Israel and the US have both been ratcheting up their rhetoric against Iran in the past few months and an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities looks highly likely. Just the other day, Obama told Iran to stop its nuclear programme or else adding, “I don’t bluff”. I really, really hope he’s bluffing. Because Iran’s ready to make an attack on it cost the world big time.
Why war with Iran?
There’s no just war case for attacking Iran. Yes, the government is a quasi-dictatorship and it has brutally repressed uprisings but this is no Syria and Libya. In those cases, there were/are armed attempts by popular movements to overthrow their dictators – outside intervention would merely be leveling the playing field before the rebels get blasted apart by the regime’s heavy weapons.
In a perfect world, governments like the Iranian one wouldn’t exist but you can say that about the majority of the world’s governments and only the most fevered neo-con dream do you go knocking them off one at a time. In fact, we’ve already seen the result of that fevered neo-con dream in Iraq where the regime was knocked off without any domestic alternative extant, leading to sectarian violence, occupation and perhaps as many as a million deaths, with the very real prospect of civil war in the near future.
And Iran is not an external threat. It hasn’t started a war against its neighbours in over 150 years and its posture is clearly defensive. If it is trying to acquire nuclear weapons than it is for the same reason that any country – bar the US – has acquired them: not to use but as a deterrent to other nuclear powers. The Iranian government isn’t mad – they know that if they were to actually launch a nuclear weapon against Israel it would be signing Tehran’s death warrant. Ironically, the ‘threat’ Israel sees is that Iran will soon either have nukes or as good as have them, making them ‘invulnerable’ to Israel’s own nuclear arsenal because the Iranians will have a matching deterrent (and triggering the Saudis to develop their own nuke).
Iran’s not about to nuke anyone. The strategic case here is purely about preserving the nuclear high ground for Israel. Not a real threat in my book.
So, there’s no good reason to start a war with Iran (and I’ll argue no realpolitik one either). That’s never stopped wars happening before. In fact, its the just wars that don’t happen and the unjustified ones that do. What happens, then, if Israel or the US decides to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities?
In fact, the war is already underway. Israel has been assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists and Iran has been attacking Israeli diplomats with car bombs in return.
If Israel decides to for direct action against Iran’s nuclear facilities it could use its long-range missiles, the first time ICBMs would be used in combat, it could launch missiles from its submarines in the Persian Gulf, or it could launch an air strike. The latter would be more pinpoint but would involve a large portion of the Israeli air force and require overflight of at least one uninvolved Muslim country, which would be inviting scorn in the Muslim world and retaliation from Iran if it agreed.
The Yanks could launch cruise missiles and air strikes from carriers in the Gulf and its airbases in the region although, again, host countries would be inviting retaliation.
Iran’s nuclear facilities are heavily-fortified and dispersed, and it has some advanced air defence (in fact, it has some impressive domestic military equipment full stop). This wouldn’t be as simple as flying over and bombing a single reactor, as Israel did to Iraq and Syria. If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t put money on an attack by the US or Israel succeeding in destroying Iran’s capacity to soon build a nuclear bomb – unless they use nukes themselves.
But the bigger issue from our perspective in New Zealand is what Iran does if it is attacked.
Iran’s entire posture is around presenting a credible threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which a third of the world’s oil exports pass (17 million barrels per day in an average of 14 tankers).
Iran wouldn’t even have to actually sink or capture oil tankers – a credible threat will be enough to get the insurance companies to withdraw any cover for tankers going through the Strait. And that would cripple the world economy virtually overnight.
To present a credible threat, Iran has developed and deployed hundreds of small, stealthy missile boats equipped with domestically produced anti-ship missiles that can be dispersed to numerous deployment positions along the coast in the event of a war, as well as domestically-built submarines and mines. It maintains a large land-based cruise missile force with mobile launchers that could be fire on tankers or docks and refineries in neighbouring countries. If Israel or the US attacks Iran, the Strait would be over-run with small fast Iranian boats and missile forces that would threaten any nearby tankers and US naval vessels.
Iran learned the lessons of the Iraq/Iran war, where its mass assault tactics lead to huge casualties for little gain, and its strategy of trying to stop Iraqi oil shipments resulted in the US sinking its largest ships. Now, by going for small and numerous weapons systems and concentrating on a single strategic vulnerability, rather than trying and failing to match the US’s naval capital ships in the Gulf, Iran is adopting classic guerrilla tactics. With all those little boats and mobile launchers running around, it would be very hard for the US to re-establish safe passage through the Strait for tankers and every day would cost hundreds of billions in economic activity to the US and its allies. It is a very clever strategy.
Oh, and Iran has its own ICBMs it could throw back at Israel.
Alternative routes to the Strait do exist – the biggest being the East-West Pipeline in Saudi Arabia but it can only carry up to 5 million barrels and is within range of Iranian missiles. Meanwhile, Iran has lessened its own dependence on the Strait by building refineries so that it no longer has to import refined oil products and a pipeline to Pakistan that will soon allow it to export more gas without going through the Strait. Countries also have strategic oil reserves but they take time to be accessed and they only spread the cost of the lost oil imports because the reserve shave to refilled later. The economic importance of the Strait of Hormuz cannot be over-estimated. The world needs the oil that passes through the Strait and has no other way of getting at most of it.
The oil experts are saying that world oil prices would hit $150 a barrel instantly if Israel or the US attacks Iran, even before the shortages hit. I don’t know how long they could stay up before the price simply destroys demand by plunging the world into a deep recession but I bet that it wouldn’t be too many days. All Iran has to do is stay in the fight long enough to make war too costly for the attackers.
Israel and the US must have every large oil importer in the world screaming at them right now to see sense – and not start a war.
Of course, war isn’t about being sensible, almost by definition. Israel and the US both see Iran as a bete noir out of all proportion to the actual danger it poses to them if they leave it alone. But if they kick over that hornets’ nest, the whole world will get stung. An attack could well fail in its aim of crippling Iran’s nuclear programme while unleashing economic devastation across the globe by turning off quarter of the oil.
The realpolitik doesn’t add up.
I really do hope Obama is bluffing. And that he can control the Israelis.