groups would need to be positioned in the North Atlantic, right across the (then) Soviet Kola Peninsula. The basic goal of this strategy was to “bring the fight to the Soviets” and to prevent them from flushing their submarines down into the Atlantic. This strategy would have required the US Navy to station its aircraft carrier within striking distance of Soviet supersonic bombers armed with advanced supersonic cruise missile (equipped with either conventional or even nuclear warheads). It was assumed that these bombers would be guided by AWACS aircraft and lurking submarines (themselves armed with deadly anti-ship cruise missiles and powerful torpedoes) and protected by long range advanced interceptors like the MiG-31 andSU -27. Lastly, it was also assumed that the Soviets would have the use of various kinds of satellites which would make it possible for them to track US naval forces. In other words, the US Navy trained for literally decades for an environment far more dangerous than anything the Iranians could ever hope to muster.

Truth be told, as a military analyst, I personally always considered this strategy to be utter folly - the kind of typical imperial hubris of the Reagan era, and so did many other analysts (including in the US Navy itself). Many told me, off the record, that saturation attacks by Soviet bombers had been simulated and that these simulations had consistently shown how vulnerable the US carriers would have been, had such a forward-deployed strategy actually been implemented. Some added that the US Navy commanders were not stupid and that such a strategy would never actually have been used in case of war. But politics and warfare are two very different arts, and at least officially the US Navy was planning to do just that and therefore, it practiced for this type of high-risk environment. A lot. So unless the US Navy is ordered to do something really insane, there is simply no way that the Iranians could come anywhere near theUSN's high value ships (which would be kept well away from the Iranian cost or the Strait of Hormuz itself anyway). The entire idea of Iran sinking a US carrier is in the realm of fantasy, not real naval warfare.

Rain of Missiles on Israel

That leaves the “rain of missiles on Israel” option. I would not totally discount the possibility of Iran sending a couple of missiles at TelAviv in retaliation for any Israeli participation in a US aggression on their country. This, however, would be a purely symbolic political gesture, and not a war fighting strategy. The Iranians fully understand that no military or political advantage could result for them from inflicting heavy damage or casualties on Israel. Simply put, Iran is not Hezbollah and Iran does have the sheer number of missiles which Hezbollah had last summer (and still has nowadays). For Hezbollah, shooting short range Katusha missiles on Israel made perfectly good sense as it forced the population of the northern third of the country to either hide in shelters of flee their homes, thereby extracting a heavy economic and political price from the Israelis for their war on Lebanon. Iran, in contrast, does not have the same number of missiles capable of firing into Israel and its missiles would be far better used elsewhere (more about that in a moment).

Hezbollah, of course, could start firing its many missiles at Israel just as it did last summer and it is certain that if Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah AliKhamenei made this request, Hezbollah would act on it: it is often mistakenly claimed that the spiritual leader of Hezbollah is Sayyid Hussein Fadlallah. That is not so. Hezbollah is a general movement and its Secretary General, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, in particular, are followers of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They recognize him, and not Fadlallah, as the real supreme religious authority. However, it is my guess that Iranian leaders would keep such an option in store, if only because they have a choice of several far more effective options.

Broadly speaking, we see the Neocon Empire has having two options in an attack on Iran:

  1. A short, limited, attack on some Iranian nuclear and government installations. The goals of that kind of attack would be solely political: to appear to have “done something”, give the despondent Americans and Israelis some flags to wave, to “show resolve” and “send a firm message” - the kind of State Department nonsense. If lucky, they could hope to kill some Iranian leaders (although what exactly that would achieve isanyone's guess). Lastly, it would punish the Iranians for their “bad behavior”.

  2. A more significant military attack, which could not be limited to an air campaign and one which would have to include at least some insertion of ground forces. That would be similar to the strategy outlined in my How they might do it article. The goal of this option would be radically different from the first one:

“to punish the Iranian population for its support of ‘the Mullahs’ (as the expression goes in the USA) via the ballot box. This is exactly the same logic which brought the Israelis to hammer all of Lebanon with bombs, missiles and mines – the same logic by which they killed over 500 people in Gaza - the same logic by which the U.S. bombed all ofr Serbia and Montenegro and the same logic which explains the bizarre embargo of Cuba. The message here is: if you support the bad guys, you will pay for it.”

