A realistic gaming of the strategic situation, however, would indicate that there is the chance that Iran could initiate a nuclear first strike against Israel, provided that such an action is preceded and accompanied by a general escalation and a concerted assault with missiles and surrogate ground force action (Hizbullah and possibly Syria). Such a situation would presuppose a substantial general escalation of tensions to create a climate which would legitimize Iranian actions, or make decisive Iranian military action appear less provocative. Indeed, the Hizbullah assault against Israel in 2006 was a doctrinal test of such a process, and, in fact, did not show that such an approach would be successful on the part of Iran as the initiator of such an action.
Clearly, much has changed since then. Iran can quite rightly feel that Israel has become strategically isolated to a greater degree; that its overland flight access to Iranian targets has been constrained by the loss of alliance support from Turkey and the greater readiness of Syrian air defenses; and so on. Even the increased control of the Horn of Africa by pro-Iranian forces is a corresponding loss for Israel’s ability to freely access the Indian Ocean with its submarines, in the broader picture.
Iran knows, however, that by initiating a nuclear first strike — or even a repetition of an indirect (ie: third party) conventional missile barrage against Israel — it would invite unpredictable destructive consequences. The only hope for the Iranian ruling clerics, who are totally unversed in historical strategic thinking, would be that an external strike against Iran would unify the fractious Iranian public around the clerical leadership. That happened in the past, in particular in the case of the Iran-Iraq war, which came at a time when the Iranian public abandoned its galvanizing dislike of the clerical rule of “Ayatollah” Ruhollah Khomeini in favor of the even more galvanizing desire to protect the homeland.
A similar approach was tried in 1982 by the alcoholic leadership of Argentina by Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, whose last-ditch bid to retain power was to throw his country into a failed invasion of the Falkland Islands.
In the case of Israel and Iran, the cost/benefit ledger must be calculated on both sides. This has not been done by the West, or, arguably, by the Iranian clerics. It is too easy for Western pundits, and their Middle Eastern counterparts, to assume that the leadership in Iran or Israel is “irrational”, and that cost/benefit analysis will play no rôle in decisionmaking. This merely highlights the cultural ignorance of the pundits with regard to the subjects of their “analysis”.
Moreover, the puerile debate highlights the fact that fewer and fewer people in the U.S., Europe, or even Israel have actually studied nuclear strategy. In the case of the Iranian clerics, one hampering factor is that the clerics do not appear to have studied nuclear strategy at all, and have no comprehension of the real capabilities and limitations of nuclear weapons. Most in the Western and Middle Eastern media, and in government, have become obsessed with nuclear weapons without comprehending that they are merely just relatively big bombs; they are not doomsday weapons. Even former U.S. President “Jimmy” Carter, a onetime nuclear engineer (although he called himself a “nucular scientist”) had no comprehension of the actual efficacy and mission of nuclear weapons (even as a nuclear engineer, he was working on propulsion systems, not bombs).
Part of the problem has been that the study and debate of nuclear strategy has been politically incorrect in recent years. To study it seemed to imply an approval of it; to de-mystify it seemed to imply that nuclear warfare would become more “normal” and therefore possible. Such an approach equally implies that a study of cancer is the first step toward accepting it and therefore making it more possible.
The 1949 study by Dr Stefan Possony, Strategic Air Power,1 forecast a world which looks remarkably familiar today. But he put the nuclear equation into a comprehensible format. He defined what is possible, and what is not possible, with nuclear weapons. Possony went on to be the U.S. Air Force strategist, and had already established his credentials in grand strategy, and in the area of strategic targeting, among other things. He created the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) concept as a means of providing an effective global countermeasure against nuclear (and other strategic) weapons being delivered by ballistic missiles, but SDI was subsequently butchered by its opponents — the “anti-nuclear” lobby — in such a way which has led to the perpetuation of the political mythology of fear which has drifted further and further away from realism in the public and political arenas. And opposition to SDI ensured that nuclear weapons remained efficacious.
So we must return to the argument about Iran and Israel, and what either side could hope to achieve by nuclear strikes, or by pre-emptive strikes against nuclear facilities. What are the probable consequences? What can either side hope to achieve through its actions?
Both Western and Middle Eastern analysts have approached the debate as though a single action could definitively define or achieve a known outcome. The reality is that the consequences of any proposed action — an Iranian nuclear strike or a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities — are completely unpredictable, except that a range of uncontrollable, and largely undesirable (from the initiator’s standpoint) are probable.
The U.S. Bipartisan Policy Center in late June 2010 issued a report which said that the Israel Defense Force (IDF) could “shelve plans” for a “massive fighter-jet attack on Iran” because of the difficulty in winning approval for overflight of states along the route between Israel and Iran, and instead opt to use Israeli missile capabilities to attack Iranian nuclear facilities. The report cited the possible use by Israel of its Jericho-2 and Jericho-3 intermediate-range, solid-fuel ballistic missiles, or use its submarine-launched Popeye land-attack cruise missiles. The report2 was authored by former U.S. Senators Daniel Coats and Charles Robb, working with retired Gen. Charles F. “Chuck” Wald, USAF.
Of course this is possible, or feasible. But then what? Moreover, the report continues the “sky is falling” view that nuclear weapons cannot be discussed rationally, and postulate as axiomatic the belief that the acquisition of nuclear weapons ends all ability to resolve a situation. Already is forgotten the fact that South Africa had nuclear weapons, and that these proved militarily and strategically useless, and, indeed, counterproductive. Other than the fact that the West has psychologically defeated itself by accepting that Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons would make the clerics invulnerable — a psychosis which only feeds Iranian clerical belief that they are on the right course just as Western self-paralysis and its empowerment of terrorism through media multipliers has defeated many in the West; terrorism itself has not done that — the reality of just what Iran could do with the weapons has not been discussed.
