Scenarios for an Israeli Attack on Iran

February 5, 2012

“Unity is the cure to lots of ailments in our country.” -Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei

The threat of U.S. military presence and western economic sanctions in itself seems unable to detour Iran from wrapping up its nuclear program. In fact they seem only to raise Iran’s ire even more. Therefore, I see U.S. moves as nothing more than running down the clock on non-military tactics. Meanwhile, this weekend Iran is starting new military exercises on the ground. What’s interesting about this exercise is that it involves Revolutionary Guards and not Iran’s navy. This suggests to me that Iran will employ asymmetric and non-conventional tactics to close the Strait of Hormuz.

Iranian (and American) politics are also playing a role. In a stacked election coming on March 2, the new Iranian parliament (the Majles) will be made official. With  its arrival, all remaining vintages of  a moderate faction will be swept out. This is a power consolidation by religious Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to eliminate all opposition from Ahmadinejad, as well as any surviving moderates. In some respects, Khamenei makes Ahmadinejad seem a bit tame. He is convinced that the West’s political-economic system is decayed and is ripe for a fall, and he seems more than willing to put his theory to the test. He compares the West today to the crumbling Soviet Union of the late 1980s, which was “swept  away” because it had “no logic.”  ["Khamenei Won't Retreat"]

After the power consolidation, Khamenei will be more than willing to employ the more aggressive asymmetric tactics used by the Revolutionary Guard to try and bait Israel and the U.S. into some accident or retaliation, even before a strike against Iran’s facilities. Daring a strike would be a way of flipping a big middle finger and demonstrating to all that Iran’s nukes were buried safely underground. If that doesn’t work, he will provoke. After all, the U.S. was recently warned by Iran about its presence in its home court, the Persian Gulf. The U.S. responded by deploying three aircraft carrier groups.

Post March 2, Iran will become even more hardline and will literally bunker down. At this point, Iran and its nuke capability will become a central topic of U.S. elections. Republican presidential candidates are going to play to the idea that potentially secular and democratic voices are being suppressed by a tyrannical regime in Tehran and Obama is not lifting a finger. There are going to be saber-rattling calls in the U.S. to “support the Green Movement,” and for “regime change” in Iran. Once sanctions fizzle  and this heats up, Obama will be more and more on the defensive politically.

As a variable to all this, Israel could strike before these March 2 elections in a somewhat wild gamble to rattle the cage in Iran and hope for a different internal outcome other than the table that is now being set. But for real opposition to materialize within Iran — and given that the Green Movement was hung out to dry by the world in 2009 — the U.S. would also have to be heavily engaged militarily, taking out the Revolutionary Guard, and the hardline cleric leadership in addition to the nuke facilities. That’s a tall order.

On the other hand, the huge dilemma for Israel is that the Iranians have enough enriched uranium in deep underground facilities to make a weapon. Israel has serious doubts about that. The immediate tactical variable driving Israel’s apparent push toward strikes is the ongoing installation of centrifuges in the new enrichment facility at Fordo near Qom. [Iran nuclear work at underground bunker confirmed].  The Fordo facility is located inside a small mountain, making it very difficult to destroy from the air, at least not without using nuclear weapons. That would force Israel into using the dreaded and devastating “N” word against Iran, which would be far more disastrous in terms of worldwide opinion than a more conventional preemptive strike right now. Even if Israel used its conventional capabilities of precision bombing and Israeli commandos, this will be a difficult and possibly inadequate mission. Further, the odds of tactical success are dropping by the day.

The rest of this article describing the concept of deterrent edge as practiced by Israel, and the buildup, attack route and time line leading to the attack is posted in Russ Winter’s Actionable.

