Monday, August 9, 2010

The Illusion of a ‘limited war’ against Iran

The frank admission by Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America’s highest ranking officer, that the U.S. has plans to attack Iran to prevent that country from acquiring nuclear weapons, is being treated with the utmost seriousness in political, intelligence and military circles in Tehran.

This is the first time that a high-ranking U.S. official has spoken about the existence of military plans to prevent the Islamic Republic from crossing the nuclear threshold. There is considerable evidence that Mullen’s frank statement, coupled with the Obama Administration’s increasingly hostile and dismissive attitude towards Iran, and reinforced by the fourth round of United Nations sanctions imposed in June (followed by even harsher unilateral sanctions imposed by both the European Union and the United States), has radically altered the Tehran regime’s strategic calculations on the possibility of a military confrontation with the United States.

Hitherto the conventional wisdom amongst strategic policy makers in the Islamic Republic was that the U.S. would adhere to the ‘no war no peace’ policy, irrespective of the bellicose rhetoric of American leaders and officials. The policy of ‘no war no peace’ has characterized Iranian-American relations since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in February 1979.

The basic premise of this policy is that at different stages Iran and America edge towards war or peace – depending on the prevailing strategic scenario in the region – but never quite actually achieve either. The result is that most of the time the two states are somewhere in the middle conducting a Cold War, in which leaders and officials from both sides trade insults and engage in ideological and political grandstanding, but stop well short of the point where further escalation of tensions might trigger a hot war.

For the past thirty-one years this policy has benefited most of the key stakeholders, including hardline political factions in both countries, the regional Arab states, Turkey, Pakistan and Israel. All have benefited from this Iranian-American Cold War, insofar as the paucity of diplomatic and political relations between Iran and America has continuously opened up a wide range of strategic, political and economic benefits. By the same token, these stake holders would have much to lose if Iran and America actually engaged in real fighting. While this argument has manifold shortcomings, nonetheless it does capture a large part of the reality of Iranian-American relations since 1979. In any case it is what key Iranian strategic policy makers have believed all along. Until now that is.

Despite the fact that a few days before Mullen’s statement, the supreme commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC—Sepah-e-Pasdaran in Persian), Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Jafari, dismissed U.S. threats, claiming that America “would not dare to attack Iran”, other IRGC leaders have in recent months continuously warned of the immediate and long-term fallout of any military confrontation. The head of the IRGC’s political-ideological unit recently warned of “dire” threats to regional security in the event of an American military attack. Meanwhile Ahmad Vahidi, Iran’s defence minister and a former commander of the IRGC’s elite Qods Force (responsible for special foreign operations), has pledged a “robust” response to any American military aggression against Iran.

It has been clear for months that the mood of IRGC commanders has been changing and Mullen’s statement appears to lend credence to the strategic calculations of the Revolutionary Guard commanders. This development is of the utmost significance, since in the event of an Iranian-American military confrontation, the IRGC is expected to be at the forefront of containing the American assault and retaliating with military measures of its own.

In fact, in the event of a military confrontation Iranian leaders are likely to relieve the regular Iranian military from fighting, so as to keep them out of harm’s way and maintain the integrity and fighting strength of the regular armed forces. There is another reason for this decision and that has to do with the depleted capabilities of the national military; in the past thirty years the national armed forces have insidiously lost power and prestige to the IRGC. It is worth noting that Iran is the only country in the world that operates two completely independent military commands; one centred on the regular armed forces, and the other on the IRGC, which operates its own ground forces, navy and air force, as well as a myriad of intelligence and security services. Moreover, the IRGC controls all of Iran’s strategic military assets, including mid-range ballistic missile capability.

It has become fashionable to paint the IRGC as an economic conglomerate more interested in making money than fighting for the values of the Islamic Revolution. Much of the reporting on IRGC economic activity is inaccurate and disingenuous and is indicative of the faux-naif style of analysis often employed by Western journalists and analysts.

