A Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Facilities: Assessing Potential Retaliation

By Joseph Kirschke

Global Geopoltics Net
Thursday, December 06, 2007

© Copyright Joseph Kirschke. All rights reserved.

Washington, D.C.

In September of 1998, Iran massed more than 200,000 troops along its eastern border with Afghanistan. Some 70,000 Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s elite military force, were part of the ominous military formation, which also included hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles, mobile missile batteries and artillery pieces.

Across the Islamic Republic, passions were running high: protests erupted with thousands swarming the streets chanting slogans like “Death to the Taliban!” Igniting the furor were reports that, on August 8th, Taliban insurgents stormed an Iranian consulate in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif and massacred ten diplomats and an Iranian journalist in cold blood.

For a time, war looked all but inevitable. Negotiations by the United Nations stalled (1.) while public funerals for the slain men – in all likelihood, intelligence agents under diplomatic cover – only fueled popular outrage. But in the end cooler heads prevailed. Iran had just emerged from an eight-year-long war with Saddam Hussein, costing more than a million lives: the torchbearers of the revolution simply couldn’t afford another quagmire.

Though forgotten by the American public as their lawmakers ratchet up the rhetoric against an Iran apparently determined to acquire nuclear weapons, this event presents a barometer of the response Tehran may – or may not – offer should the U.S. strike its uranium-enrichment facilities. It also belies the serious consequences America will face – from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf and beyond – should the Bush Administration continue its relentless drive to disarm Iran militarily at the expense of serious diplomacy.

Asymmetric Warfare

Military and regional experts familiar the region are almost unanimous in using the word “asymmetrical” when it comes to describing how Tehran would respond to an attack on its nuclear facilities.

“The idea being that the Iranians know they can’t match us in terms of military – they don’t have the same armaments; they’re not as technologically advanced as the U.S.,” said William Samii, a regional analyst for Iran and the Middle East at the Center for Naval Analyses in Alexandria, Va. “And they know it.”

Instead, say Samii and other Washington experts, the Iranians would pursue less confrontational, though equally problematic, retaliatory measures – aimed at both humiliating the U.S. on the world stage, while driving a firm wedge between Washington and its allies. “They would resort to tactics that the U.S. would find difficult to counter,” Samii added.

Kenneth Katzmann, a senior analyst for Persian Gulf Affairs for the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, quoted a former Air Force planner as saying 400 targets must be struck including 75 that would require “penetrating munitions” to sufficiently disrupt Iran’s nuclear ambitions (2.) – as evidence emerges of some facilities being placed inside populated areas. (3.)

A response by Iran, he noted in an interview, could very easily take on economic dimensions. “What they’re going to do is drive up petrol prices,” he said, noting that even threatening speeches by Iranian leaders can impact world oil prices. “We feel they’re going to do something ‘out of the box.’”

For example, he said, Iran could disrupt shipping in the Straits of Hormuz – the channel at the mouth of the Persian Gulf through which two-fifths of the world’s oil passes. “They may even use their influence to get the Basra oil workers to walk off the job,” said Katzmann, “to not only get Iranian oil off the market, but Iraqi oil off the market, too.”

Such moves by Tehran are not without precedent. During the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, foreign oil tankers were frequent targets of Iranian mines, rocket attacks and gunboats, driving up international oil prices – and prompting American intervention.

“Iran could intensely threaten Gulf shipping for short periods, deter commercial ships from entering the Gulf, drive up insurance rates for Gulf shipping and boost world oil prices on nervous markets,” according to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. (4.)

Others in Washington, however, see an Iranian escalation against shipping in the Gulf as at least somewhat antithetical to its interests – given that at least 40 percent of Iran’s revenue is based on refined oil exports. Any action shutting off – or at least hampering – Gulf shipping, moreover, would be a last resort in the event the U.S. tried to fully blockade Tehran’s oil exporting abilities.

Proxies in Iraq

But by far the biggest immediate challenge to the U.S., Iran-watchers agree, would come in the form of attacks by Shiite militias loyal to Tehran on the ground in Iraq, where 160,000 U.S. troops are already stretched to the breaking point.

