US may attack, but will Iran fight back?For several years tensions between the United States and Iran over the latter's nuclear program have waxed and waned. War between the two sides has been confidently predicted, with even the date of the US attack given by Internet pundits. Nothing happened. With so many past false alarms it is hard to take seriously the renewed rumors of war between the two sides. However, this time things may be different.
US President George W Bush has said he will not leave office (in January 2009) with Iran retaining the capability to develop nuclear weapons. Unless Iran agrees to give up all hope of a nuclear-weapons program, as Libya and North Korea have done, a US military strike against Iran will probably occur at some point between now and the US presidential elections in November 2008. A short, victorious war with Iran, leaving its nuclear facilities in ruins, will, it is hoped, assure the Republican candidate of victory in that election.
With a time frame of only a little over a year, the Bush administration is anxious to arrange a showdown with Iran as soon as possible. The United Nations route, with sanctions imposed on Iran by the Security Council, is proving too slow and uncertain. The International Atomic Energy Authority's attempt to broker a deal with Iran over its nuclear plans will undoubtedly be disregarded by the Americans in the same way every plan to search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was ignored in the run-up to the attack on Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Even those Americans actively seeking to provoke a war with Iran have had little success in finding or provoking a suitable incident that can be presented to the American people as a good reason to launch an attack on Iran. Despite the seizure of Iranian personnel in Iraq, at Irbil in January and more recently in Baghdad, the Iranians have refrained from any reckless response, although only their people seized in Baghdad have been returned. The capture of British sailors in March by Iranian Revolutionary Guards might have been a suitable flash point. However, Tehran soon released the sailors after squeezing every propaganda advantage from their capture, and Britain specifically asked the United States not to exacerbate the situation.
Since the beginning of the year there have been constant US claims of Iranian interference in Iraq and of the Iranians supplying arms to militias and insurgents in that country. However, no clear link has ever been established between the Iranians and any particular attack on US forces. Even if the United States chose to respond to these alleged Iranian hostile acts with "hot pursuit" Special Forces raids into Iran or the bombing of alleged terrorist training camps in that country, this would not precipitate the sort of crisis needed to justify a wholesale assault on Iran's nuclear facilities and its armed forces in the near future.
Any idea that a US attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be merely a scaled-up surgical strike like Israel's bombing of Saddam's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 must be put aside. The attack on Iran would encompass not only its nuclear sites, but all its air defenses and all its means of military retaliation, in fact all sections of its armed forces, as well as government command and control facilities. It has been suggested that this would be accomplished by the destruction of 1,200 Iranian targets in three days of massive aerial assaults, the sort of "shock and awe" attacks that were promised in Iraq in 2003 but had less impact than expected.
With time running out and convincing pretexts for war hard to find, the Bush administration may well decide to launch an attack on Iran anyway. Iran is already diplomatically isolated, but if the United States undertakes unprovoked aggression against a sovereign state, it may well find itself equally isolated. No doubt the British would find a few planes and warships to provide a token force to show solidarity with their US ally, but wider support would be hard to find. Since one of the declared aims of any attack on Iran is, in the words of Bush, "to prevent a second Holocaust", some Israeli participation is likely. A few Israeli planes might join the US aerial assault on Iran, but Israel's most likely role would be to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon, and perhaps the Syrians, should they decide to support the Iranians.
In the US scenario, when the dust settles after the aerial onslaught, the chastened ayatollahs will crawl out of the ruins and give in to all of Bush's demands. But what if they do not? US plans for the attack on Iran rule out a land war because the United States lacks sufficient troops, but why should the victim tailor his response to suit the aggressor's preconceptions? The vital question in the unfolding US-Iran crisis is not whether the Americans plan to attack Iran, since they are clearly prepared to do so, but whether the Iranians, after enduring the initial onslaught, have the will and resources to fight back.
With Iran's regular armed forces largely destroyed, the Iranian government would have to fall back on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to organize further resistance and retaliation. According to its new commander, the IRGC is ready and able to undertake extensive operations in asymmetrical warfare with a superior military opponent. Mining and suicide attacks by boats and planes might well disrupt tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, leading to a rapid increase in world oil prices. No doubt the United States would organize tanker convoys with full air and sea protection, but the mosquito forces of the IRGC might still pierce such defenses. If the Iranians could carry out a sustained campaign against shipping in the Persian Gulf, the US might well be forced to start occupying Iranian ports to deny bases to the attackers. Once troops were ashore, they would soon be drawn into battles with guerrillas in the Iranian hinterland.
While not all Iraqi Shi'ites are as pro-Iranian as some reports suggest, there can be little doubt that many in Iraq's majority population would fight in support of their neighbors and co-religionists. The war against the US in Iraq would be intensified, and no doubt Iranian forces would openly enter Iraq to support that struggle as well as supplying resisters with more advanced weaponry such as shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles.
Indeed, given the present power vacuum in southern Iraq, the Iranians might even manage to occupy important cities such as Basra. If a major land war developed in Iraq, the United States would be compelled to expand its army there considerably. This could only be done in the short run by stripping the US and overseas garrisons such as South Korea and Okinawa of all combat troops. In the longer term, the US government might have to consider reintroducing conscription to sustain troop numbers, whatever the domestic political consequences.
As in Iraq in 2003, the US plan for a military attack on Iran presupposes that once the enemy has suffered a massive initial blow he will accept the inevitable and surrender. In Iraq, the conventional armed forces were easily broken, but the unconventional war with local insurgents and militias is still raging more than four years later. Similarly, the Iranian armed forces might be severely damaged by America's aerial assault, but the IRGC and other less conventional forces might continue the struggle in Iraq, in Iran's borderlands, and in the waters of the Persian Gulf for years to come. Fears of the "Shi'ite crescent" will have given birth to an arc of war stretching from Palestine to Pakistan.
Alan G Jamieson is the author of Faith and Sword: A Short History of Christian-Muslim Conflict (London: Reaktion Books, 2006).
(Copyright 2007 Alan G Jamieson.)