Sunday, October 23, 2011

Iran - Leaving Iraq Might Pave Way for Israel to Strike Iran

ALEXANDRIA, October 23 -  “After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over,” President Obama said as he declared complete troop withdrawal from Iraq. In one of those ironies that only international relations can deliver, this moment of gratitude to our troops for all they have accomplished under such incredibly difficult circumstances and conditions, could pave the way to a much bigger crisis.

America's control of Iraqi airspace and territory (dejure before sovereignty was handed back to the Iraqi's and defacto until we ship out) was a key factor limiting Israeli preemption against Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon. The Israelis have conducted surprise attacks against the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs. There is no doubt they are champing at the bit to tear it up with Tehran. Had they infiltrated or exfiltrated through Iraq between 2003-2011, the US would have been so deeply implicated that Washington might as well have run the strike itself. With the US out, a whole new world of strike opportunities open up to Israeli planners because the fledgling Iraqi air force, SAM sites etc will be no match for Tel Aviv's aviators.  

Before we go any further lets make one thing clear. Striking Iran will not achieve destruction of its nuclear program. At best it will set it back. Setting it back is a worthwhile objective - but the context of how a setback is achieved matters. A strike will not be cost free. The Iranians wont sit back and pretend nothing happened, like their clients in Damascus. As their recent [bungling] plot against the Saudi Ambassador to the US demonstrates, they have reach or at least a plan to gain reach. Closer to home, they have a lot more options to make various people's lives more complicated. Straits of Hormuz anyone?

The only way to deal with Iran is to contain it and wait it out until the people take matters into their own hands. A military strike on Iran would be a major mistake on military and political grounds. Militarily, it would be inconclusive because the Iranians have learned from Iraq's experience and dispersed and hardened its program. In the most realistic and comprehensive assessment MIL INT has seen, the CSIS outlines all the possible options for striking Iran - before US withdrawal from Iraq opens up a much easier option. None of them are good. Yet as noted above, even with access through Iraq, the dispersal and hardening of the Iranian program (to iron, not 1s and 0s) would require a massive strike that would be unlikely to get all the necessary targets. There are also new reports that Iran is enhancing its counter measusres by placing new facilities deep in its mountains.

Politically, a strike against Iran's nuclear program would be a gift to the hardliners in Tehran both against their critics within government and on the street (see below).

Libya is a test case that proves TE Lawrence's point about enabling the locals to take their own action. This is not to say that all the countries in the mideast are the same or will respond equally to the same policy. That would be the completely wrong message to take away from Libya. However, in this case Syria is a key to Iran. Syria is strategically pivotal with respect to a series of critical issues and bad actors on the world stage. Hamas, Hezbollah, problems in Lebanon, and Middle East peace, are all intimately linked to Syria. If the Arab spring really takes off in Syria where a minority Shia dictatorship is in power - Iran's ability to make trouble in the region would take a very serious hit. Perhaps a change so close to home might rekindle the Persian spring of 2009? Iran is a far greater prize than Gaddafi. Therefore a much smarter strategy to enable change in Tehran would be to assist the Syrian people in their quest to topple Assad.

But even that may not be necessary. There are already significant tensions inside Iran at the highest levels that have grown since the summer of 09. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been putting growing pressure on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad both in private and in public (names that Herb Cain would no doubt be proud he didn't recognize). All of this is going on in the forefront of an economic and social crisis in Iran that has been simmering for years. The Iranian regime has clearly proven that it cannot manage growing internal instability. Indeed, its external operations are best seen as an attempt to divert attention from growing internal strife. Patience, not bombs, is the key here.

If the best objective we can hope to achieve is to buy time, then stuxnet is a much smarter way to do it. There is a lot of speculation regarding the stuxnet story and MIL INT has no idea what really happened but if reports are true that it set back the Iranian program, was deniable, and did not provoke a response, then cyber seems far superior weapon than iron. What is yet to be seen however is blowback - at least in the cyber realm - the reverse engineering of stuxnet (and related technologies) and its use against soft targets in the West.

Perhaps we have already seen a case of blowback at least in the political realm. If the plot against the Saudi's was a response to stuxnet, it shows weakness and desperation - not strategic acumen. Which is all the more reason to continue an indirect approach as Tehran's internal crisis grows.


  1. Israel attacking Iran because the US is out of Iraq is flat out scaremongering. As already pointed out by MILINT, an Israeli kinetic option will likely prove disasterous not only for the Levant but also the middle east and the world.

  2. Not scaremongering - just considering strategic consequences of changed circumstances.

  3. Yes, Israel attacking Iran would undoubtedly represent a strategic consequence of a changed circumstance..however, the most dangerous and least likely. In this troubled world of multifaceted dilemmas, we should focus our limited analytical time and capability to those strategic consequences most likely of occuring...sectarian violence that subsumes Iraq perhaps?