Indeed, Moqtada al-Sadr, commander of the Mahdi Army and one of the most powerful warlords in the country, has openly said he would strike back at coalition forces were there an attack on Iran (5.) – as have leaders of other significant groups like the Badr Brigades.

There is no limit to the disruption these groups could do to coalition efforts to stabilize Iraq. Michael Connell, also a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, says it would take little effort for Iran to arm Shiite insurgents loyal to Tehran with hardware that could prove acutely hazardous for U.S. troops.

Such an escalation could quickly, and drastically, change the already difficult realities of life for U.S. troops. “They could up the ante by supplying more IEDs and EFPs,” said Connell, alluding to Improvised Explosive Devices and Explosively Formed Penetrators, roadside bombs that have already exacted heavy losses on U.S. troops and their convoys.

Iran, could also furnish its Shiite loyalists with variations of “Manpads,” or Man Portable Air Defense Systems, which could cause considerable destruction of U.S. aircraft and particularly helicopters, according to Connell. (The acquisition of Manpad-like weapons – such as deadly shoulder-fired Stinger Missiles – by the mujahedin from the U.S. in Afghanistan is widely believed by military historians to have been one of the most decisive factors precipitating a Soviet withdrawal in the late 1980s.)

Kenneth Katzmann of the Congressional Research Service noted insurgents could use such weapons to attack the U.S.-fortified “Green Zone” in central Baghdad from places like the nearby Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City. “There’s plenty they can do,” he said.

Vulnerable Supply Lines

Also dangerously open to guerrilla attack, other experts warn, is the main supply route that snakes for more than 340 miles from Kuwait to Baghdad through the Shiite hinterlands of southern Iraq.

“If they cut our supply lines we will have a very big problem,” said W. Patrick Lang, the former head of Middle East Intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Eighty-five percent of supplies, in trucks driven by “Third Country Nationals” such as Turks and Pakistanis, he noted, ply the route – and would be wide open to enemy fire.

“With the British army moving out it makes it worse,” Lang added. “The military seems to assume nothing bad like this will happen.”

President Bush, his political allies and U.S. military commanders have frequently and publicly blasted Tehran for “meddling” in Iraq – accusations that have made their way into the mainstream media. Until now, however, Iran specialists believe Tehran’s presence in Iraq has been mutedly “non-operational”: a means to guarantee its own interests – and not cripple American troops.

Iranian Military and Intelligence Assets in Iraq

This is not to say that Iran’s security forces do not maintain an extensive intelligence and military network in Iraq. In fact, as early as May 2003 – shortly after “the end of major combat operations” was announced – Americans immediately began detecting Iranian intelligence activity on the ground in Iraq – much of it dominated by the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Quds Force, its 3,000-strong paramilitary wing, and elements of Hezbollah. (6.)

In March, for instance, coalition forces captured Musa Daquq, a ranking member of Hezbollah, who officials claimed was working with the Quds Force to help Iraqi insurgents with logistical and arms training. A spokesman for coalition forces in Iraq also recently told reporters that six people linked to the Quds Force have been captured in-country over the past year. (7.) .The full number of Iranian operatives in Iraq – though unknown – is likely in the hundreds.

Their fighting prowess can be impressive. A prime example of this was seen in a strikingly audacious and sophisticated jailbreak in broad daylight that freed a group of Iranians from a police jail near the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, in February of 2004.

With what an American military commander would later describe to reporters as “heavy firepower,” a group of as many as 50 insurgents freed the men following a fierce firefight. “The assault was coupled with a simultaneous attack on an Iraqi civil defense headquarters one mile away,” said the commander, “intended to hold them in check until the prison break unfolded.” (8.)

Among the four attackers found dead after the smoke cleared were two Lebanese nationals – and one Iranian.

The Quds Force is also active throughout the greater region, having supplied arms to extremist factions in Lebanon, Israel and throughout the Middle East, including Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, which waged a bitter war against Israel in the summer of 2006. (In the 1990s, ironically, Washington turned a blind eye when Quds Force operatives were deployed to Bosnia to assist that nation’s beleaguered Muslim-led government against Christian Orthodox Serbian nationalists.) (9.)

