Attack on Iran: A Looming Folly

by William Rivers Pitt, January 9, 2006


The wires have been humming since before the New Year with reports that the Bush administration is planning an attack on Iran. "The Bush administration is preparing its NATO allies for a possible military strike against suspected nuclear sites in Iran in the New Year, according to German media reports, reinforcing similar earlier suggestions in the Turkish media," reported UPI on December 30th.

"The Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel this week," continued UPI, "quoted 'NATO intelligence sources' who claimed that the NATO allies had been informed that the United States is currently investigating all possibilities of bringing the mullah-led regime into line, including military options. This 'all options are open' line has been President George W Bush's publicly stated policy throughout the past 18 months."

An examination of the ramifications of such an attack is desperately in order.

1. Blowback in Iraq

The recent elections in Iraq were dominated by an amalgam of religiously fundamentalist Shi'ite organizations, principally the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Both Dawa and SCIRI have umbilical connections to the fundamentalist Shi'ite leadership in Iran that go back decades. In essence, Iran now owns a significant portion of the Iraqi government.

Should the United States undertake military action against Iran, the ramifications in Iraq would be immediate and extreme.

In the first eight days of January, eighteen US troops have been killed in Iraq, compounded by another twelve deaths from a Black Hawk helicopter crash on Saturday. Much of the violence aimed at American forces is coming from disgruntled Sunni factions that have their own militias, believe the last elections were a sham, and hold little political power in the government.

If the US attacks Iran, it is probable that American forces - already taxed by attacks from Sunni factions - will also face reprisal attacks in Iraq from Shi'ite factions loyal to Iran. The result will be a dramatic escalation in US and civilian casualties, US forces will be required to bunker themselves further into their bases, and US forces will find themselves required to fight the very government they just finished helping into power. Iraq, already a seething cauldron, will sink further into chaos.

2. Iran's Armaments

Unlike Iraq, Iran has not spent the last fifteen years having its conventional forces worn down by grueling sanctions, repeated attacks, and two American-led wars. While Iran's conventional army is not what it was during the heyday of the Iran-Iraq war - their armaments have deteriorated and the veterans of that last war have retired - the nation enjoys substantial military strength nonetheless.

According to a report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in December of 2004, Iran "has some 540,000 men under arms and over 350,000 reserves. They include 120,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards trained for land and naval asymmetrical warfare. Iran's military also includes holdings of 1,613 main battle tanks, 21,600 other armored fighting vehicles, 3,200 artillery weapons, 306 combat aircraft, 60 attack helicopters, 3 submarines, 59 surface combatants, and 10 amphibious ships."

"Iran is now the only regional military power that poses a significant conventional military threat to Gulf stability," continued the CSIS report. "Iran has significant capabilities for asymmetric warfare, and poses the additional threat of proliferation. There is considerable evidence that it is developing both a long-range missile force and a range of weapons of mass destruction. It has never properly declared its holdings of chemical weapons, and the status of its biological weapons programs is unknown."

A MILNET brief issued in February 2005 reports, "Due to its position astride the Persian Gulf, Iran has constantly been a threat to the Gulf. The so called 'Tanker' wars in the late 1980s put Iran squarely in the bullseye of all nations seeking to transport oil out of the region. Even the small navy that Iran puts to sea is capable enough to harass shipping, and several cases of small boat operations against oil well heads in the Gulf during that period made it clear small asymmetrical tactics of the Iranian Navy could be quite effective."

"More concerning," continued the MILNET brief, "is the priority placed on expanding and modernizing its Navy. The CSIS report cites numerous areas where Iran has funded modernization including the most troublesome aspect, anti-shipping cruise missiles: 'Iran has obtained new anti-ship missiles and missile patrol craft from China, midget submarines from North Korea, submarines from Russia, and modern mines.'"

It is Iran's missile armaments that pose the greatest concern for American forces in the Gulf, especially for the US Navy. Iran's coast facing the Persian Gulf is a looming wall of mountains that look down upon any naval forces arrayed in those waters. The Gulf itself only has one exit, the Strait of Hormuz, which is also dominated by the mountainous Iranian coastline. In essence, Iran holds the high ground in the Gulf. Missile batteries arrayed in those mountains could raise bloody havoc with any fleet deployed below.

