Washington Think Tank Anticipates, and Fears, War On Iran

Alex Cacioppo — Contributing Editor — @ BylineBeat

(Brooklyn, New York) The world sees red, and the clock is ticking. Walking down Varet Street one late-summer afternoon in Bushwick, four fighter jets scrambled above, headed west. It was a strange and ominous sight.

Meanwhile, one of the most highly respected think tanks and a prominent national security expert, Anthony Cordesman, described in the latest report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) detailed the war planning, “Analyzing the Impact of Preventive Strikes Against Iran’s Nuclear Facilities,” as the US-Iran confrontation enters a new phase. Tensions between Washington and Tel Aviv have continued while Tehran makes further progress with its nuclear program.

Ha’aretz reported on Tuesday, Sept. 11 that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request to visit the White House at the end of the month has been denied, which set off a new round of speculation over the following days. Netanyahu declared, “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” Then he and Obama had an hour-long phone call to “hash things out,” during which Obama is said to have flatly refused Netanyahu’s demand for red lines, boundaries that once crossed will mean serious consequences for a nation of 65 million.

Last Tuesday the New York Times reported, “In recent days, the Israelis had appeared to be dialing down the pressure on Washington, with the Israeli news media reporting that Ehud Barak, the Defense Minister, was rethinking the wisdom of an attack in the coming months.” But perhaps Big Brother can get the job done. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, according to Chief Israeli Correspondent Barak Ravid, said if the United States decides to attack, it would have a year to do so before Iran is expected to build a nuclear weapon.

Also last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran “has moved further toward the ability to build a nuclear weapon,” and “has advanced its work on calculating the destructive power of an atomic warhead” through virtual simulations. Two weeks ago, Noah Shachtman of Wired magazine dove right into the latest “loose talk and leaked tales” of what an American attack on Iran would involve logistically and, in terms of the sheer weight of war material needed, at most, to set back Iran’s nuclear progress by another ten years. Meanwhile, the region would be set afire.

Cordesman and his associate Abdullah Toukan know this. They counsel caution, noting their analysis in the CSIS report of what it would take to eliminate Iran’s nuclear ambitions by force and what may happen if the United States ends up choosing that path. “(It) shows just how dangerous any war in the Gulf could be to the world’s economy,” adding that “Iran is more vulnerable than any of its Southern Gulf neighbors” to the inevitable oil price shock. “The U.S. also needs its Gulf allies as key partners and must consider the ‘law of unintended consequences.’” Were he available for comment (and he was not, according to his assistant Robert Shelala), I would have asked Dr. Cordesman the following questions:

Was ‘law of unintended consequences’ a lesson from other wars of choice?

What is your estimation of the likelihood of either an Israeli or US attack?

Would war with Iran be objectively worse than the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran?

What is the atmosphere like in the defense community about the threats from Tel Aviv to pre-emptively take out Iranian reactor sites (a la Osirak in 1981)?

Wouldn’t closing the Strait of Hormuz be suicidal for the Iranians?

The focus of the report is not only on the respective military capabilities of Iran and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council, i.e., the Gulf Emirates) but also the geopolitics of the global oil markets, which makes clear that what we do in the Middle East is intractably tied to petrol. It is a follow-up on his report three years ago that looked at Israel’s ability to strike Iran. According to the credible accounts from defense officials, there is no way Israel has, on its own, the capacity to take out the Iranian nuclear project.

Cordesman and Toukan write: “The aging Iranian Air Force will definitely be no match against the U.S. and even the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] air forces.” The targets are myriad: “nuclear enrichment and research facilities, ballistic missile bases located around the country, numerous mobile ballistic missile launchers dispersed around Iran and main ballistic missile production facilities.” They also declare “Israel does not have the capability to carry out preventive strikes that could do more than delay Iran’s efforts for a year or two.”  It is not known with certainty whether Iran is building a nuclear bomb, but its nuclear enrichment program continues to make progress in the face of heavy sanctions. It is also not known if the United States (or Israel) will eventually attack. Whereas the US client in the region sees what it calls an existential threat, the Superpower likewise has reason to fear a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic.