Iran's response to a US attack would depend upon their analysis of the kind of attack to which they would be subjected in either scenario. The first option (a limited attack on Iran) has strong escalation-inhibiting factors built into it. It would offer the empire the ability of dramatically increasing the pace and nature of its operations against Iran with the second option. If the U.S. began with the second option, the only secondary response it would have would be the use of nuclear weapons. I will address the nuclear option last.

Iranian responses to a short, limited US/Israeli attack

Keeping in mind these two very different situations, let us now look at possible Iranian responses. There are two basic defensive strategies in any situation: denial and punishment. Denial is trying to prevent the enemy from hitting his targets, while punishment is simply payback for any attack.

In the case of a short and limited US/Israeli attack on Iran, the best option for Iran would be paradoxical: to ride out the attack and do nothing besides loud declarations of outrage. Certainly, the Iranians would have to try to use the “denial' response as best they could. For example, use of their (limited) air defenses or the capture of US forward air controllers would have their respective effects! Such action would be similar to what the Serbs did in Bosnia and would not represent more than a nuisance for the Imperial forces.

US already under siege in Iraq: As I write this the US forces in Iraq are already under siege in most of the country. The siege has been particularly effective in Sunni areas of Iraq where the Sunni insurgency has been very successful in its military operations against the occupation forces and its allies. In the Shia areas, there has been relative calm but tremendous tension. Moqtada al-Sadr has refused to be baited by the numerous US attempts to draw the Mahdi Army into a confrontation. In the Basra area the heavily protected US supply lines have been left open by the local Shia population. That, of course, could change overnight. Moqtada al-Sadr has already declared that his Mahdi Army would attack the US forces in Iraq in case of an attack against Iran. There can be no doubt that the Badr Brigades which, unlike the Mehdi Army, are truly extensions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, would also join the Mehdi and Sunni forces into an all out “Yankee hunt”. By comparison, such a maneuver would make the current plight of the US forces seem like a vacation. In such a case, the US resupply lines from Kuwait would be either severely disrupted or totally severed and the US forces in Central Iraq would be cut-off from their main logistical lifeline. The Green Zone and the Baghdad Airport would turn into a bunker under siege and the “surged” US forces would spend most of their time in a totally defensive posture, doing their best to avoid being overrun. Again, for all this to happen the Iranians would not need to do anything at all other than express outrage at being attacked.

Weakness of a limited attack: The primary conceptual weakness of the “short and limited” option is the absence of any viable exit strategy and no clearly defined outcome. The obvious “okay, now that we've bombed the Iranians, what do we do next?” question receives no answer as there would be no incentive whatsoever for the Iranians to do anything at all including no incentive to comply with any official Imperial demands. The US cannot simply bomb Iranian nuclear objectives and some government offices and then expect the Iranians to promise to stop enriching uranium. Even the blindly arrogant Neocons cannot be that naive. Such a limited and short attack would only strengthen the resolve of the Iranian leaders and general population to resist any kind of Imperial demands.