Most Israeli analysts are aware that the problem is not the ability to strike — by air, ballistic missile, or by cruise missile — or even in matter of target selection. The Israeli intelligence services certainly have a good idea of where the Iranian nuclear-related targets are situated, along with the layout of the Iranian command and control network: its National Command Authority (NCA). However, a strike against these target sets, even if successful, does not necessarily guarantee long-term security or victory for Israel.
Iran in 2010 is not Iraq as it was on June 7, 1981, when the Israeli Air Force (IAF) struck at the Tammuz 1 nuclear reactor at Osirak, Central Iraq, in Operation Babylon/Mivtza Opera. That was a contained situation, and the Iranians — and everyone else — learned from it; and the operation was against a capability which was identified with the Iraqi leadership, not the Iraqi population which was opposed to that leadership. The Iraqi people are not the Iranian people.
But the U.S. fixation is with technology; with what weapons – rather than strategy – can do. History shows, of course, that advanced weapons in the hands of primitive minds are far more useless than primitive weapons controlled by advanced minds. The thinking of an exchange between Iran and Israel must go beyond initial military strikes. Clearly, in the case of strategic weapons, an Iran-Israel conflict is doctrinally asymmetric, as it would be between India and Pakistan, because of the different geographic realities of the competing parties. In the case of India and Pakistan there is an absolute awareness that nuclear weapons represent merely an early phase of a potential conflict which must be concluded on the ground through occupation.
Possony discussed, in 1949, the numbers of weapons which would required for basic strategic effectiveness, and neither Iran nor even the substantially better-equipped Israelis have the capacity to achieve that strategic effectiveness in a conflict constrained by the lack of geographic contiguity of the combatants. Iran may argue that its use of Syria and Hizbullah in Lebanon give it the ground-force occupation capability, but that is a matter of considerable speculation, a case of the Iranian clerics fighting to the last Syrian or Lebanese.
As a result, an Iranian strategic strike against Israel, if it ever became sufficiently direct (in other words, beyond the use of proxy Hizbullah and Syrian forces), would invite massive retaliation from Israel’s extremely capable forces, rendering any Iranian victory pyrrhic, and possibly leading directly to the break-up of Iran. An Israeli first strike against Iran — ie: a preventive strike in the fashion of the 1982 Osirak attack — would be equally counter-productive for Israel. It would force Iranians to support their national integrity reluctantly (as in the Iran-Iraq war) siding with the clerics against an external threat. It would also trigger either a launch-through-warning or a retaliatory strike from the mobile Iranian strategic missile force against Israel.
This would be, in part, a nuclear retaliatory attack, even at this stage, because Iran has a core of externally-acquired nuclear weapons, something which the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) of the U.S. indirectly admitted on March 11, 20093. This is a reality which has been forbidden from discussion in U.S. intelligence and policy circles since the early 1990s. So an Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iran would generate disproportionately costly results for Israel.
Israel’s best policy, then, is to deter “irrational” Iranian actions which could spill over into a full Iranian missile (and therefore possibly nuclear) attack, even bearing in mind the limited number of heavy strategic missiles of the Shahab-3 type available to Iran. Thus, even Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has been constrained to undertaking a saber-rattling campaign while trying to bolster the credibility of Iran to operate militarily at a regional strategic level.
Equally, the U.S. is in no position to sustain a new and wider conflict environment, even supporting a potential Israeli military strike at Iran. Washington has run out of political will, political allies, and, finally, it has run out of ordnance. Its arsenal is in grave need of restocking, and there is little chance for such budgetary surges in the present economic and political environment to rebuild its weapons, let alone its manpower.
And if Iran was to initiate such a conflict, it would seriously jeopardize the framework for energy and political influence which Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been striving to compile from Central Asia through the Caucasus to the Middle East and Europe. So there are serious constraints against Iran, as well.
Beneath all of this hyperbole-ridden sky there are U.S.- and UK-led groups which favor the dismemberment of Iran as a means of resolving the issue. However, again with the long-term view, any further reduction of the historical Persian landmass — which has already shrunk by two-thirds over the past two centuries — would only benefit the strategic growth of Russia and the PRC, and possibly Turkey (although there are many other factors which gather around Turkey).
Little consideration has been given to mounting a classic psychological strategy to support the Iranian people in transforming the situation in Iran while keeping the state intact. Indeed, so “politically correct” has the U.S. Defense Dept. become that the “psychological warfare” function of the U.S. Army and Air Force — as tactical as these capabilities have been — has now become re-worded as “information management” and “information dominance” (specifically, military information support and/to operations [MISO]), etc.
The race, then, with the most chance of benefiting the great powers, the Iranian and Israeli people, and the region, would be for a “bloodless victory” of the type so favored by Sun-tzu, based around a popular and modernist approach to reshaping the governance of Iran. The strategic competition, then, would be between foreign sponsors to shape the outcome of such a bloodless revolution to the best interests of the sponsoring power.
But this, by its nature a covert and deniable process, lacks appeal in the technology-driven mindsets of the cyber-geeks who now dominate Western policy processes. Even absent their technology fixation, the corridors of power in the West do not resound to the footsteps of historians and grand strategists.