17 Responses to Scenarios for an Israeli Attack on Iran

  1. Steve W from Ford on February 5, 2012 at 12:23 am

    In November the Obama administration informed congress of its plan to sell a combination of approx 5000 advanced bunker busting bombs and tailfin guidance systems to adapt older bombs to this purpose to the UAE.
    It is interesting to contemplate the politics resulting from a concerted action by Israel and perhaps one or two Arab nations in a joint attack upon Iran. The Arabs are at least as worried as the Israelis about Iranian nuclear plans.
    A joint action of this nature would certainly confound Iran and its supporters and would scramble the politics of the Mid East for some time to come.
    Not a bad prescription for dealing with a thorny issue.

  2. Russ Winter on February 5, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    Israeli cabinet mulls response on Iran. What could be more clear?

    Israel and the West believe Tehran is building nuclear weapons that could threaten the existence of the Jewish state. Israeli officials are warning publicly that Iran is close to “the point of no return”- the point where military action to stop Iran from acquiring the atom bomb would be too late.
    Israel has said time and again that if international sanctions against Iran fail, it is prepared to take military action on its own. This has raised growing alarm in the West.

  3. Tom R on February 5, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    A few facts about Iran’s nuclear Power program re-statement at every opportunity. Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty governing peaceful uses of the atom, principally for electrical power generation. As an NPF signatory, an unlike India,Pakistan, and Israel (all possessors of nuclear warheads, and delivery vehicles) Iran is subject to regular inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).Because of international pressure and propaganda concerning Iran’s “intentions”, IAEA inspectors are on-site at all its nuclear installations almost continuously.Santorum lied in a recent debate that we don’t know what they’re up to because there aren’t inspectors there. They’re there, and will continue to be, unless warned to leave because of imminent hostilities, as was done with the UN inspectors in Iraq, who’d been vainly searching for Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction”. IAEA reported in 2007 or 2008, and again recently (with a negative slant)no evidence was found of any weapons research since 2003.
    Iran has enriched a small percentage of its uranium to 20%, for medical isotope research. Most
    uranium is enriched to only 5%, which is adequate for power generation. To make a “bomb”,uranium must be enriched to 90%. These facts are also confirmed by the last two National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs). The one prepared late last year (and leaked) has not been officially released at Obama’s direction, and the MEDIA have chosen to ignore it. For a comprehensive overview Google Seymour Hersh.
    Warnings from Iran re the Hormuz Straits were a response to US avowal to embargo(“blockade” is probably more accurate) Iran’s oil exports–an act of war under international law.The US acted to prevent European governments from buying Iranian oil for dollars through Iran’s Central Bank. Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated by very sophisticated explosives. Iranian anti-government terrorist bombers (Not “Greens”) have been trained and supplied by foreign agents. Iran had been under heavy sanctions roughly since 1979, which is why, for example, they can’t refine their own oil. In the last few years, more sanctions have been imposed. The U.S. encouraged Saddam to invade Iran, beginning an 8-year war, impoverishing both nations, and killing a million.

    Some suspect the objective of the vendetta against Iran is to provoke them–as FDR did the Japanese–to strike first, thereby justifying disproportionate retaliation. The US Chiefs of Staff told W. Bush in 2007, they unanimously opposed war on Iran as a protracted conflict without an identifiable “exit strategy”–an unwinnable war, like Afganistan (which they’d signed off on, not foreseeing the likely consequences).Around that time, the US Navy war-gamed a naval conflict in the Persian Gulf.allowing for the Enemy’s use of asymmetrical tactics, e.g., the use of small swift boats. The simulation was terminated early because the Blue(enemy) Team commander had destroyed most of the US fleet engaged.

    Summarizing, Iran hasn’t warheads (“nukes buried safely underground’). The small quantity of 20% uranium would have to be enriched 350% to become weapons-grade, an activity apparent to the inspectors. The “threat” is perceived only by the paranoid and the willfully blind. Israel’s Likud Party just announced early elections, with the aim of augmenting its slender control of the Knesset, also in March.

