from the June 20, 2008 edition
Istanbul, Turkey - Pressure is building on Iran. This week Europe agreed to
new sanctions and President Bush again suggested something more serious -
possible military strikes - if the Islamic Republic doesn't bend to the will
of the international community on its nuclear program.
But increasingly military analysts are warning of severe consequences if the
US begins a shooting war with Iran. While Iranian forces are no match for
American technology on a conventional battlefield, Iran has shown that it
can bite back in unconventional ways.
Iranian networks in Iraq and Afghanistan could imperil US interests there;
American forces throughout the Gulf region could be targeted by asymmetric
methods and lethal rocket barrages; and Iranian partners across the region -
such as Hezbollah in Lebanon - could be mobilized to engage in an anti-US
Iran's response could also be global, analysts say, but the scale would
depend on the scale of the US attack. "One very important issue from a US
intelligence perspective, [the Iranian reaction] is probably more
unpredictable than the Al Qaeda threat," says Magnus Ranstorp at the Center
for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defense College in
"I doubt very much our ability to manage some of the consequences,
Ranstorp, noting that Iranian revenge attacks in the past have been marked
by "plausible deniability" and have had global reach.
"If you attack Iran you are unleashing a firestorm of reaction internally
that will only strengthen revolutionary forces, and externally in the
region," says Ranstorp. "It's a nightmare scenario for any contingency
planner, and I think you really enter the twilight zone if you strike Iran."
Though the US military has since early 2007 accused Iran's Qods Force - an
elite element of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) - of providing
anti-US militias in Iraq with lethal roadside bombs, and of training and
backing "special groups" in actions that the US government alleges have cost
"thousands" of lives, US commanders have played down Iran's military
Even Admiral William Fallon, who publicly opposed a US strike on Iran before
he resigned in April, dismissed Iran as a military threat. "Get serious,"
Adm. Fallon told Esquire in March. "These guys are ants. When the time
comes, you crush them."
But that has not kept Iran from rhetorical chest-beating, with an active
military manpower of 540,000 - the largest in the Middle East - dependent on
some of the lowest per capita defense spending in the region. Iran "can deal
fatal blows to aggressor America by unpredictable and creative tactical
moves," the senior commander Brig. Gen. Gholam Ali Rashid said in late May.
"It is meaningless to back down before an enemy who has targeted the roots
of our existence."
Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei also warned of
far-reaching revenge in 2006. "The Americans should know that if they
assault Iran, their interests will be harmed anywhere in the world that is
possible," he said. "The Iranian nation will respond to any blow with double
Analysts say Iran has a number of tools to make good on those threats and
take pride in taking on a more powerful enemy. "This is not something they
are shying away from," says Alex Vatanka, a Middle East security analyst at
Jane's Information Group in Washington.
"They say: 'Conventional warfare is not something we can win against the US,
but we have other assets in the toolbox,' " says Mr. Vatanka, noting that
the IRGC commander appointed last fall has been "marketed as this genius
behind asymmetric warfare doctrine."
"What they are really worried about is the idea of massive aerial attacks on
literally thousands of targets inside Iran," says Vatanka, also an adjunct
scholar at the Middle East Institute. "Their reading of America's intentions
in that scenario would be twofold: One is to obviously dismantle as much as
possible the nuclear program; and [the other], indirectly try to weaken the
Any US-Iran conflict would push up oil prices, and though Iran could disrupt
shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf, its weak economy depends on oil
But nearby US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf provide a host of
targets. Iran claimed last October that it could rain down 11,000 rockets
upon "the enemy" within one minute of an attack and that rate "would
Further afield, Israel is within range of Iran's Shahab-3 ballistic
missiles, and Hezbollah claims its rockets - enhanced and resupplied by Iran
since the 2006 war to an estimated 30,000 - can now hit anywhere in the
Jewish state, including its nuclear plant at Dimona.
Closer to home, Iran has honed a swarming tactic, in which small and lightly
armed speedboats come at far larger warships from different directions. A
classified Pentagon war game in 2002 simulated just such an attack and in it
the Navy lost 16 major warships, according to a report in The New York Times
"The sheer numbers involved overloaded their ability, both mentally and
electronically, to handle the attack," Lt. Gen. K. Van Riper, a retired
Marine Corps officer who commanded the swarming force, told the Times. "The
whole thing was over in five, maybe 10 minutes."
During the 1990s, Iranian agents were believed to be behind the
assassinations of scores of regime opponents in Europe, and German
prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Iran's intelligence minister.
Iran and Hezbollah are alleged to have collaborated in the May 1992 bombing
of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in revenge for Israel's killing of a
Hezbollah leader months before. Argentine prosecutors charge that they
jointly struck again in 1994, bombing a Jewish community center in the
Argentine capital that killed 85, one month after Israel attacked a
Hezbollah base in Lebanon.
With some 30,000 on the payroll by one count, Iranian intelligence "is a
superpower in intelligence terms in the region; they have global reach
because of their reconnaissance ability and quite sophisticated ways of
inflicting pain," says Ranstorp. "They have been expanding their influence..
Who would have predicted that Argentina would be the area that Hezbollah and
the Iranians collectively would respond?"
Past examples show that "Tehran recognizes that at times its interest are
best served by restraint," says a report on consequences of a strike on Iran
published this week by Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt of The
Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But Iran could target the US, too, depending on the magnitude of any US
strike. "Iran's capacity for terror and subversion remains one of its most
potent levers in the event of a confrontation with the United States," says
the report, adding that "success" in delaying Iran's nuclear programs could
If "US and world opinion were so angered by the strikes that they refused to
support further pressure against Iran's nuclear ambitions, then prevention
could paradoxically [eventually ensure] Iran's open pursuit of nuclear
weapons," concludes the report.
And the long list of unconventional tactics should not be taken for granted
in Tehran, says Vatanka, noting that the Islamic system's top priority is
"So the Iranians have to be careful," says Vatanka. "Just because the US
doesn't have the will right now, or the ability to produce the kind of stick
that they would fear, doesn't mean the way of confrontation is going to pay
off for them in the long run."