More recently, the Quds Force has also begun delivering weaponry to the Taliban, Iran’s longtime nemesis, posing a potential threat to U.S. and NATO efforts to keep the peace in that war-ravaged country. (10.) And while experts have identified the danger of Iran striking at U.S. interests via the Taliban in Afghanistan as real, they say the more convenient theater for retaliation exists in Iraq.

Hezbollah and Prospects for Global Terror

Another very realistic, and equally disturbing, scenario is the specter of numerous acts of terror against American citizens and interests by around the world by Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah, say experts like Connell. “It’s not clear that Hezbollah does everything Iran tells it,” he said. “But they are known to act in concert, because they were founded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.”

Hezbollah’s reach shadows the long arm of the Iranian revolution, and Iran’s designation by the U.S. State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984. On March 17th, 1992, for example, a suicide bomber careered a pickup truck into the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, killing 29 and wounding 242.

Islamic Jihad – a group with ties to both Iran and Hezbollah – would later claim responsibility, citing Israel’s previous assassination of Hezbollah leader Sayed Abbas al-Musawi as justification. (11.)

Two years later, another suicide bomber killed 85 and injured hundreds more at an Argentine Jewish community center, also in Buenos Aires. In October of last year, Argentine officials accused Iran of instructing Hezbollah to carry out the bombing and called for the arrest of former Iranian President Ayatollah Rafsanjani and seven other Iranian officials. (12.)

Previously, in the late 1990s, Argentine prosecutors had issued international arrest warrants against Iran’s ambassador to Buenos Aires at the time of the bombing as well as Imad Maguniyeh, an influential Hezbollah operative.

Maguniyeh is wanted by the FBI, as Americans have also been in the crosshairs: the 1996 terrorist attack on Khobar Towers in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, for instance, claimed the lives of 19 American servicemen, and injured 372 others. (13.) Though Iran has not been directly implicated in that incident, a U.S. federal indictment has since stated that the bombing was approved by Ali Khameini, the Supreme Leader of Iran.

Perhaps the most memorable attack by Iran on American interests took place on October 23rd of 1983 when a truck driven by a Hezbollah recruit, laden with 5,400 kilograms of TNT, slammed into a U.S. military barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Marines, resulting in America’s retreat from Lebanon. (14.) It was widely seen by religious radicals in the region as a major defeat for America – and emboldened terrorists to attack U.S. targets for years to come.

Suicide missions by individual Iranians and government-sponsored cells are also a possibility, although most analysts agree that they would not take on the nightmarish dimensions of the frontal assaults that characterized the trench fighting of the Iran-Iraq War. Throughout the 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s panicked military units only narrowly kept the Basij, an irregular force of thousands, from overrunning their positions. (Largely composed of youths, many Basij believed death on the battlefield would give them the “keys to paradise.”)

But there have since been some remarkably sobering, and specific, reports of Tehran’s intentions of prosecuting suicide bombings against American targets in the event of an attack. In the Spring of 2006, more than 200 Iranians gathered to sign registration forms for “martyrdom seeking operations” to defend the Islamic Republic. (15.)

Most military planners and experts, meanwhile, have publicly conceded that action against Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities would only set Tehran’s program back a couple of years at most. By all accounts, Tehran is still years away from the producing bomb-grade plutonium. Some say an attack could even invigorate the re-armament process, much as the Allied bombing of Germany during World War II galvanized the re-constitution of Hitler’s military forces.

What Next?

All this begs the question: What would happen if Iran’s theocrats did acquire a nuclear weapon? William Samii of the Center for Naval Analyses, for one, maintains that, for all President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s bellicose talk about “wiping Israel off the map,” he scarcely represents a unified Iranian worldview – even among its foreign policy leadership.

“There are so many moving points – and it’s quite impossible to isolate things,” among Iran’s rulers, Samii noted. Though power ultimately rests with the Supreme Leader, Ali Khameini, and his ruling council, “he also depends on informal institutions and individual stakeholders,” he added. Iran is “not a democracy, but they do have elections – so the public does have an effect on what they do.”