    The possibility of war this year is real. US policy-makers, encouraged by the supine Congress, are intent on hastening the financial ruination of the nation and its citizens. Russia and China have close ties to Iran, Both have warned aggression against the Persians should not be undertaken. Iran is five times the size of Iraq, and thrice as populous. Did WE win in Iraq? We will lose in Afganistan? For whose benefit?

    • Russ Winter on February 5, 2012 at 3:13 pm

      I will give you another scenario. What is to say that Iran doesn’t already have small nuke warheads available from some source, say Russia and China. These would be provided to Iran to use with the Sunburn and only on the provision that Iran was attacked.

  4. Russ Winter on February 5, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    Here’s where it gets really scary. The Iranian have Russian and Chinese supplied Sunburn anti-ship missiles. They tip these with nukes, and the whole Persian Gulf fleet will be destroyed. Sounds dicey even with conventional warheads. This changes the whole dynamic of the region.

    What has received much less media attention is the existing arsenal of Iran’s missile capability and the potential impact on the Fifth Fleet which operates in the Persian Gulf. Iran possess Chinese-made Silkworm missiles as well as Russian-made Sunburn missiles as well as a variety of domestically produced missiles. It remains unclear whether the US Navy can actually defend against the Sunburn missile (or its next-generation replacement the “Yakhont”) as these missiles were designed to overcome the Pentagon’s ship-based anti-missile tech including its most notable Close In Weapons System the Phalanx and likely the Aegis system as well. Very recently, Russia has also sold to Iran radar-jamming tech as reported by emirates247.

    What makes the foregoing of special concern, and which takes these facts out of arm-chair war gaming, is the Pentagon’s own assessment that such a conflict could result in much of the Fifth Fleet being sent to the bottom of the Gulf. In 2002, the Pentagon war gamed a Gulf scenario named the Millennium Challenge 2002 whereby the US faced off against an “unknown” Gulf adversary. The result was that 16 ships including an air craft carrier and 20,000 service personnel (many being Marines aboard amphibious craft) were destroyed. Bear in mind that the unknown adversary was not armed with the much more advanced Russian-made missiles currently in Iran’s quiver

  5. Russ Winter on February 5, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    Comments on the Sunburn missile and the Straits “bathtub” from a retired US Navy Commander.,15202,166317,00.html

    20,000 Pogues Under the Sea?

    A matchup between the navies of America and Iran would be asymmetric warfare exemplified: a global reach power projection navy versus a sea denial force optimized to fight in its backyard pool. If you put the battle space in the middle of the North Pacific the Americans have the overwhelming advantage, in no small part because Iran’s fleet will run out of gas or sink from natural causes before it gets there. Unfortunately for the U.S. Navy, tables turn in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

    The Navy’s tasks in an operation against Iran would include projecting air power ashore (from the carriers and cruise missile shooters), keeping the Strait open, and deterring or stopping another tanker war like the one that broke out in the 80s during the conflict between Iran and Iraq. To do all those things, the Navy pretty much has to go into the Gulf, and it has to go through the Strait to get there.

    In the bathtub, defense in depth becomes nearly impossible to conduct. The state of the art anti-ship weapons Iran recently bought from the Russians—the SSN-22 Sunburn missile and the rocket torpedo—are bad news. One school of thought says the only way to defend against them is to stay tied to the pier stateside, but it’s not just the latest generation of ship-killers we need to worry about. Any time you find yourself in a point defense situation against a homing weapon designed any time after 1970 or so your whole day just became irretrievable.

    I rather doubt that anything short of extra terrestrial intervention could actually sink a 100,000-ton Nimitz class carrier, but a rocket torpedo up its stern could send it out the Strait under tow. That would be an unmitigated nightmare. Even if not a single member of the ship’s crew were killed or injured, for a minor power like Iran to have knocked one of America’s preeminent instruments of military might out of action would be a strategic catastrophe for the U.S.

