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The Iran Crisis and Possible Scenarios

Ioannis Michaletos, Athens, Greece, July 6, 2007

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz (right) and Iran's ambassador to Saudi Arabia Seyed Mohammad Hosseini (left) greet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (center) upon his arrival in Riyadh for talks in March (Photo: Hassan Ammar / AFP-Getty Images)

Iran has been in the spotlight on numerous occasions over the past few years due to accusations by Western states, and most Arab Sunni ones, that its strategic aim is to use its nuclear facilities for the creation of nuclear weapons, or as someone might call it, the first "Shiite A-bomb."

Iran has signed and ratified the nuclear non-proliferation treaty; therefore, any breach of that agreement will lead ultimately to international action by the United Nations under a legal pretext. Russia played a great role, in the past at least, in assisting the capabilities of Iran when it constructed the uranium enrichment plant near the town of Natanz, along with a string of nuclear research stations and factories landing other areas.

The United States and the European states strongly resent Iran's stance, for reasons relating to Tehran's tacit support of terrorist organizations worldwide, its backing-up of Shiite fighters in Southern Iraq and against American forces, and its alleged plans to create a "Shiite arch" from Lebanon to Afghanistan. In the Middle East, Israel finds itself threatened by the proliferation of WMD in the hands of a theocratic Iranian administration that through the statements of its president calls for the extinction of the Jewish state and denies the Holocaust. Moreover, Hezbollah is the "long arm" of Iranian influence in the East Mediterranean and a permanent headache for security planners in Tel Aviv. The inter-Palestinian conflict between Fatah and Hamas further increases Tehran's influence in the Gaza Strip since Hamas' leaders have only Iran to look to for support. Hamas and Hezbollah will be Iran's two-tier paramilitary force in the wake of another crisis in Israel or elsewhere in the region.

The Sunni states—especially Saudi Arabia—are alarmed by a now dynamic Iran and any move toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons will probably provoke an equal gesture by Riyadh. The international community through the United Nations Security Council has already voted on two resolutions, 1737 and 1747, calling on Iran to provide full access to its nuclear facilities for the International Atomic Energy Agency, and imposing sanctions in the sectors of armament procurement, financial transactions, and the corporations involved in its nuclear program.

Iran remains adamant in pursuing its nuclear vision. Last month, it began rationing gasoline, infuriating local drivers as the BBC reported, but also showing to the outside world that it anticipates an attack or a conclusive implementation of sanctions. This year will be detrimental for the future course of the Iranian crisis as it has been unfolded since its beginning in 2002.

Military Action Up in the Air

Israel's 34-day war in Lebanon last year was launched with the indirect support of the United States and the European states in order to curb Iran's influence in Israel's backyard. At the same time, it sent a crystal clear message to Tehran that it should not support any group targeting the country and posing a significant threat to the civilian population. Moreover, it was a crucial test of the cohesion, agility, and military preparation of Shiite forces across the Middle East. In most respects, it proved that the worst fears of the West and Israel are indeed a concrete reality. Hezbollah is a fully functional paramilitary machine with the ability to launch strikes anywhere in Northern Israel, to fight prolonged battles, and to acquire adequate armaments and ammunitions.

Other tactics used to curb Iran's power over the past few years include the use of special forces within the country and in particular in the Arab-populated region of Khuzestan in the south and the Kurdish-populated areas in the north. According to unverified reports, British, American, and Australian special forces have tried to ignite local rebellions against the central government in Tehran, which ended in civilian executions by Iranian Revolutionary Guards and without tangible results, at least not on an official level.

A revealing article by Seymour Hersh in March talked about the alleged "redirection" strategy of the Bush administration, and in particular Vice President Dick Cheney. It involves a coalition between American security, intelligence, and military forces in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia, Sunni forces in general, and most alarmingly Islamic terrorists  opposed to Iran. If valid, it would represent a repetition of the same mistake the West has made repeatedly over the past few decades when in order to combat one enemy it supports another more vicious threat. Terrorist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood are already some of the most powerful and menacing terrorists in the world. Any attempt to empower them further will lead to a dramatic expansion of their networks in Western states, as well as lend credence to claims of leadership in the Middle East.