Iranian public opinion is overwhelmingly pro-American, at that, say analysts – indeed, much more so than in any other country in the region: In the days after September 11th, thousands of Iranians flooded the streets of major cities across the country to hold candlelight vigils to recognize American victims of the worst terrorist attack ever on U.S. soil. Iran’s were the only such shows of solidarity in the entire region.

Rampant unemployment and a stagnant economy borne of international isolation, coupled with a rule based on a tiresome religious ideology, have left Iran’s very young population deeply distrustful of its clerical leadership. Still, many analysts say this could change overnight should the U.S. attack, with the Iranian people rallying behind their government, however unpopular.

As President Bush, presidential candidates and policy makers from both sides of the partisan divide voice their vitriol against the Mullahs for political points, completely obscured is the highly valuable assistance Tehran once provided the U.S. in the opening salvos in the war on terror during Operation Enduring Freedom.

A Helping Hand and an Olive Branch

In addition to providing targets for air strikes against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, (16.) Tehran went out of its way to get the Northern Alliance – which the U.S. backed against the Taliban – not only to fully enlist in the American endeavor, but to ensure that the Tajik-dominated force allow participation by ethnic Pashtuns to make the intervention more “pan-Afghan.” (17.)

Iran also gave the U.S. permission to conduct search and rescue missions on and near its territory, made its airfields available for American transport planes, allowed a U.S. freighter with food and medical supplies to dock at one of its seaports and established a vital humanitarian corridor into Afghanistan. (18.) At one point, the Iranians even intercepted an al-Qaeda operative fleeing into Iran based on U.S. intelligence. (19.)

Despite Iran’s obvious mutual interest in neutralizing the Taliban, Tehran had other things in mind. “Iran’s tactical cooperation with the United States was fundamentally positive in character – Iran hoped and anticipated that tactical cooperation with the United States would lead to a genuine strategic opening between our two countries,” said Hillary Mann, the former director of Iran, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf affairs at the National Security Council from 2001-2003. (20.)

However, “in all these cases, it was the United States that was unwilling to build on issue-specific tactical cooperation to pursue true strategic rapprochement,” she added. (21.)

This window of opportunity fully opened in May of 2003. Not long after the fall of Baghdad, Iran made a profound and comprehensive diplomatic gesture to U.S. officials through its envoys in Switzerland, which, according to Mann, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Administration officials have since acknowledged.

“Everything would be on the table, including Iran’s support for Hezbollah as well as its nuclear ambitions and role in Iraq,” Mann added. “But the Bush Administration rejected this proposal out of hand. Less than two weeks later, Washington cut off the (diplomatic) channel with Iran on Afghanistan and al-Qaeda over questionable and never substantiated allegations linking Tehran to the May 12, 2003 bombing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.” (22.)

America, she noted, will pay a steep price for years to come. “This mishandling of U.S. relations with Iran continues to impose heavy costs on American interests and policy efforts in the Middle East,” Mann added, “on the Iranian nuclear issue, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, and in the Arab-Israeli arena.” (23.)

History with the West

Throughout modern history, Iran has grown accustomed to being on the short end of the stick in its dealings with the West.

In the 1800s, Persia played host to the “great game” of Russia and the British Empire. In 1953, not long after nationalizing British oil interests in Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s democratically-elected prime minister, promptly found himself ousted in a coup hatched by Washington and London. Later, when Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, the United Nations stood by idly before the U.S. began to pour millions in aid to buttress Saddam’s ruinous war.

In 2002, Iranians were deeply concerned yet again to suddenly find themselves in George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil”: Not only had they just enabled the U.S. to unseat the Taliban, they were being thrown together into the same vortex as their longtime adversary – who American military forces were about to depose.

Nonetheless, a nuclear-armed Iran would not spell doomsday. “The regime is hostile to, and suspicious of, the U.S., but Iranians are very rational – they’re not crazy,” added Samii. “The survival of their country, and their revolution, is very important to them.”

Take Iran’s aborted showdown with the Taliban in the late 1990s – not to mention its recent about-face alliance with its longtime Sunni fundamentalist foes to keep Washington in check on its eastern frontier. And while the Iranians watched with dismay as Saddam Hussein crushed uprisings by their Shiite brethren across southern Iraq in the immediate aftermath the Gulf War of 1991, they stayed out again, fearing another morass.