Iranians are tough: A short digression is in order here to restate a well-known, but still often overlooked fact: the Iranians are extremely tough people. Once again, history is the teacher. During the Iran-Iraq war the Iranians, even though their country had been very shaken up by a bloody revolution and much internal turmoil, successfully resisted not only against Iraq, but against all the other countries whose bidding was being executed by Saddam Hussein at that time. The Iraqis had access to US, Soviet and French weapons, to Saudi money, to US satellite data, to US and Israeli intelligence reports while the Iranians were essentially fighting only with their courage, native intelligence and numbers. This war killed more than a million people, most on the Iranian side, but the Iranians still obtained a stalemate. There is exactly nothing the Empire can throw at them today with would “frighten” them, quite to the contrary. The Shias have a saying: “every day is Ashura, every place is Kerbala” which refers to the day (Ashura) and place (the city of Kerbala) of Imam Hussein's martyrdom at the hands of the Caliph Yazid's huge army in 680 and which is understood to mean that every pious Shia Muslim should be willing to die in defense of the truth anytime and anywhere. People like these are simply not going to be intimidated by an Empire whose highest expression of purpose is the “pursuit of happiness”. Last year it took Hezbollah, (who also has this ethos of resistance common to all Shias) less than 2000 fighters to defeat the empire-funded and supplied Israeli army in Lebanon. Iran's armed forces are over 500,000 strong (including at least 100,000 highly trained soldiers) backed by another 350,000 reserves and they can be increased to over 1,000,000 in case of full mobilization. Keep in mind that these are the people who trained Hezbollah in the first place.

In contrast, the Empire has already lost three wars in a row (Lebanon in 2006, Afghanistan and Iraq), has major political problems in Gaza and the Occupied Territories and is already hopelessly overstretched. Last, but not least, a strong majority of the US public opinion is clearly against the war in Iraq and wants a speedy return home of its soldiers. Time would not be on the Empire's side in any scenario.

Iran’s multiple alternatives in the event of a major, sustained US/Israeli war

Let us now look at what could happen in case of a major and sustained US war against Iran.

The Shahab-3 Missile is one of Iran's longest range missiles

Long Range Missiles: Iran would have additional alternatives to cutting-off the SLOCs which are available to the Iranian strategists in the Persian Gulf. The most obvious one would be to actively attack US forces and allies in neighboring countries with their missile forces. Iran has plenty of missiles which could strike at a range of targets including the Green Zone, US installations and forces in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia, Turkey or anywhere on the Arabian Peninsula. For example, one of the longest range Iranian missiles, the Shahab -3, has a range of about 2,100km, enough to reach any country in the Middle-East, and a reported accuracy of this missile is anywhere between 2000 meters to 30 meters (depending on the version). That is enough to precisely hit and destroy even a well protected target. These are definitely not just another longer-range “Scud” type of missile like those fired by Iraq fired into Israel in the first Gulf War. According to some reports, these missiles even have steering nozzles on their re-entry vehicle which make them capable of evasive maneuvers disallowing interception by Patriot-like air defense systems. Considering the utter uselessness of the Patriot missiles used in the first Gulf War, this Shahab-3 capability might look like over-engineering; however, the Patriots have been substantially upgraded and improved since 1991 and would probably perform better nowadays.

The Shahab -3, has a range of about 2,100km, enough to reach any country in the Middle-East, and a reported accuracy of this missile is anywhere between 2000 meters to 30 meters.

Shorter Range Missiles: To hit US forces, Iran would not even need to use such advanced missiles: shorter range missiles could be used to attack US forces in central Iraq and Baghdad and even artillery could be used to engage US forces in the Basra region. In addition, Iranian ground forces could conceivably cross the border and directly engage US forces in southern Iraq. There is no doubt that any such operation would be met by a true firestorm from CENTCOM forces in the region and that there would be huge casualties among Iranian forces. The issue is not punishment, but rather whether CENTCOM could muster enough firepower to deny such an option to Iran. Inflicting heavy casualties upon Iranian forces will feel good, but will not be enough to prevent the fall of Basra and once the Pasdaran take up positions inside Basra (with the help of the local Shia militias) the US lines of supply would be gravely compromised and panic would overcome the Imperial High Command.

The fight in the dog: History is filled with examples of military operations which were deemed “impossible” right up to the moment that they were successfully executed by an unpredictable enemy. As the US saying says:” it is not the size of the dog in the fight, it is the size of the fight in the dog” which determines the outcome of a struggle. It should be remembered here that in 1991 the US dropped the 82nd Airborne in Saudi Arabia with no other option to back them in the event for an Iraqi armored attack across the Saudi border besides using tactical nuclear weapons. What would be Washington's response in case of an Iranian attack on US forces across the border? And what if such an attack is backed by heavy missile strikes against, say, US targets in Kuwait and Baghdad? Again – we will look at the nuclear option later, but we should keep these things in mind as we we consider each alternative.

