Briefing paper February 2006
An air attack on Iran by Israeli or US forces would be aimed at setting back Iran’s nuclear programme by at least five years. A ground offensive by the United States to terminate the regime is not feasible given other commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and would not be attempted.
An air attack would involve the systematic destruction of research, development, support and training centres for nuclear and missile programmes and the killing of as many technically competent people as possible. A US attack, which would be larger than anything Israel could mount, would also involve comprehensive destruction of Iranian air defence capabilities and attacks designed to pre-empt Iranian retaliation. This would require destruction of Iranian Revolutionary Guard facilities close to Iraq and of regular or irregular naval forces that could disrupt Gulf oil transit routes.
Although US or Israeli attacks would severely damage Iranian nuclear and missile programmes, Iran would have many methods of responding in the months and years that followed.
These would include disruption of Gulf oil production and exports, in spite of US attempts at pre-emption, systematic support for insurgents in Iraq, and encouragement to associates in Southern Lebanon to stage attacks on Israel. There would be considerable national unity in Iran in the face of military action by the United States or Israel, including a revitalised Revolutionary Guard.
One key response from Iran would be a determination to reconstruct a nuclear programme and develop it rapidly into a nuclear weapons capability, with this accompanied by withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This would require further attacks. A military operation against Iran would not, therefore, be a short-term matter but would set in motion a complex and long-lasting confrontation. It follows that military action should be firmly ruled out and alternative strategies developed.
In November 2002, four months before the Iraq War started, Oxford Research
Group published a report, Iraq: Consequences of a War,(1) that examined the
possible outcomes of military action to terminate the Saddam Hussein regime.
Two of its conclusions were that regime termination was certainly feasible
but that the occupation of Iraq by coalition troops would increase support
for radical elements in the region and also incite an insurgency.
The United States has sufficient forces to ensure regime destruction but the regime’s replacement by occupying forces or by a client regime, even if the war is not greatly destructive, should be expected to increase regional opposition to the US presence.
While there is abundant evidence of the unpopularity of the Saddam Hussein
regime, it is certainly possible that internal opposition to US occupation
and the subsequent installing of a client regime would result in an evolving
insurgency. Internal opposition to the current regime does not equate with
the future acceptance of foreign occupation.
At the time of writing that report, war with Iraq seemed increasingly likely. By contrast, at the present time war with Iran over the latter’s presumed nuclear weapons ambitions may be rather less likely, but this may change. A diplomatic solution to the profound differences between Washington and Tehran is still possible, but is becoming progressively less likely. As major difficulties persist and possibly intensify, the possibility of military action by the United States or Israel increases. Even at this stage, therefore, it is appropriate to analyse what kind of military action might take place and what might be its outcome and aftermath. If there are valid arguments that military action might have severe consequences, perhaps even worse than the problems now being experienced in Iraq, then such a conclusion would imply that much greater emphasis on alternative solutions is both essential and urgent.
This paper takes as an assumption that any military action by the United States or Israel would have as its function the inflicting of severe damage on Iran’s nuclear installations and medium range missile programmes, while, in the case of the United States, endeavouring to pre-empt any damaging Iranian response. It also does not investigate the possibility that the United States would take the kind of military action necessary to terminate the current regime in Tehran. That would require major deployments of at least 100,000 ground troops, either by the United States on its own or in coalition with other states. At the present time, the United States does not have such spare capacity, mainly because of the need to maintain up to 150,000 troops in Iraq, up to 30,000 in West Gulf states and around 18,000 in Afghanistan. There is no other state that has both the capacity to provide such numbers of troops and is remotely supportive of such a level of US military action.
Regime termination as a military aim is not therefore examined in this report.
“A diplomatic solution to the profound differences between Washington and Tehran is still possible, but is becoming progressively less likely. As major difficulties persist and possibly intensify, the possibility of military action by the United States or Israel increases.”
Although major difficulties have arisen with US military operations in Iraq,
there is still a dominant feeling in neo-conservative circles in Washington
that Iran is, and always has been, a much greater threat to US regional and
global interests than Iraq was. A common view before the start of the Iraq
War in March 2003 was that “if we get Iraq right, we won’t have to worry
about Iran”. In other words, if military force proved easily able to
terminate the Saddam Hussein regime and replace it with a stable client
government supported by permanent US bases, then Iran would bow to US policy
in the region, causing little trouble. The fact that Iraq was not “got right”
and that there is considerable potential for Iranian influence in Iraq is
one consequence of the decision to terminate the Saddam Hussein regime.
The perception of Iran as the major threat to US interests in the Middle East stems, in part, from the long-term consequences of seeing the apparently secure, authoritarian and pro-American regime of the Shah so easily deposed in a matter of weeks in 1979. The Shah’s Iran had been seen as the lynch-pin of US security interests in the Gulf – a bulwark against Soviet interference. The sudden regime collapse, followed by the traumatic impotence of the United States at the time of the hostage crisis and the subsequent and bitter antagonism to the US demonstrated by the Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomenei, meant that Iran was a direct and persistent obstacle to US regional interests.
These were, and are, centred on the Gulf region’s immense oil reserves and the trend of the United States becoming increasingly dependent on imported oil. If the oil factor was important at the start of the 1990s, it is far more so 15 years later, with US oil import dependency increasing year by year, with China in a similar position, and with Gulf fossil fuel resources likely to make the region of profound geopolitical significance over the next thirty years or more.
In such circumstances it is fundamentally unacceptable to the United States for a “rogue” state such as Iran to be allowed to get even remotely near having its own nuclear capability. Such a “deterrent” would greatly limit US options in the region, and would provide a threat to its closest ally – Israel. While Washington may not be implacably opposed to diplomatic options to ensure that Iran does not go down the path of a major nuclear infrastructure, if those fail, then it has to be recognised that destruction of the suspected nuclear weapons infrastructure and associated facilities is likely to be undertaken at some stage.
(1) Paul Rogers, Iraq: Consequences of a War (Oxford: Oxford Research Group, 2002).
Copyright © Paul Rogers, 2006
The right of Paul Rogers to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998.
About the Author
Paul Rogers is Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford and Global Security Consultant to Oxford Research Group. Paul has worked in the field of international security, arms control and political violence for over 20 years. He lectures at universities and defence colleges in several countries, and his publications include 20 books and over 100 papers. His latest book, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004/2005, was published by I.B. Tauris in November 2005. Paul is a regular commentator on global security issues in both the national and international media.
Oxford Research Group gratefully acknowledges the support of the Ford Foundation,
the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and the Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation for making the publication of this report possible. Paul Rogers would like to thank Dr. Frank Barnaby, Paul Ingram, Nick Ritchie and Chris Abbott for advice, suggestions and information, other members of staff at Oxford Research Group for discussions and support, and Gabrielle Rifkind for hosting meetings in London on this issue. Paul visited Iran during the preparation of this briefing paper and he is particularly grateful to a number of Iranian academics and policy makers in Tehran for valuable insights.
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