The authors cite Defense Secretary Leon Panetta from a speech this past June discussing Iran’s military power, quoting Panetta as saying “Iran’s grand strategy remains challenging U.S. influence while developing its domestic capabilities to become the dominant power in the Middle East.” The US-led invasion of Iraq certainly helped the project along, and Washington’s aims in the region are little different: our “grand strategy” is to challenge Iranian influence while maintaining hegemony in the Middle East (via our Saudi and Israeli gendarmes). Cordesman and Toukan conclude that Iran “is developing a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to the production of nuclear weapons if the decision is made to do so.”

In other words, Tehran has not yet decided, to the best of CSIS knowledge or that of the US intelligence community, whether to build The Bomb. But it is doubtlessly getting a lot closer to the ability to do so, and that means time is running out for a diplomatic settlement. But what would a military attack by the United States mean? With missile defense systems already in place along the Persian Gulf, pulling the trigger means launching B-2 bombers from the far-off island of Diego Garcia and squadrons of advanced fighter jets.

Meanwhile, Iranian air defenses would be taken out rather easily due to its “obsolete or obsolescent” state, with “a number of its [communications] systems…vulnerable to electronic warfare.” Most of the auxillary help for the attack would come from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, while Iranian forces would launch retaliatory attacks on Israel, a scenario in which Israel has been pushing Washington to commit.

“There is little disagreement that Iran’s actions pose a potential threat,” Cordesman and Toukan write, “but there is far less agreement over the nature, scale and timing of this threat.” The potential threat is projected to become very real once an aerial assault commences. A major flashpoint would be the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil flows, where Iran has repeatedly declared it would block. The experts agree this is suicidal and a bluff, but not far-fetched, as the Navy and this study plan on that happening, quoting an IMF report from last January presaging that a “blockade of the Strait of Hormuz would constitute… sharply heightened global geopolitical tension.”

Admiral Michael Mullen told CNN that the United States “is aware that the action of a military strike [against Iranian nuclear facilities] could be destabilizing for the entire Middle East region and potentially generate a nuclear weapons race in that part of the world,” as the CSIS report by Cordesman noted.

US Preventive Military Strike against Iranian Nuclear Facilities and Ballistic Missile Bases

One map shows the Iranian ballistic missile bases at Tabriz, Bakhtaran, Imam Ali, Mashhad, Semnan, Bandar Abbas, Kuhestak, and Abu Musa), and their nuclear reactors in Panchin (possible typo of Parchin), Fordow, Arak, Natanz, and Esfahan. The omission of Qom is striking. Neither do they include this map, which appears to show US bases encircling Iran.

Ballistic Missile War Between Iran the U.S. and the Gulf States

In the Wired report, Shachtman writes that Cordesman, “one of Washington’s best-connected defense analysts,” created a “remarkably detailed inventory” of what would be involved in a US attack on Iran, and in fact, it reads a bit like a catalog, piece by piece, of the military hardware needed to take out a national nuclear program. (For a moment, imagine “one of Tehran’s best-connected defense analysts” publishing a report for a prominent Iranian think tank assessing what it would take to destroy Los Alamos, Indian Point, Diablo Canyon, and Dimona.)

“American jets and fighters will be pretty much free to fire at will — the Iranian Air Force is a joke,” Shachtman writes, “and its air defense systems don’t have the sensors or the networking to seriously threaten U.S. jets. Still, those air defenses and enemy fighters will have to be taken out before they manage to get off a lucky shot.”

According to the most recent public opinion polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 70 percent of the American public opposes “a unilateral U.S. strike on Iran” while 59 percent “do not want to get involved in a potential Iran-Israel war”; meanwhile, only 51 percent oppose “the UN authorizing a strike on Iran,” which would be impossible since Russia has a nyet on the Security Council. Ha’aretz reports that Moscow has warned Tel Aviv that a US attack would be “literally disastrous for regional stability” and “set off deep shocks in the security and economic spheres that would reverberate far beyond the boundaries of the Middle East region,” said deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov.

Two Tier Theater Ballistic Missile Defense