It seems that direct symmetrical military action is more suitable for Western interests since the support of other radical groups will just create more problems and enemies than the architects of American foreign policy want to combat. Also, the possibility of a coalition between radical Sunnis and Shias against the West cannot be excluded. Such a coalition would create immense difficulties not just for a military approach to dealing with Iran, but also for the overall presence and well-being of the West in the Middle East and Asia.

The options as they have been presented in articles, reports, and documentaries for an attack on Iran mainly involve American and Israeli forces. The Israelis successfully attacked a nuclear reactor facility in Osirik, Iraq, in 1981. Doing so today in Iran would be more difficult since Iran has dispersed its facilities across a land five times the size of Iraq and at a greater distance from Israeli airfields. Moreover, Iran has acquired state-of-the-art anti-aircraft systems, such as the 29 TOR M-1 from Russia, and is capable of retaliating through the use of Hezbollah's missiles or its own.

A likely scenario would include a simultaneous attack by Israeli forces in the air and a full swing naval strike of southern Iran, in parallel with special forces infiltration and sabotage from Iraq-based coalition forces, most probably from the northern Afghanistan-Iran border. In essence, a military encirclement of Iran. The role of Russia at this point is crucial since it can cover northern flank and use its diplomatic clout in Iran. Needless to say, since Moscow assisted with Iran's nuclear program it still maintains crucial intelligence about its installations, the real state-of-affairs in Iran, and its political-military leadership.

The Sunni Arab states would also assist an attack with logistic support and information, but it seems unlikely that they would join in combat in the face of a domestic uproar against yet another Western attack on a Muslim country. Military action against Iran would put a strain on Middle Eastern governments and make terrorist attacks more likely.

Iran's defense strategy is offence. Apart from Hezbollah and Hamas (and Islamic Jihad) forces in Palestine, the Iranian administration will use a combination of conventional and asymmetric tactics to a stall a potential attack and force its opponents to negotiate as soon as possible and before war leads to a process of disintegration in the multiethnic state. One of the advantages the Iranian navy has is its ability to block the Strait of Hormuz, through which a significant segment of the West's oil flows. Even though the United States Navy would be able to defeat the Iranians, a seven-day disruption of the oil trade would dramatically increase hydrocarbon prices, as a report last year by Goldman Sachs revealed. In simple terms, a worldwide recession is looming, and not taking into account an Iranian attack on Persian Gulf States oil refineries and installations, which would completely disrupt world businesses, might be the start of a years-long economic crisis.

Another theater where Iranian forces would try to project their power is Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Afghanistan, the presence of the Taliban and its war against Western forces could be incentives to launch offensives against the Karzai government and NATO forces. That would place into immediate threat the lives of thousands of Western personnel along with members of media and humanitarian organizations active there. Pakistan is potential target because of the fragile societal structure of the country and the difficulty President Pervez Musharraf would have holding on to power. Further, a significant Shiite minority exists in Pakistan and maintains links with Tehran.

Iraq is where Iranian and Shiite forces would try to create advantage. A wave of bombing attacks and sniper shootings could ensue, and the many factions there would commence to fighting in an apocalyptic blaze of fire and death.

Elsewhere, terrorist attacks could be launched in Europe, Latin America, and even the United States. Israeli and Serbian analysts admit that Iranian groups are trying to infiltrate Europe and especially Western European through the Balkan corridor, the main route for transporting heroin from Afghanistan to Europe. In regions of former Yugoslavia, such as Kosovo, Tetovo (Western FYROM), and possibly Albania and Istanbul, Iranians mingle with organized crime figures to establish undercover routes on their way to Europe. One of the reasons that Washington is indirectly leaning to the Serbian and Russian side, in relation to Kosovo, is the importance of Belgrade in providing critical information on organized crime and terrorism related suspects. Furthermore, that Serbian scientists and personnel have already worked, traveled, and cooperated with Iranians for most of the 1980's and 1990's should not be forgotten. They compromise a group of individuals with extensive local knowledge. It seems certain that Iranian terrorist agents have already infiltrated and pose a potential grave danger in case of a war.

There are two basic scenarios. An all-encompassing attack by Western forces (mostly American and Israeli) or negotiations between the international community and Iran. Over the last decade, the United States has more often resorted to the use of force.

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