Of all the missiles in Iran's armament, the most dangerous is the Russian-made SS-N-22 Sunburn. These missiles are, simply, the fastest anti-ship weapons on the planet. The Sunburn can reach Mach 3 at high altitude. Its maximum low-altitude speed is Mach 2.2, some three times faster than the American-made Harpoon. The Sunburn takes two short minutes to cover its full range. The missile's manufacturers state that one or two missiles could cripple a destroyer, and five missiles could sink a 20,000 ton ship. The Sunburn is also superior to the Exocet missile. Recall that it was two Exocets that ripped the USS Stark to shreds in 1987, killing 37 sailors. The Stark could not see them to stop them.

The US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt is currently deployed in the Persian Gulf, with some 7,000 souls aboard. Sailing with the Roosevelt is the Tarawa Expeditionary Strike Force, which includes the USS Tarawa, the USS Austin, and the USS Pearl Harbor. The USS Austin is likewise deployed in the Gulf. The Sunburn missile, with its incredible speed and ability to avoid radar detection, would do terrible damage these ships if Iran chooses to retaliate in the Gulf after an American attack within its borders.

Beyond the naval threat is the possibility of Iran throwing its military muscle into the ongoing struggle in Iraq. Currently, the US is facing an asymmetrical attack from groups wielding small arms, shoulder-fired grenades and roadside bombs. The vaunted American military has suffered 2,210 deaths and tens of thousands of wounded from this form of warfare. The occupation of Iraq has become a guerrilla war, a siege that has lasted more than a thousand days. If Iran decides to throw any or all of its 23,000 armored fighting vehicles, along with any or all of its nearly million-strong army, into the Iraq fray, the situation in the Middle East could become unspeakably dire.

3. The Syrian Connection

In February of 2005, Iran and Syria agreed upon a mutual protection pact to combat "challenges and threats" in the region. This was a specific reaction to the American invasion of Iraq, and a reaction to America's condemnation of Syria after the death of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which was widely seen as an assassination ordered from Damascus. An attack on Iran would trigger this mutual defense pact, and could conceivably bring Syria into direct conflict with American forces.

Like Iran, Syria's military is nothing to scoff at. Virtually every credible analysis has Syria standing as the strongest military force in the Middle East after Israel. Damascus has been intent for years upon establishing significant military strength to serve as a counterweight to Israel's overwhelming capabilities. As of 2002, Syria had some 215,000 soldiers under arms, 4,700 tanks, and a massive artillery capability. The Syrian Air Force is comprised of ten to eleven fighter/attack squadrons and sixteen fighter squadrons, totaling somewhere near 650 aircraft.

Syria also possesses one of the largest arsenals of ballistic missiles in the region, comprised primarily of SCUD-derived systems. Iran, North Korea and China have been willing providers of state-of-the-art technologies. Compounding this is the well-based suspicion that Syria has perhaps the most advanced chemical weapons capability in the Persian Gulf.

4. China and the US Economy

While the ominous possibilities of heightened Iraqi chaos, missiles in the Gulf, and Syrian involvement loom large if the US attacks Iran, all pale in comparison to the involvement of China in any US/Iran engagement.

China's economy is exploding, hampered only by their great thirst for petroleum and natural gas to fuel their industry. In the last several months, China has inked deals with Iran for $70 billion dollars worth of Iranian oil and natural gas. China will purchase 250 million tons of liquefied natural gas from Iran over the next 30 years, will develop the massive Yadavaran oil field in Iran, and will receive 150,000 barrels of oil per day from that field. China is seeking the construction of a pipeline from Iran to the Caspian Sea, where it would link with another planned pipeline running from Kazakhstan to China.

Any US attack on Iran could be perceived by China as a direct threat to its economic health. Further, any fighting in the Persian Gulf would imperil the tankers running China's liquefied natural gas through the Strait of Hormuz. Should China decide to retaliate against the US to defend its oil and natural gas deal with Iran, the US would be faced with a significant threat. This threat exists not merely on a military level, though China could force a confrontation in the Pacific by way of Taiwan. More significantly, China holds a large portion of the American economy in the palm of its hand.

Paul Craig Roberts, writing for The American Conservative, said in July of 2005 that "As a result of many years of persistent trade surpluses with the United States, the Japanese government holds dollar reserves of approximately $1 trillion. China's accumulation of dollars is approximately $600 billion. South Korea holds about $200 billion. These sums give these countries enormous leverage over the United States. By dumping some portion of their reserves, these countries could put the dollar under intense pressure and send U.S. interest rates skyrocketing. Washington would really have to anger Japan and Korea to provoke such action, but in a showdown with China - over Taiwan, for example - China holds the cards. China and Japan, and the world at large, have more dollar reserves than they require. They would have no problem teaching a hegemonic superpower a lesson if the need arose."

