Briefing paper February 2006
Published by Oxford Research Group, 2006
The consequences described above relate to the immediate responses from
within Iran or from associates in Lebanon. Probably the most difficult
response to predict would be the effect of a military confrontation with
Iran on the attitudes and reactions from within wider Islamic communities.
Although there is an uneasy relationship between Iran and the al-Qaida
movement, and between Iran and the Arab world, any attack on such a
significant Islamic republic would inevitably increase the anti-American
mood in the region and beyond, giving greater impetus to a movement that is
already a global phenomenon.
One of the most significant developments of the past four years has been the ability of the al-Qaida movement and its associates to survive and thrive in an intensely antagonistic environment. Since 9/11, the movement has experienced the loss of many key leadership elements, either killed or detained, has lost its main operating areas in Afghanistan and has seen over 70,000 people detained for lengthy periods. Even so, the level of activity in those past four years has actually been substantially higher than in the four years prior to the 9/11 attacks.
Of particular significance has been the evolution of suicide bombing. Historically, this phenomenon has been widespread and has not been restricted to radical Islamist groups, but individual campaigns involving suicide bombing have been narrow in their geographical focus. These have included the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, Kurdish separatists in Turkey, Hezbollah supporters in Southern Lebanon and Palestinian radicals in Israel/Palestine. These have all been directed at responding to occupation and perceived oppression in a localised region.
For the first time, at least on a substantial scale, suicide bombing has gone transnational, often involving well-educated individuals who are motivated to respond not to their known immediate circumstances but to the wider circumstances of co-religionists. They are aided by the huge increase in information now available through satellite TV news channels and the internet, and may be prepared to travel substantial distances to undertake their actions.
If the United States is prepared to extend its current military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to Iran, this trend should be expected to get a substantial further boost, with consequences that are difficult to predict. It will certainly be yet another example of a reaction that will serve to damage US security interests in the region and beyond.
If action against Iranian nuclear facilities was undertaken by Israel
rather than the United States, it would be on a smaller scale although still
far more substantial than the Israeli attack on the Iraqi Osiraq nuclear
reactor in 1981. Israeli military action would be concentrated on all of the
nuclear research, development and support facilities, especially personnel,
and on the Iranian missile forces, their production and development. There
would be less concern with the Revolutionary Guard or with protection of
Gulf oil facilities.
International support. Given recent major long-term economic agreements between Iran and China, and also between Iran and India, as well as close links with Russia, a US attack would attract major criticisms, including from two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – China and Russia. The current Russian administration might prefer privately to see US military action avoided, but it would be in a very difficult position in relation to many of its neighbouring allies if it were not to condemn US military action against Iran most strongly, especially if this escalated to a protracted conflict.
Iran, on the other hand, would see any Israeli action as being done in close collaboration with theUnited States, and would respond against US and Gulf oil interests in much the same way as if the attacks had been conducted by the United States itself. This would, in turn, bring US forces into the confrontation as the United States reacted to such moves. Any such escalation of the war would be of value to Israel as it would tend to weaken the wider military capabilities of Iran. Thus, Israeli action would be intended to severely damage Iranian nuclear potential while being likely to bring the United States into the conflict.
Iran’s more direct reaction to Israeli military action might be to put substantial emphasis on encouraging Hezbollah to act against Israel, possibly through missile attacks into Northern Israel.
This, too, would be advantageous to the Israeli government of the day, whatever its complexion, as it has military forces that could stage very substantial action against Hezbollah, especially through air strikes into Southern Lebanon. Such strikes would be aimed, in particular, at targeting the stores of the longer-range Katyusha-type rockets recently acquired by Hezbollah. While Israel would gain in the short term from an attack on Iran, the longer-term consequences would be far less positive. In addition to the problems created for the United States in Iraq, causing tensions between Israel and its closest ally, Israel would be faced with Iran determined to develop a nuclear weapons capability in the shortest possible time in a regional climate in which opposition to the State of Israel would have been substantially enhanced.
A US military attack on Iranian nuclear infrastructure would be the start
of a protracted military confrontation that would probably involve Iraq,
Israel and Lebanon as well as the United States and Iran, with the
possibility of west Gulf states being involved as well. An attack by Israel,
although initially on a smaller scale, would almost certainly escalate to
involve the United States, and would also mark the start of a protracted
Although an attack by either state could seriously damage Iran’s nuclear development potential, numerous responses would be possible making a protracted and highly unstable conflict virtually certain. Moreover, Iran would be expected to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and engage in a nuclear weapons programme as rapidly as possible. This would lead to further military action against Iran, establishing a highly dangerous cycle of violence.
The termination of the Saddam Hussein regime was expected to bring about a free-market client state in Iraq. Instead it has produced a deeply unstable and costly conflict with no end in sight. That may not prevent a US or an Israeli attack on Iran even though it should be expected that the consequences would be substantially greater. What this analysis does conclude is that a military response to the current crisis in relations with Iran is a particularly dangerous option and should not be considered further – alternative approaches must be sought, however difficult these may be.