The truth is that whilst the IRGC has a sizeable economic wing centred on the Khatam ol-Anbia complex (Qarargah-e Khatam ol-Anbia), its economic and financial activities are kept strictly separate from its fighting units. In any case, the IRGC is foremost an ideological army that is totally and unequivocally committed to the survival of the Islamic Revolution, and the political-religious system that emerged from that revolution. Even former reformist president (and now opposition leader) Mohammad Khatami referred to the IRGC as the “most ideological armed force in the world.”

American political and military leaders would be mistaken if they believed they could get away with a “limited” military strike on Iran, designed to destroy that country’s nuclear infrastructure. Any military strike on Iran by the United States will be interpreted by Iran’s rulers, and their IRGC enforcers, as a direct assault on the integrity and the very existence of the Islamic Republic. From a strategic point of view, IRGC commanders will interpret any American strike as the beginning of an existential conflict, and will respond appropriately.

A top priority for the IRGC high command is to respond so harshly and decisively so as to deter the Americans from a second set of strikes at a future point. The idea here is to avoid what happened to Iraq in the period 1991-2003, when the former Baathist regime was so weakened by sanctions and repeated small-scale military attacks that it quickly collapsed in the face of American and British invading armies.

The range of predictable responses available to the IRGC high command include dramatic hit ad run attacks against military and commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf, the use of mid-range ballistic missiles against American bases in the region and Israel and a direct assault on American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. All these options are likely to be used within 48 hours of the start of hostilities.

What is less predictable is the response of the IRGC Qods Force, which is likely to be at the forefront of the Pasdaran’s counter-attack. One possible response by the Qods force is spectacular terrorist-style attacks against American intelligence bases and assets throughout the region. The IRGC Qods Force is believed to have identified every key component of the American intelligence apparatus in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are likely to put this information to good use, especially since the Qods Force suspects that the CIA had a hand in last October’s Jundullah-organised suicide bombing targeting IRGC commanders in Iran’s volatile Sistan va Baluchistan province.

The IRGC navy will also play a key asymmetrical role in the conflict by organising maritime suicide bombings on an industrial scale. By manning its fleet of speedboats with suicide bombers and ramming them into American warships and even neutral commercial shipping, the Pasdaran will hope to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which nearly 40 percent of world crude oil supplies pass.

The combination of these asymmetrical forms of warfare with more conventional style missile and even ground force attacks on American bases in the region will likely result in thousands of American military casualties in the space of a few weeks. The IRGC has both the will and wherewithal to inflict a level of casualties on American armed forces not seen since the Second World War.

Even if the United States manages to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and much of the country’s military assets, the IRGC can still claim victory by claiming to have given the Americans a bloody nose and producing an outcome not dissimilar from the Israeli-Hezbollah military engagement in the summer of 2006.

The political effect of this will likely be even more explosive than the actual fighting. Not only will it awaken the sleeping giant of Iranian nationalism, thus aligning the broad mass of the people with the regime, it will also shore up Iran’s image in the region and prove once and for all that the Islamic Republic is prepared to fight to the death to uphold its principles. Suddenly Iran’s allies in the region – particularly non-state actors like Hezbollah and Hamas – would stand ten feet tall.

Ironically U.S. military aggression will likely accelerate the actualisation of the very scenario that American political and military leaders insist they are determined to prevent, i.e. a nuclear armed Iran. Even if we accept the contentious proposition that Iran’s nuclear programme has a military dimension, the immediate reaction of Iran’s rulers to military aggression would be to start a crash programme to produce a nuclear weapon, as a means of deterring future aggression.

Contrary to what Mike Mullen and other American military commanders appear to believe, a military attack on Iran really is the very worst option. Its consequences for Iran, the region and the United States are dangerously unpredictable, to the extent that any decision to attack would be nothing less than stunningly reckless and quite possibly the worst strategic mistake in American military history. Responsible actors in the international system should exert the maximum effort to avoid an Iranian-American War.

Mahan Abedin is a Middle East analyst.