Having already imposed sanctions on the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force for being “terrorist” organization over the summer – the first time the U.S. has ever named an arm of a foreign military as such – the Bush Administration has been steadily escalating the volume of its saber-rattling against Iran’s Mullahs.

“A Fool’s Gamble”

Analysts say preparations for air strikes are now fully complete – and could happen at any time. Sam Gardiner, a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel, writing for the Century Foundation, a Washington think tank, says any attack would begin “Below the CNN line” – that is, without the knowledge of the media, the public, or even many lawmakers. (24.)

“That was the guidance given to the Air Component Commander, General Mike Mosley, as the secret air strikes began against Iraq in Operation Southern Focus,” he wrote, pointing to a classified bombing campaign that struck nearly 400 targets in southern Iraq in 2002 amid President Bush’s promises to European governments that he had no immediate plans for war. (25.)

Militarily, an assault on Iran would echo failed strategies that have been regrettably common throughout world history, according to Lawrence B. Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. (26.)

“Using military force against Iran is a fool’s gamble,” Wilkerson said. “To do so would replicate one of the oldest failures in military history – that is that when a leader encounters strategic failure, his first inclination is to reinforce that failure.”

“From Xerxes to Mark Anthony, from Napoleon to Hitler, from World War I to Vietnam,” Wilkerson, a former U.S. Army Colonel, added, “history is replete with leaders who simply could not say ‘Enough!’ and instead choose to deepen their failure – and sacrifice more blood and treasure – by adding to it.”

1.) “How the West armed Saddam, fed him intelligence on his enemies, equipped him for atrocities and then made sure he wouldn’t squeal,” Robert Fisk, The (U.K.) Independent, Dec. 31st, 2006
2.) Kenneth Katzmann, “Iran: U.S. Concerns and policy responses; report” Congressional Research Service Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports and Issue Briefs, for Congress updated weekly
3.) “The End of the ‘Summer of Diplomacy’: Assessing U.S. Military Options on Iran,” Sam Gardiner, Colonel, USAF (Ret.) A Century Foundation Report, The Century Foundation, New York, New York, 2006.
4.) “Countering Iran’s Oil Weapon,” Heritage Foundation Reports, Ariel Cohen, James Phillips and William L.T. Schirano, Nov. 13th, 2006
5.) “Contra Iran” The National Interest, Ted Galen Carpenter and Jessica Ashooh, March-April 2007
6.) “The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America,” Kenneth Pollack, Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, Random House, Inc., 2004
7.) “Iran’s Revolutionary Guards,” Greg Bruno, The Washington Post, Oct. 3rd, 2007
8.) “25 Slain and 40 Wounded in Iraq as Raid on Police Frees Prisoners,” The New York Times, A1, Dexter Filkins, Feb. 15th, 2004
9.) Greg Bruno, Ibid.
10.) Associated Press Online, June 12th, 2007
11.) “Terrorism Project In the Spotlight: Hezbollah (Party of God)” Michael Donovan, Research Analyst, Center for Defense Information, Feb. 25th, 2002
12.) BBC World News Online Edition, Oct. 25th, 2006
13.) Michael Donovan, Ibid.
14.) Council on Foreign Relations, Backgrounder, staff July 17th, 2006
15.) Reuters, April 16th, 2006
16.) Hillary Mann, testimony before the Congressional Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee on Oversight and Reform, Nov. 7th, 2007
17.) Kenneth Pollack, Ibid.
18.) Hillary Mann, Ibid.
19.) Kenneth Pollack, Ibid.
20.) Hillary Mann, Ibid.
21.) Hillary Mann, Ibid.
22.) Hillary Mann, Ibid.
23.) Hillary Mann Ibid.
24.) Sam Gardiner, Ibid.
25.) Sam Gardiner, Ibid.
26.) Lawrence B. Wilkerson USA (Ret.), testimony before the Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Nov. 14th, 2007

About the Author:

Joseph Kirschke is an independent journalist, writer and analyst of world political issues based in Washington D. C.