Foreign Options for Iran: Another Iranian option which has been given no serious consideration would be for them to trigger a major crisis elsewhere, and I am not referring to some “Iranian terrorist attack” on Disneyland or any other such DHS imagined scenario. I am referring to Pakistan, the country which already has nuclear weapons and whose leader, General Musharraf, has already been the target of at least a dozen assassination attempts. All Iran would have to do to trigger a real panic in the Imperial High command would be to either kill or overthrow Musharraf. While it is unclear whether Iran has the means to do the latter, there can be little doubt that Iranian special forces, which are considered some of the very best in the world, could do the former. In fact, the extremely anti-Western Pakistani armed forces, the all-mighty intelligence service (ISI) and the various Salafi militias of Pakistan might even finally succeed in killing Musharraf without any Iranian help. What is certain is that whoever would succeed Musharraf would take an extremely virulent anti-US stance and that the war against the Taliban would immediately turn into a disaster with NATO fighting in Afghanistan and US forces possibly fighting yet another war (whether over or covert) against Pakistan and the various Salafi groups inside the country.

The Saudi Theatre: Iran could also attempt to trigger an insurrection inside Saudi Arabia whose overpaid armed forces are totally inept and whose only real combat force, the National Guard, is entirely dedicated to regime protection, i.e. shooting at civilians. In case of a war with Iran, Saudi Arabia would be totally relying on the USA for national defense. It just so happens that the key Saudi petrochemical targets are in northern Saudi Arabia, very close to Iran - an area where the population is mainly composed of Shia Muslims who have been brutally oppressed by the Saudi Wahabi regime for decades.

The Afghan Theatre: Another place where Iran could create a crisis is Afghanistan where the main political and military force, besides the Taliban, is the so-called Northern alliance. The Northern Alliance has very close ties with Iran. Right now, the Imperial puppet Hamid Karzai has so little power in Afghanistan that he is jokingly called the “mayor of Kabul” where he sits protected by NATO and US Special Forces. Karzai’s only real power base is the Northern Alliance which, while composed of Tadjiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, tolerates this Pashtun “President” and his YSL fashions, only to appease Washington. This can also change overnight.

The Iranians could even bribe, cajole and coerce the Pashtuns and the Northern Alliance to find some modus vivendi as long as NATO is thrown out of Kabul. Afghanistan has a long history of shifting alliances and corrupted leaders and since everybody there hates the Empire anyway (that includes the Northern Alliance leadership who is much closer to Tehran and Moscow than it is to Washington) some kind of deal might not be so hard to broker. You can count on the Iranians to know which strings to pull.

All this simply shows that any US aggression against Iran could have unforeseen consequences for which it is very hard to plan. In its unparalleled incompetence, the Neocon Empire has managed to eliminate all the main obstacles to Iranian hegemony in the Middle-East: Saddam Hussein (ousted!), the Talibans (ousted!) and the US CENTCOM forces now bogged down and highly vulnerable in Iraq and the rest of the region. It is no wonder now that having put all the advantages on Teheran's side the Empire is left with no viable military option against Iran. Which brings up the issue of the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Iran.

A Nuclear Attack on Iran

What would be the advantages of using tactical nuclear weapons against Iran?

Let us consider two situations:

  1. the use of nuclear munitions by Israel

  2. the use of such munitions by the USA (no other country would ever contemplate such folly anyway, not even Britain).

An Israeli nuclear strike

For the Israeli government, a nuclear strike on Iran would have many positive aspects. A nuclear strike by Israel:

  • would not involve the already overstretched US forces (at least not officially);

  • would provide the Olmert administration with a much-needed “victory”;

  • would serve as a show of power and resolve on the part of the humiliated Israeli military and

  • would cater to the dearly held belief by many Israelis that “Arabs only understand force” (nevermind that the Iranians are Persians, not Arabs).

