Briefing paper February 2006
Published by Oxford Research Group, 2006
Given the small size and largely obsolete nature of the Iranian Air Force
and air defence systems, Iran would be able to offer little direct
opposition to the kind of US attack outlined above. Moreover, US action
would have been designed to destroy what limited capability might be
US action to pre-empt obvious Iranian responses, such as affecting tanker traffic through the Straits of Hormuz or moving Revolutionary Guard elements into parts of Iraq, could well mean that there would be immediate if apparent indications of comprehensive US military success in doing serious damage both to Iran’s presumed nuclear weapons development potential and in countering immediate Iranian responses. This could turn out to be as misleading as the early apparent successes in Iraq following regime termination within three weeks of the start of that war in March 2003. In fact, Iran has many options available in response, even if they are not options of immediate effect.
The small Iranian Navy suffered severe losses in its exchanges with the US Navy at the end of the “tanker war” in April 1988, and it is probable that the main emphasis will be on fast light forces, including speedboats crewed by those prepared to die. These would be Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) forces and they would most likely place the greatest emphasis on attacking tanker traffic rather than US naval units. Operating bases for these forces would be priorities for attack.
It would also be assumed that IRG elements would move into some parts of Iraq to link up with sympathetic militia. To demonstrate that any such moves would incite retaliation, it is probable that military action would target forward-based ground force units both of the IRG and of the regular army.
Of the numerous Iranian Army bases, those close to the border with Iraq at Abadan, Khorramshahr, Ahvaz, Dezfuland and possibly Mahabad would be the most likely targets, as would major IRG centres.
A range of logistical support facilities would be targeted, with this possibly extending to destruction of bridges. Given the porous nature of the border, this latter action would be primarily symbolic.
Redevelopment of nuclear programme. However badly Iran’s nuclear infrastructure was damaged in an attack, an immediate response would be to reconstitute the infrastructure and work rapidly and in secret towards a clear nuclear weapons capability. This would probably involve giving formal notice of withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, followed by the immediate reconstitution of the nuclear infrastructure, developing it wherever possible in a more survivable manner. This would include systems redundancy, dispersal of research, development and production capabilities and the use of deep underground facilities for future work wherever feasible.
Furthermore, there may already be elements of redundancy built in to the current Iranian civil nuclear programme and there may be elements of which the United States is unaware. If so, this would aid the reconstitution of capabilities. More generally, any hope of negotiating away Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons programme in the years after a US attack would vanish, undermining global non-proliferation efforts. Rather than living with an Iran that had the potential to produce nuclear weapons, the US action would almost certainly guarantee an overtly nuclear-armed Iran for decades to come or, alternatively, further instances of military action.
Hezbollah. Iran would be likely to encourage more militant action by Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. Given that Hezbollah now has large quantities of surface-to-surface missiles of a range sufficient to reach Haifa and other population centres in the north of Israel, a vigorous Israeli response should be expected, further adding to an atmosphere of crisis. It is true that Hezbollah is currently undergoing a period of substantial political transformation, moving more firmly into the social and political arenas, so that major military action against Israel would be a regression to previous patterns. This is to be expected, though, given the likely extent of the popular support for Iran resulting from US military action.
Any action from Hezbollah would result in substantial Israeli military responses. At the very least these would involve air strikes, the use of artillery and battlefield missiles and naval bombardment. They might extend to cross-border operations by infantry and armoured units.
Straits of Hormuz. While one major aim of any US military action would be to forestall Iranian interference with Gulf oil exports, this would have to be near total in its effect on Iranian capabilities.
This would be difficult if not impossible to achieve, leading to a fear of attack which alone would have a formidable impact on oil markets.
West Gulf oil facilities. Furthermore, it would be possible for paramilitary units linked to Iran to develop the ability to sabotage oil export facilities in western Gulf states such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. High levels of security would undoubtedly be maintained in these states, yet determined paramilitary groups would be difficult to control with certainty. Even one or two incidents of sabotage would raise tensions and further affect oil markets.
Revolutionary Guard. The Revolutionary Guard remains a strong if largely free-standing component of the Iranian defence system. While its facilities on the Persian Gulf coast and close to the border with Iran might be damaged in the early waves of US attacks, there would also be a very substantial base of support for the Guard, expressed by immediate improvements in morale, a greatly enhanced ability to recruit, and a determination to respond. Although US military action against Guard facilities might be undertaken to “warn off” the Guard from interfering in Iraq, the effect would almost certainly be shortlived, and the numerous links which already exist between Guard units and Iraqi Shi’a militias would be activated rapidly. Such demonstrable Iranian involvement in the Iraqi insurgency would result in an escalating US military response involving cross-border attacks on Iranian logistics. This would increase Iranian civilian casualties, cause economic disruption and also further increase internal Iranian support for the current regime.
Overall, and given the nature of the Iran/Iraq border, Iran would be in a very strong position to aid elements of the Iraqi insurgency in numerous ways, providing a wide range of armaments as well as personnel. This would give a substantial boost to an insurgency that, even three years after the termination of the old regime, is as active as ever.