Paul Rogers
Thu Aug 17, 2006 13:37


Paul Rogers
February 2006

This briefing paper provides a comprehensive analysis of the likely nature of US or Israeli military action that would be intended to disable Iran’s nuclear capabilities. It outlines both the immediate consequences in terms of loss of human life, facilities and infrastructure, and also the likely Iranian responses, which would be extensive.

An attack on Iranian nuclear infrastructure would signal the start of a protracted military confrontation that would probably grow to involve Iraq, Israel and Lebanon, as well as the USA and Iran. The report concludes 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.

Executive Summary

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. It is likely, in particular, to increase support for organisations such as al-Qaida and to prove counter-productive to peace and security in the region.


It is also possible that a paramilitary movement could develop from within Iraq. 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 termina
tion 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.”

The US Context

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.

The Israel Factor

Israel has maintained a nuclear capability since the late 1960s and is believed to have around 200 nuclear warheads, principally for delivery by aircraft or surface-to-surface missiles. It may also be developing warheads for submarine-launched cruise missiles. Even so, Israel regards it as essential to its security that it is the only state in the region with a nuclear capability. Since the Iranian Revolution at the end of the 1970s, successive Israeli governments have regarded Iran as the greatest long-term regional threat.“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.”

Units of the Israeli Air Force destroyed the Iraqi experimental Osiraq reactor near Baghdad in 1981, limiting Iraq’s potential to take the plutonium route to nuclear weapons. Baghdad was within range of Israeli aircraft whereas the Iranian facilities were, until recently, at the limit of Israeli Air Force capability. That has now changed with the importing of long-range versions of the US F-15 and F-16 strike aircraft – the F-15I and the F-16I. 25 of the F-15I are currently in service and Israel is building up a force of 102 F-16I aircraft, deliveries having stared in 2003.2 The Israeli Air Force has also acquired 500 earth penetrating bombs from the United States for use against underground facilities.

Israeli military units have also been involved in a range of operations in Iraq, especially in the Kurdish north-east of the country where, among other activities, they have been training commando units. More generally, the normally close relationship between the US military and the Israeli Defence Force

(IDF) has been greatly strengthened in the past two years as a result of US experiences in Iraq. There has been a substantial exchange of experience, especially between the IDF and the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC).3 Israeli arms companies have also provided the US armed forces with a wide range of specialist counter-insurgency weaponry and equipment, much of it developed as a result of Israeli experience in controlling the occupied Palestinian territories. Although not commonly covered in the western media, this relationship is well known across the Middle East and would contribute to an assumption that any Israeli attack on Iran would be undertaken with the knowledge, approval and assistance of the United States. It is certainly the case that an Israeli air attack on Iran would involve flights through air space currently dominated by the United States.

For the purposes of this paper, it is assumed that if the IDF was to engage in actions to seriously damage Iran’s nuclear weapons developments, it would therefore do so with the tacit support of the United States, would have access to facilities in North-East Iraq if needed, would be aiming simply to set back any nuclear programme for five years or more, and would also target Iranian missile developments. It would not extend beyond these aims whereas US action would need to do so, for reasons discussed later.

The close links between Israel and the United States are far more widely recognised across the Middle East than in the US or Europe. As a result, any Israeli military action against Iran would be seen as essentially a joint operation, with Israel acting as a surrogate and doing so with direct US support.

The Iranian Context

The Iranian context comprises a self-perception of Iran as one of the world’s historic powers and a belief that a high-technology future is an essential part of its place in the world, coupled with a strong feeling of current vulnerability. As with China, Iran looks back to several thousand years of notable history and believes that greatness is once more feasible given the combination of massive fossil fuel resources, a young population, a large and well-populated country and a geographical position that puts it at the heart of an immensely significant region.

Although the Iranian socio-political environment is complex and markedly changeable, there is a general belief in the value of advanced technology, and a perception of nuclear power as a symbol of modernity. When faced with the argument that a country so well endowed with oil and gas does not need nuclear power, the immediate reply is to point to a fifth of electricity already generated by hydro-electric power, and the argument that oil and gas are too valuable to be used for electricity generation, especially given Iran’s indigenous reserves of uranium ores. In terms of public attitudes, it is clear that a range of opinion formers from across the political and religious spectrums believe that Iran has every right to develop a nuclear fuel cycle. It is also the widespread view that Iran has the right to develop nuclear weapons should the country’s security require it.

Although Iran was in breach of some aspects of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in the 1990s, it is, at the time of writing, abiding by the terms of the treaty. It is therefore allowed to develop a civil nuclear power programme, including uranium enrichment activities, and could remain within the terms of the treaty until such time as a decision was taken to develop nuclear weapons in which case, as with North Korea, it could withdraw. Given the US view of Iran as part of the “axis of evil”, this is not acceptable to the current administration in Washington. It is just possible that Washington might entertain the continued development of a civil nuclear power programme that did not involve domestic uranium enrichment, but even this is not certain.

On the question of Iranian perceptions of security, while there is considerable self-belief in the capabilities of Iran, there is also a certain sense of insecurity.

Immediately to the west of Iran, the United States has close to 150,000 troops in Iraq and is building permanent military bases there. It has extensive deployments in Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar and has its Fifth Fleet that controls the waters of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea and is overwhelmingly powerful in contrast with the small Iranian Navy. To the east, Iran sees the United States firmly ensconced in Afghanistan, with two permanent bases now established at Bagram near Kabul and at Kandahar (see Appendix 1). Moreover, a large new military base is being developed near the western Afghan city of Herat, close to Iran’s eastern border with that country. Finally, the United States has developed close military links and, in some cases, basing facilities in a number of countries to the north and east of Iran, especially those close to the Caspian Basin oil fields or pipelines that bring such oil through to Black Sea or Mediterranean ports.

Current Circumstances in Iran

These factors all make it reasonable to assume that there is a strong motivation for Iran either to develop nuclear weapons or to have the ability to do so at short notice should it be decided that national secur


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