The political price for Israel to pay for such an aggression would really be minimal:

Israel is already the most hated country on the planet and the only country whose public opinion would matter to the Israeli leaders would be the USA where the mantric repetitions of the word “Holocaust”, “new Hitler” and “existential threat” will immediately “bring on board” the entire US corporate media and all of Congress. The American public might not be fully convinced this time, but since the Neocons have an iron grip on both political parties the public would have little to say about it.

The main problem for Israel is that it can only execute a very limited nuclear strike which, while possibly destroying some deeply buried Iranian installation or killing some Iranian leaders, would really fail to achieve anything significant beyond the short-term. Horrible as this may sound, an Israeli nuclear strike on Iran would probably be a combination of psychotherapy for its hapless leaders and of a public relations gambit for the confused and frustrated Israeli population. I really doubt that the Israeli military commanders would go along with that even if the political leadership demands it.

A U.S. nuclear strike

A nuclear strike by the USA would be of a much different nature. For one thing, it could be part of an overall military strategy aimed at destroying some very hardened targets (leadership, nuclear or other). Of course, nobody in the White House actually believes that Iran is developing nuclear weapons right under the noses of the IAEA inspectors – that kind of nonsense is only for public consumption. However, destroying high-value civilian nuclear objectives could very much be a part of a campaign aimed at bombing Iran “back to the stone age” (to use James Baker's threat to Tarek Aziz in 1991). Not only that, I would not put it past the Neocons to assume that somehow the use of nuclear weapons would scare the Iranians into submission. At the very least, such a use of nuclear weapons would serve as a “firm sign of resolve to the Iranian Mollahs”. No matter how misguided such a logic might seem pragmatically, the Neocons have repeatedly shown their skills at denying the obvious (just getting bogged down in Iraq will probably be consigned into history books as the single worst foreign policy decision in US history).

Unlike Israel, the USA is not the most hated nation on earth (it only holds the second position). Nonetheless, there are huge political risks for the Neocons in using nuclear weapons against Iran. While I personally predict a rather typically lame European response to a US aggression against Iran, the European public opinion would, I believe, react with such a level of outrage at a non-provoked nuclear attack on any nation on earth that EU leaders would have to strongly react or find themselves in a massive political crisis. The same goes for Asia and South America where a US nuclear strike on Iran would trigger a political chain reaction which would immensely damage US interests. Simply put, if Israel can rely on the USA to unconditionally bail it out from any crisis, who will bail out the USA?

While I do believe that a US nuclear attack on Iran is a possibility, I am also quite confident that such an attack would also result in a general political, economic and even military collapse of the Neocon Empire. Currently, while most of the world hates the USA, this hatred is still primarily directed at the person of Bush The Lesser and his administration. Should the USA actually ever be the first to use nuclear weapons in any war, the entire USA, as a nation, would achieve a pariah status worldwide and would fatally undermine its own vital political and economic interests.

Note that a US nuclear strike on Iran would in no way undermine or weaken the Iranian political leadership, quite to the contrary, it would likely to unify all Iranians into a formidable and enraged block which would wage all-out war against Imperial interest in the entire Middle-East. In such a situation a massive Hezbollah attack in Israel would be virtually certain.


In conclusion we can see that Iran would not have to proactively do anything to make the Empire pay for an short and limited attack. Riding out the attack and letting the Neocons pay the political price for their folly would be the most likely Iranian response. In case of a long term major Imperial war against Iran, the Iranians would have a broad variety of “asymmetrical” options from which to choose, none of which would involve shutting down the Strait of Hormuz or chasing US aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf.

In any scenario, time would always be on the Iranian side while the Empire would very rapidly run out of options to try force an acceptable outcome.

This lack of a viable “exit strategy” would rapidly force the time-pressed Imperial High Command to consider the use of nuclear weapons to avoid getting bogged down in a rapidly worsening situation. Any actual use of nuclear weapons would result into a general collapse of the entire Neocon empire of a magnitude similar to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In other words, there are no possible winning strategies for an Imperial aggression against Iran.

© Copyright 2007 by