    Committing two carrier strike groups to a combat operation in the Gulf would place about 20,000 American sailors at risk. I can’t imagine a scenario that takes the lives of every one of them, or even a large portion of them. Six or eight Sunburns in the side of an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, though, could kill almost 400 of them in the blink of an eye. Given that the air power naval forces would contribute wouldn’t accomplish much, and that the Iranians won’t have a reason to close the Strait or start a tanker war if we don’t bomb them, putting a single one of our sailors at risk in a hot war with Iran doesn’t seem to make a molecule of sense.

  6. Tom R on February 5, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    Thank you for the additional information, including correctly identifying by name and year the simulation
    I referred to. I was aware of Iran’s possession of Sunburn and Silkworm missiles, but did recall correctly that the simulation summation stressed the effectiveness of the speedboats. The comments of the retired commander are invaluable, especially the observation the Iranians have no reason to close Hormuz or attack tankers if we don’t bomb them. Most of their oil is exported through its waters. Does he know whether the anti-ship missiles can carry nuclear warheads? Appreciate your sharing these opinions and insights with us.

  7. Russ Winter on February 5, 2012 at 9:51 pm

    Defense Review: The aircraft carrier as dinosaur. Read part about Iran. Really questions the whole strategy of aircraft carrier groups. Continuing this status quo probably just to benefit contractors is typical US hubris.

  8. Russ Winter on February 5, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    My conclusions at Actionable about Iran’s objectives. There is also a school of thought in Iran’s military that they could gain extra advantage by striking first with these anti-ship missile during some fleet crossing in the “bathtub” (Strait of Hormuz). I doubt if even US intelligence knows how many of these state-of-the-art missiles Iran now has.

    I see Iranian objectives as threefold: 1. Get Israel to strike first, thus swaying world opinion. 2. Using asymmetrical tactics and their stockpile of state-of-the-art Russian Sunburn anti-ship missiles try and catch the US Navy in a bathtub and inflict a major casualty on the Fifth Fleet, sink a destroyer or two, or even send a carrier limping off. Best case, hope for a Hannibal like Battle of Cannae outcome with large US losses 3. Cut off enough oil to impact the western economy right as they struggle with debt issues. 4. Hope all three impact US public opinion enough to effect a tactical withdrawal from the region, and cast serious doubt about American naval doctrine. If not repeat 1-3.

  9. Russ Winter on February 5, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    This Washington Post article states Iran’s already has tactical nuclear payloads.

  10. Tom R on February 6, 2012 at 12:19 am

    Very informative. Excuse me if I don’t accept the WaPo article as convincing. The Post and the New York Times are avid propagandists for war with Iran, as they were for the Iraq debacle. Yes, nuclear devices were unaccounted for when the USSR dissolved. Where they went, if they went anywhere,and weren’tsimply a bookkeeping error, has been a source of speculation for 15 years, at least. If Iran has a few, they’d use them on military targets. Even as corrupt and witless a government as ours would have the modicum of sense to forbear cornering an adversary so armed. At this point, we’ve been setting larger fires for years, daring Iran to reciprocate.

    I think Iran’s objective is to tolerate goads, incitements, lies, and persecution, avoiding war at almost all cost. Israel alone cannot seriously harm them with conventional weapons. The US must enter the fray, risking a fleet and an aura of naval invincibility. To what end? As a pretext for martial law, price controls? To gladden the hearts of Netanyahu, Lieberman, McCain, and the End Times evangelicals? Our military has enormous capacity for destroying property and lives, but its senior officers aren’t strategists, they’re politicians, courtiers, sycophants, staff officers who, like Petraeus, spent their careers getting advanced degrees and making PowerPoint presentations. This is true of the Army, which even bungled Desert Storm, allowing the Republican Guard divisions to escape.I believe it to be true of the Air Force. I hope it isn’t true of the Navy, which intelligently appears reluctant to sail into the strategic chamber pot of Hormuz. I think Iran wants peace, and to be let alone.

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