"The hardest blow on Americans," concluded Roberts, "will fall when China does revalue its currency. When China's currency ceases to be undervalued, American shoppers in Wal-Mart, where 70 percent of the goods on the shelves are made in China, will think they are in Neiman Marcus. Price increases will cause a dramatic reduction in American real incomes. If this coincides with rising interest rates and a setback in the housing market, American consumers will experience the hardest times since the Great Depression."

In short, China has the American economy by the throat. Should they decide to squeeze, we will all feel it. China's strong hand in this even extends to the diplomatic realm; China is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and could veto any actions against Iran proposed by the United States.

5. American Preparedness

American citizens have for decades taken it as a given that our military can overwhelm and overcome any foe on the battlefield. The rapid victory during the first Gulf War cemented this perception. The last three years of the Iraq occupation, however, have sapped this confidence. Worse, the occupation has done great damage to the strength of the American military, justifying the decrease in confidence. Thanks to repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, recruiting is at an all-time low. Soldiers with vital training and know-how are refusing to re-enlist. Across the board, the American military is stretched to the breaking point.

Two vaunted economists - one a Nobel Prize winner and the other a nationally renowned budget expert - have analyzed the data at hand and put a price tag on the Iraq occupation. According to Linda Bilmes of Harvard and Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz of Columbia University, the final cost of the Iraq occupation will run between $1 trillion and $2 trillion, surpassing by orders of magnitude the estimates put forth by the Bush administration. If an engagement with Iran envelops our forces in Iraq, and comes to involve Syria, our economy will likely shatter under the strain of fighting so many countries simultaneously. Add to this the economic threat posed by China, and the economic threat implicit in any substantial disruption of the distribution of Mideast petroleum to the globe.

If Iran and Syria - with their significant armaments, missile technologies and suspected chemical weapons capabilities - decide to engage with the relatively undersized US force in Iraq, our troops there will be fish in a barrel. Iran's position over the Gulf would make resupply by ship and air support from carriers a dangerous affair. In the worst-case scenario, the newly-minted American order of battle requiring the use of nuclear weapons to rescue a surrounded and imperiled force could come into play, hurling the entire planet into military and diplomatic bedlam.

Conclusion: Is Any of This Possible?

The question must be put as directly as possible: what manner of maniac would undertake a path so fraught with peril and potential economic catastrophe? It is difficult to imagine a justification for any action that could envelop the United States in a military and economic conflict with Iraq, Iran, Syria and China simultaneously.

Iran is suspected by many nations of working towards the development of nuclear weapons, but even this justification has been tossed into a cocked hat. Recently, Russian president Vladimir Putin bluntly stated that Iran is not developing its nuclear capability for any reasons beyond peaceful energy creation, and pledged to continue assisting Iran in this endeavor. Therefore, any attack upon Iran's nuclear facilities will bring Russia into the mess. Iran also stands accused of aiding terrorism across the globe. The dangers implicit in any attack upon that nation, however, seem to significantly offset whatever gains could be made in the so-called "War on Terror."

Unfortunately, all the dangers in the world are no match for the self-assurance of a bubble-encased zealot. What manner of maniac would undertake such a dangerous course? Look no further than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

George W. Bush and his administration have consistently undertaken incredibly dangerous courses of action in order to garner political power on the home front. Recall the multiple terror threats lobbed out by the administration whenever damaging political news appeared in the media. More significantly, recall Iraq. Karl Rove, Bush's most senior advisor, notoriously told Republicans on the ballot during the 2002 midterms to "run on the war." The invasion of Iraq provided marvelous political cover for the GOP not only during those midterms, but during the 2004 Presidential election.

What kind of political cover would be gained from an attack on Iran, and from the diversion of attention to that attack? The answer lies in one now-familiar name: Jack Abramoff. The Abramoff scandal threatens to subsume all the hard-fought GOP gains in Congress, and the 2006 midterms are less than a year away.

Is any of this a probability? Logic says no, but logic seldom plays any part in modern American politics. All arguments that the Bush administration would be insane to attack Iran and risk a global conflagration for the sake of political cover run into one unavoidable truth.

They did it once already in Iraq.


William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence.

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